Monday, May 28, 2012

"The Meaning of Marriage" (Tim Keller)

To all my readers,

As part of my blog consolidation exercise, this will be the final posting on this blog. From June 2012 onwards, Monday posts will be a book recommendation on my main blog, "Yapdates - A Spiritual Odyssey." This helps me better in managing my postings as multiple blogs do take up a lot of my time. Here is how you can get my weekly book recommendation. Every Monday, hop over to Yapdates.Blogspot.Com and read the recommendation from 9am Pacific time.

From June 2012, I will tag all my Monday posts under the label, "BookPastor." Click here to go there direct.

Thanks for reading.


TITLE: The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God
AUTHOR: Tim Keller with Kathy Keller
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Dutton Books, 2011, (290 pages).

This book is packed with biblical wisdom and practical helps on one of the most important issues of our age: Marriage. The author draws upon three deep roots to write the book; his own marriage, his concern for the large unmarried part of his congregation, and from the Bible. The central thesis of the book is that we need to understand the meaning of marriage that is both realistic and glorious.  He makes it clear that marriage is not same-sex, not polygamous, and certainly not romanticism, or defined through cultural lens. Instead, marriage is love unlimited

"The Secret of Marriage" reminds us that the tough times of marriage ought to drive couples to seek to experience more of the transforming love of God. Like Christ, married couples need to learn to give up their own selves for the sake of their spouses, and work toward mutual fulfillment. As one allows marriage to drive couples to seek God more, the gospel will transform marriages into the love that God has intended it to be.

He writes: "Love without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without love is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it. God's saving love in Christ, however, is marked by both radical truthfulness about who we are and yet also radical, unconditional commitment to us. The merciful commitment strengthens us to see the truth about ourselves and repent. The conviction and repentance moves us to cling to and rest in God's mercy and grace." (48)
"The Power of Marriage" comes through very unique ways, unlike the worldly ways. For instance, true power comes from mutual submission, avoiding self-centeredness, boldly facing our own wounds, and to heal ourselves from self-seeking ways. The fear of God is the beginning of a good marriage.

"The Essence of Marriage" continues on the Ephesians teachings on marriage with Keller's classic skill in separating fact from fiction. Marriage is not just a piece of paper but pure love. It is not subjective based on feelings, but objective based on truth. It is not to be a consumer activity but a covenant relationship. It is both vertical (faith in God) and horizontal (trust in each other).  It is a life that draws on the power of a promise. In other words, the starting point is not feelings of love, but "actions of love" that will lead to any romantic feelings. Just like how Christ stayed on to love us, despite our hateful actions against him, we too ought to commit ourselves to loving and staying with our spouses through thick and thin.

"The Mission of Marriage" is again other-centered. It is to be best friends with our spouses, to help each  other become our best, to see our spouses beyond simply a sex or financial partner, but a whole person who deserves to be the best in our eyes.

In "Loving the Stranger," Keller provides a vivid image of marriage being like a bridge over a stream, and the spouse as a giant truck driving on the bridge, exposing the cracks and weaknesses in all of us. Even when our spouses become like strangers over time, it is our duty to make sure that the "someone better" will always be our spouse. When one transitions from "in love" to simply "love," affection, friendship, and service will come naturally. The big problem in marriage is how we handle truth. Truth needs to be handled with grace, reconciliation, and love.

"Embracing the Other" is a call to commitment, and not convenience. This is especially when one spouse doesn't seem to make the other "get it." Keller proposes taking upon the "Jesus role" which essentially means serving, submitting, and satisfying the other more than self. As one takes care of one's  own weaknesses, one trusts God to help the spouse manage his/her own.

Chapter 7 talks about an important aspect of singleness and marriage. The author acknowledges that marriage has been given a bad rap these days, and affirms the good in both singleness as well as marriage. He maintains a high view of marriage, and that singles ought to do the same, even though some may be called to be single. He carefully explains the delicate balance, that while one can pray for a marriage partner, one needs also to cultivate contentment in God alone, to be satisfied whatever the state.  For dating, Keller takes readers through a historical tour of how the modern dating concept comes from. He then gives 8 helpful tips for singles.

  1. That there are seasons for not seeking marriage, and that Christian friendships are more important than dates or ideas about marriage;
  2. Need to understand the gift of singleness
  3. Be more serious about seeking marriage when one grows older
  4. Avoid deepening emotional relationships with a non-believing personal
  5. Be attracted comprehensively
  6. Be slow in getting passionate
  7. Don't be a "faux spouse" for someone unwilling to commit; (don't cheapen self)
  8. Solicit plenty of community input
Finally, Keller deals with the place of sex. It is for whole life "self giving." He pins the Christian sex ethic as one that is within a marriage, and between a husband and a wife. Sex deepens the marriage union, unites the couple, affirms commitment, and is about the other. With regards to singles, Keller advises chastity, and to devote one to loving Jesus. Using the example of Jane Eyre, Keller points out how the leading lady avoids depending on the feelings of her heart and redirects her energies toward God.

The Appendix lists some thoughtful ways to think about our gender roles.

  1. The husband's authority over the wife is meant to serve the interests of the wife, not the husband.
  2. The wife's role is beyond mere compliance but to use her resources to empower her husband.
  3. Wives are not to give their husbands unconditional obedience.
  4. Husband's headship is for ministry to wife and family.
  5. Any stalemate needs to be 'broken' with a decision that is made for the family or the marriage, never for self.

My Comments

What makes this book very readable for all is that it appeals not only to Christians but provides a reasonable and inviting atmosphere for non-believers to enter in. In other words, one does not need to be a Christian (but being a Christian certainly helps!) in order to appreciate the wisdom in the book. Carefully laying out the biblical principles, he makes a powerful case for marriage seen from the Bible's perspective, which is far more wholesome and constructive. He is respectful to both male and female. By not talking a lot about homosexuality or gay affairs, he faithfully sticks to his main definition of marriage being between a man and a woman.  His chapter on singles and the need for couples to learn to be other-centered more than self is certainly godsend for many in the Church, especially single women. I appreciate the "Decision Making and Gender Roles" he has included in the appendix which lists what are the better ways to understand biblical submission and gender roles.

In one book, Keller explains biblical marriage, relationships, practical marriage tips, singlehood, sex, and gender roles. It reminds me of another recent book on marriage, written by Mark Driscoll. While the other book is deemed "controversial" for its boldness in talking about more explicit sex techniques and tools, this book is more focused on reasonably translating biblical truths into practice.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, May 21, 2012

"The Reason for God" (Tim Keller)

This review was first published at YAPDATES on Feb 16th, 2009.

Tim Keller is pastor of the fast growing Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. One reason for his rising fame and popularity is his ability to speak to the concerns of a culture that is not only becoming more secular but skeptical of tradition and religion. CS Lewis gave a radio talk in the 1940s entitled: "Case for Christianity." Lee Strobel had his "Case for Faith" sometime in the 1980s. Tim Keller's contribution is a 293-paged "Reason for God," published by Dutton, member of the Penguin group, 2008. The book's website is here.

Briefly, the first part of the book deals with 7 major doubts skeptics have regarding the truth of Christianity. Calling the seven statements as the Leap of Doubt, he turns the skeptical view on its head by forcing them to apply their own statements using their own measurements.
  1. There can't be just one true religion
  2. How Could a Good God Allow Suffering?
  3. Christianity is a Straitjacket
  4. The Church is Responsible for so much Injustice
  5. How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?
  6. Science Has Disproved Christianity
  7. You Can't Take the Bible Literally
The Two Camps & Three Barriers
Keller describes his early Christian experience in terms of struggling with two seemingly opposing viewpoints and three barriers to faith. On the one camp, people who fight for social justice are themselves 'moral relativists' (xii). The other camp comprises people who were morally upright and yet socially nonchalant. Compounding this problem are three barriers: Intellectual, Personal and Social barriers. A religion that is believable for him must overcome all these barriers, to be intellectually reasonable, personally accountable and socially responsible. He argues that faith needs to be lived with some level of doubt as well, just like a human body needing antibodies. Otherwise, the faith is not solid but plastic. They do not last. In his recommendation, he suggests that both believers and non-believers at the worst scenario, ought to take the stance of 'disagreement' rather than 'denouncement' (xviii). The main point of Keller's book is to challenge the skeptic to dare to measure their own criticisms with their own standards, and at the same time, to extend their understanding of future hope, learning 'reasonably' toward the viewpoints of Christianity. It is an invitation for the skeptic to taste and see that the Lord is good.

The author then goes on to address the seven skeptical statements before promoting the seven positive statements of the gospel of Christ which are:
  1. The Clues of God
  2. The Knowledge of God
  3. The Problem of Sin
  4. Religion and the Gospel
  5. The (True) Story of the Cross
  6. The Reality of the Resurrection
  7. The Dance of God
The Seven Leaps of Doubt
1) "There Can't Just Be One True Religion" is a major statement of faith. It already assumes that there is no one true way. Skeptics generally force themselves to take either or a mixture of 3 alternatives toward religion; 'outlaw' it, condemm or to privatize it. All three have shown themselves to be equally inadequate.

2) "How Can a Good God Allow Suffering?" was first suggested by David Hume, a British philosopher. Keller asserts that evil and suffering does not satisfactorily prove against the existence of God. It might even be arguments for God! In other words, suffering and pain makes us long for something better. Moreover, evil, suffering and pain is not just for the God-aware, it is for EVERYONE, no exceptions! Whether one is an atheist, a theist or an agnostic, all face suffering in one way of another. If theism is non-reasonable, atheism is far worse in terms of understanding the problem of evil and suffering. God himself did not spare his own son to undergo suffering. In Christ, there is ultimate redemption from suffering. Can we say the same for atheism?

3) "Christianity is a Straitjacket" reflects very much the modern times of relativity and the desire for people to determine their own truths, according to their own standards and within their own fancies. The culture resists the authoritative manner which religion tries to shove down their doctrines down people's unwilling throats. Keller points out that one's belief against absolute truth is in itself an absolute statement. In other words, one can argue that anyone criticizing Christianity for straitjacketing people can also be equally criticized for 'straitjacketing' others into their relative way of believing. The author then argues that communities cannot be completely inclusive. How can falsehood and truth exists side by side? Christianity is not culturally rigid. After all, Christianity was first encountered by Jews, moved to Greek Hellenists environment in the Mediterranean, received by the Barbarians in Northern Europe, then Western Europe and subsequently finding their way to Latin America, Africa and large parts of Asia. Regarding the issue of straitjacket, the counter argument is that 'freedom' itself does have its limits. A freedom seen in terms of self-indulgence and insensitive to the community one lives in is never true freedom. It is licentiousness leading initially from an amoral point of view toward a self-justifiable immoral way of life.

4) "The Church is Responsible for So Much Injustice" is a common accusation. Yes, there has been flaws in history of the church, violence through crusades, and fanatical bigots. Even the Christian West was once beset with slavery. However, with each name mentioned that one used to attack the church, remember that there are true martyrs who died for the faith, and did lots of good to advance the human dignity in the world. So when one argues against the injustices, do not forget that fair judgment requires the skeptic to consider the good that has been done.

5) "How Can a Loving God Send People to Hell?" One reason why increasingly people believe this is due to the tendency of people to arrive at their own religious conclusions based on their root secular beliefs. In fact, one can argue that secularism is a religion in itself. CS Lewis brilliantly identified magic and science being twins that came from the same set of parents. There were 'born of the same impulse' (70). While in the past, people believe that there is a Divine Superior outside and we are all seeking the Higher divinity, (Magic), modernity reverses it and sees everything gravitating toward themselves (Science).
"Instead of trying to shape our desires to fit reality, we now seek to control and shape reality to fit our desires. The ancients looked at an anxious person and prescribed spiritual character change. Modernity talks instead about stress-management techniques." (71)
CS Lewis said that there are two kinds of people. The first kind says "Thy Will be done" to God. In the second kind, God says to them: "Thy will be done." Other religions do not claim their divinity as a God of love. Only Christ claims that.

6) "Science Has Disproved Christianity" is a sweeping statement propagated by people such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Daniel C Dennett. Keller argues that not only modern scientists have to grapple with the issue of miracles. Ancients do too. The power of the gospel is that when people see the miracles, it does not remain within the realm of intellectual beliefs. It leads them to worship, to do great things for God and to become people yearning to bring God's goodness to the world. Ian Barbour lays out 4 ways in which to deal with science and religion: "conflict, dialogue, integration and independence" (88). One end is very public while the other is completely private. The conflict part is losing credibility. Many scientists can reasonably believe in Christ.

7) "You Can't Take the Bible Literally" means that one rather pick and choose Scripture. If that is the case, one can become like the Stepford wives where one lives like a robot, choosing and keeping only those things that one finds reasonable in the Bible. The problem with why people struggle with the Bible is their failure to take into account how deeply they have become entrenched in their own sense of history, that they ignored the contexts of the biblical passage. In other words, trying to force modern history and interpret the Bible from there is a problem right from the start. It is like trying to question a 1st century man walking many miles to work, saying why he did not drive!

Seven Reasons for Faith
(1) Clues of God
Several clues are evident.
  • The very existence of the world
  • Finetuning of the universe
  • Regularity of nature
  • Beauty and meaning in the world
  • Our cognitive faculties work!
2) The Knowledge of God
One already knows God is there, for if life is one big intellectual problem, where is the meaning? The reason why people are searching for meaning in life is because all their struggles are in essence a search for God. Why do we tell one another to be truthful? Why do we want to do good? Where are the origins of human rights? Without a knowledge of God, will all these make sense? In fact it could even be more 'dishonest' to deny God.

3) The Problem of Sin
Sin is essentially an inadequate attempt to fill our emptiness and void, thinking that we can fill it without God. According to Kierkegaard, everyone must find some way to 'justify their existence.' There are personal, social and cosmic consequences of sin.
"Sin is not simply doing bad things, it is putting good things in the place of God." (71)
Everyone needs to live for something. A life without God does not cut it.

4) Religion and the Gospel
Beginning with the story of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, Keller argues that either way, one becomes bad and mad. The very desire to do good deeds in order to 'redeem' the evil ways of Mr Hyde ultimately destroys both. Dr Jekyll uses religion as a form of good deeds. Sin and evil have two faces. One face is to do evil to destroy. The other is to pile up good and become self-arrogant and prideful leading to self-destruction. Pharasaism is dangerous as it can create social strife. We need the grace of God, to be accepted. Religion pushes fear to get us to conform. Grace in God invites us through love. Grace can also be a threat. Using the example of Les Miserables, Jean Valjean when he eventually spared his persistent pursuer, police officer Javert, the latter could not comprehend why a 'bad' guy like Valjean can ever do such good to him, by releasing his arch-enemy? The gospel offers us this radical grace. Yet this alone is not the whole story. We need to see the cross.

5) The (True) Story of the Cross
The cross represents real forgiveness through the suffering of Christ. Secondly, it represents that real love is a personal exchange.
The fact that Jesus had to die for me humbled me out of my pride. The fact that Jesus was glad to die for me assured me out of my fear. (200)
The Bible is for us.

6) The Reality of the Resurrection
Many people struggle with this. This is why the four gospels and the New Testament repeatedly echo the evidence.
  • The Empty Tomb and the women as witnesses seem incredulous. After all, women witnesses are not very respected in the society then. Yet, physical eyewitnesses were recorded. Are they all wrong? Despite such incredible evidence, yet the early Christians were prepared to suffer for the sake of standing up for these proofs, even in spite of persecutions and humiliation. If the evidence is false, these people are truly insane. If the evidence is true, they cannot help it but to proclaim and bear witness. In fact, believing that the evidence is false is more absurd than believing that the evidence is true. It is more reasonable that they are correct rather than to attribute them to hallucinations. Christians at that time do not have the luxury of comfortable pews in nice church buildings. They proclaim Christ at a personal cost. Why will any reasonable person put himself or herself through social, religious, political or economic inconveniences? Unless they are proclaiming what they saw. Remember that doubts about the resurrection is not restricted in the modern times we live in. The ancients also struggle with this.

7) The Dance of God
God is Trinity. We are invited into the divine dance, not because God needs it, but because God desires to share it with us in love. We need to return to the dance. In a nutshell, the gospel comprises of 4 great acts: CREATION, FALL, REDEMPTION And RESTORATION.

Great book. I like to end the way the book ended. A story.
During a dark time in her life, a woman in my congregation complained that she had prayed over and over, 'God, help me to find you,' but had gotten nowhere. A Christian friend suggested to her that she might change her prayer to, 'God, come and find me. After all, you are the Good Shepherd who goes looking for the lost sheep.' She concluded when she was recounting this to me, 'The only reason I can tell you this story is - he did.'"


Monday, May 14, 2012

"Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens"

This book review was first published on 11 Apr 2012 at "Panorama of a Book Saint" here.

TITLE: Hope for Parents of Troubled Teens
AUTHOR: Connie Rae
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House Publishers, 2012, (227 pages).

This book gives excellent practical tips on a wide range of issues. It aims to bring hope and healing to families struggling with bringing up their children who are moving from adolescence to adulthood. It is common knowledge that parenting teens can be challenging. Instead of approaching the book on the perspectives of why teenagers are treating their parents this/that way, the book focuses on this main question:

"How can I help this child find his/her way?"

This question defines the overall mood of the book. Redemptive. Re-conciliatory. Rewarding. In twelve chapters, the author deals with acknowledging the children for who they are, their idiosyncrasies, the stages of the children's growth, husband/wives and parent/child differences, knowing our teens and our relationship with God, sex matters, peer pressure, communications, rebellion, drugs, and many more. Every chapter contains good practical advice that is not only clear but highly applicable. Even the most difficult issues are not sidelined. Instead, the author writes with understanding and with intentionality.

I appreciate the way the author patiently deals with the 'getting to know your adolescent' through 8 tasks. She then anchors the entire relationship with a nice analogy of how God, parents, and children are positioned. Using the example of Archer-Bow-Arrow, God is like the Archer who determines the direction, the purpose, the strength, and the timing of the activity. The parents help to support the bow by creating an optimal environment for the children to flourish. The children are like the arrows. This reminds me of Ps 127:4 about the joy of having many children like a man with arrows in his hands.

Packed with lots of good tips and parenting advice, this book provides lots of references to the many counseling materials, quips, and wisdom. Most importantly, the ideas in the book are not only enjoyable to read, they are doable. Each chapter ends with some doable activities and a prayer for God to help one accomplish the challenging tasks ahead. The ten guidelines for tackling rebellious behavior is certainly worth the price of the book.

I highly recommend this book for anyone, not just parents. This is because any challenges with teenagers are not limited to parents. Teachers, friends of parents with teens, counselors, pastors, teachers, and students all have something to learn from in this book.

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


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

Monday, May 7, 2012

"Power in Prayer"

This review was first published at "Panorama of a Book Saint" here.
TITLE: Power in Prayer - Classic Devotions to Inspire and Deepen Your Prayer Life
AUTHOR: Andrew Murray
PUBLISHER: Minneapolis, MN: Bethany House, 2011, (172 pages).

For those of us familiar with Christian literature, when we think of THE MESSAGE, we think of Eugene Peterson. If we think of the PURPOSE-DRIVEN LIFE, we remember Rick Warren. When it comes to prayer, even in our modern settings, many of us will probably think of Andrew Murray, the 19th-20th Century Scottish prayer giant. He has authored many devotional books on the Christian life but his books on prayer remain very much on the bestseller category.

Extracted from more than 18 books on prayer, Bethany House has compiled more than 150 devotionals in one volume, to be used as both a devotional as well as prayer help. If you are familiar with the popular daily devotional booklet, OUR DAILY BREAD, published by Radio Bible Class, you will be quite comfortable with the way this book is laid out. With a focus on prayerfulness rather than prayer itself, each chapter begins with a Scripture passage on which the reflection will be based upon. The first part normally begins with a small description on what prayerfulness actually is. For example,

  • Prayer is the fullest expression of one's spiritual dependence: "All the things of faith, all the pleadings of desire, all the yearnings after a fuller surrender, all the confessions of shortcoming and of sin, all the exercises in which the soul gives up self and clings to Christ, find their utterance in prayer." (11)
  • Prayer is Unselfish Intercession: "In true, unselfish prayer there is little thought of personal need or happiness. If we would be delivered from the sin of limiting prayer, we must enlarge our heart for the work of intercession." (13)
  • Prayer is a Path of Obedience: "We are apt to think of absolute obedience as a principle, that obedience unto death is a thing that can only be gradually learned in Christ's school. This is a great mistake. What we have to learn, and do learn gradually, is the practice of obedience to new and ever-increasing commands. But as to the principle, Christ wants us from the very entrance into His life to vow complete obedience. This is the reason why there are so many unanswered prayers with regard to God making His will known. " (17)
  • Prayer is Unity: "United prayer is a great privilege, and its power waits to be experienced. If the believing couple knew that they were joined together in the name of Jesus to experience His presence and power in united prayer; if friends believed how effective two or three praying in concert could be, what blessing might come? If in every prayer meeting faith in His presence and expectation of an answer were foremost, in every church united prayer was regarded as one of the chief purposes for which Christians come together - the highest exercise of their power as a church, how might the church be empowered for ministry?" (24)
  • Lack of Prayer is the Root of Discouragement: "We must not comfort ourselves with thoughts of standing in a right relationship to the Lord Jesus while the sin of prayerlessness has any power over us. But if we first recognize that a right relationship to the Lord Jesus above all else includes prayer, with both the desire and the power to pray according to God's will, then we have reason to rejoice and rest in Him. Discouragement is the result of self-effort, and so blocks out all hope of improvement or victory." (78)

The book covers a wide range of matters affecting the Christian life. There is Bible meditations, praying for various human conditions like sinfulness, prayerlessness, illness, patience, relationships, and many more.

My Comments

I remember walking by a rocky beach where tiny crabs scatter and hide amid the small rocks on the seashore. Every stone I overturn reveals some tiny crustaceans. This book is the same. Every page I turn reveals some wonderful revelation of prayerfulness. Murray's words are written simple enough for the layperson to appreciate. It is insightful enough for the most astute theologians. It is also very quotable. Reading this book makes me want to pray more before I work. Pray more and worry less. Pray more to know God and His will rather than to use God to do my will. Every page is a prayer burner. Every prayer is a soul mover. Like what the subtitle of the book suggests. This book is a precious collection of devotionals that will help to 'inspire' and to 'deeper' one's prayer life. I think it does much more. It draws one to want to know God better. This book demonstrates to us, again and again,  that we can bring everything to God in prayer. If there is power in prayer, there is more power in prayerfulness when the True Power above moves.

I believe Murray will be more than pleased if we say that his books have not only helped us in our prayer walks, it has drawn us closer to God, and God closer to us. I appreciate the efforts of the publisher to bring together in one volume that highlights the prayerfulness and spiritual vitality of Andrew Murray. Great book!

Rating: 4.5 stars of 5.


Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

Monday, April 30, 2012

"Engaging Today's Prodigal" (Carol Barnier)

This review was first published in Panorama of a Book Saint here

TITLE: Engaging Today's Prodigal: Clear Thinking, New Approaches, and Reasons for Hope
AUTHOR: Carol Barnier
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2012, (176 pages).

This book acknowledges that parenting is tough. It is getting more difficult as children grow into teens and subsequently into young adults who do not readily share parents' values as readily as hoped. What the author tries to do is to clear up 7 myths about parental guilt over their parenting. It lays out 12 tips of dos and dont's to guide parents on how to relate to their children constructively. Writing from her personal spiritual struggles, from faith to atheism to faith again, Barnier hopes that parents of this modern age will be able to adopt clear thinking, learn new approaches, and to maintain reasons for hope.

The 7 myths parents need to avoid are:
  1. Thinking that perfect parenting will automatically mean perfect children;
  2. Blaming oneself as if the Bible said so;
  3. Thinking that parents are able to rescue their children;
  4. Assuming that kids deliberately want to irritate their parents;
  5. Thinking that perfect words can correct the kids;
  6. Thinking that if kids feel parents' pain sufficiently, they will listen and turn back from their ways;
  7. Assuming that one's scars will damage children's lives forever.
Along with these myths, there are gems of wise advice dispensed. Such as:
  • differentiate between 'influence' and 'control';
  • Not to be too willing to accept responsibility instead of helping kids learn their responsibility;
  • To be balanced and that the leash should not be held too tightly or too loosely;
  • Kids can still make bad choices despite the best parenting efforts;
  • Reading the intention of Proverbs as truth sayings instead of absolute promises;
  • That one cannot save those who refuse to be saved;
  • to learn to save our energies for battles that we can actually win, instead of expecting children to feel something that they can never understand;
  • God can make something beautiful through our best/worst efforts.
I appreciate the 12 points in learning how to engage the new prodigals. 
  1. That parents learn not to badger their kids to submission, but advise them by the side;
  2. Learning to focus on boundaries instead of criticizing behaviours;
  3. Creating common places to connect;
  4. Learning to avoid quoting Bible as if kids accept its authority;
  5. Learning to sit down and listen;
  6. Recognizing courage in our kids;
  7. Loving our prodigals;
  8. Creating support system in our parenting efforts, with the help of a community;
  9. Remember our non-prodigals even as we are concerned for the prodigals;
  10. Learning to care for prodigals who are not our own children;
  11. Avoiding putting up a list of expectations when prodigals return;
  12. Not to lose ourselves or our sense of worth during the trying times.
While the first two parts deal with remedial efforts, Part Three looks toward preventative measures, that gazes at the future beginning now. Barnier urges readers to hold on to faith and hope. Using her own story, she tells of how she searches for God in all the wrong places, finally returning to God, after realizing that atheism is a dead end. Finally, she maintains that God is an artist who is able to weave all things together for good. 

Closing Thoughts

Barnier has a lot of good advice to give us. She gently dispels the myths that often pile up guilt, instead of releasing us in grace. This is important because many parents have a tendency to place wrong expectations on themselves and their children. She encourages readers to adopt new creative ways to communicate affirmatively with their children. Learning to say 'no' firmly and to say 'yes' openly. She boldly points us toward hope that everyone can look forward to. It can be a good reminder for parents who are tearing their hair out over their children who are no longer the same. It reminds us again that we need to learn when to hang on and when to let go. Only through wisdom and discernment, and gentle reflection on what has happened, can readers walk the fine balance of 'light and tight' parenting. This book gives us the balancing rod as we walk the tightrope.

As one who is constantly on a lookout for good materials to bridge the generational divide, this book is certainly an important resource for parents in this increasingly complex world.

Rating: 4 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All views expressed are mine unless otherwise stated.

Monday, April 23, 2012

"Spiritual Leadership" (Henry and Richard Blackaby)

TITLE: Spiritual Leadership: Moving People on to God's Agenda
AUTHOR: Henry Blackaby and Richard Blackaby
PUBLISHER: Nashville, TN: Broadman and Holman Publishers, 2001, (308 pages).

This book is a classic. It is a no-holds-barred expose on the perils, the disappointments, and the immense challenges facing leaders, especially those intending to lead according to what God has intended them to lead. The constant messaging in the book is, "Spiritual Leadership is not an occupation: it is a calling."

It begins with a recognition of the challenges facing leaders. Not only are they constantly questioned by their followers through skepticism or a failure to meet expectations, leaders question themselves too about their sense, their purpose, and the meaning of spiritual leadership. The  Blackabys recognize that even secular leadership materials, like Harvard Business Review, point to some forms of Christian leadership. The problem about leadership in society is not a lack of leaders but a lack of understanding of Christian principles in leadership. This is where the authors seek to place this book.

Using Jesus as a model example, they redefine the purpose of spiritual leaders as moving people toward God's agenda in 5 ways:

  1. "The spiritual leader's task is to move people from where they are to where God wants them to be."
  2. "Spiritual leaders depend on the Holy Spirit."
  3. "Spiritual leaders are accountable to God."
  4. "Spiritual leaders can influence all people, not just God's people."
  5. "Spiritual leaders work from God's agenda."

Through the life of Abraham, one is prepared to be a spiritual leader beginning with one's ordinary self and heritage, learning from failures, building spiritual landmarks, experiencing God's redemption, learning by experience, living by faith, braving the tough, demonstrating the faith, obeying God, and subsequently cultivating friendship with God.

Spiritual leaders will play a major role in vision setting. The authors highlight 6 wrong ways before pointing out the essential way to set vision toward God's agenda. Firstly, one cannot set a vision purely on the basis of something visible, because vision has more to do with invisible future rather than meeting an immediate goal. Secondly, leadership is not about duplicating success but thoughtful innovation in the light of God's agenda. Thirdly, it is not to feed inner vanity but God's purpose.  Fourthly, it is not need-driven, but dependent on calling. Fifthly, it is not simply due to the availability of current resources, but the vision will drive the organization to seek out whatever resources necessary, including the existing ones. Finally, leadership is not leader-driven but God-led. It is not focused on a small vision but dedicated toward a large one. I The authors have this special word for churches.

"While churches are sensitive to the needs in their communities, a need expressed is not the same thing as a call by God." (61)
They have a word for parents too.

"For example, when parents run their families by worldly standards, their children may experiment with the temptations of the world. The parents may believe what they need is a community center to keep their teenagers off the streets. In reality, what they need is to have Christ as the head of their home and to raise their children using God's standard instead of the world's. Need-based visions not only allow unregenerate people to set the agenda for churches, but they also tempt churches to focus on symptoms rather than causes." (62)

Well said.

On character, the authors warn of the illegitimate sources of influence like position, power, and personality. Often these clouds out God's authentication, encounters with God, character and integrity, to develop a successful track record of depending on God, and the need to prepare one toward God's agenda.

On purpose and goals, they point out three 'misguided goals' that are based on 'bottom-line mentality,' 'perfection,' and 'bigger, faster, and more.' Instead, the three 'worthy goals' are firstly to lead people toward spiritual maturity, leading people to lead, and leading in a way that brings glory to God.

On influence, leaders need to pray often, work hard, communicate well, serve others,  and maintain positive attitudes. The section on how to communicate is a tremendous resource for all communicators.

On decision-making, the most important task is not to make right or wrong decisions, but to be prepared to bear the consequences of any decision made. They provide four guidelines on decision making.

  1. Letting the Holy Spirit guide them through prayer, the Word of God, and discerning circumstances;
  2. Teachability
  3. Aware of their history
  4. Accountability to God
Spiritual leaders will manage time wisely through scheduling, and their understanding of God's will helps them say yes or no to various demands. They cultivate healthy routines, delegate appropriately, and apply focused concentration to the most important tasks.

Finally, the Blackabys give ample warnings on the pitfalls of spiritual leadership. They highlight ten of the most common pitfalls.

  1. PRIDE that take credit from others, that makes one unteachable, leading to a increase in self-sufficiency and a decrease in compassion for others.
  2. SEXUAL SIN: where 5 safeguards are not practiced. Safeguards of accountability, heeding own's counsel, contemplating consequences, developing healthy habits, and prayer.
  3. CYNICISM that continually concentrates on the negative that they lose sight of the positives and the big picture.
  4. GREED of money, possessions, power, that distracts the leader from the real important goals.
  5. MENTAL LAZINESS where people are 'intellectually stagnant' and never start growing.
  6. OVERSENSITIVITY in which people cannot handle criticism, and are unable to take opportunities to learn from constructive criticism, and easily discouraged by negative remarks.
  7. SPIRITUAL LETHARGY in which people forgo the time with God and mainly works on a get-things-done mentality.
  8. DOMESTIC NEGLECT where one neglects the family.
  9. ADMINISTRATIVE CARELESSNESS where basic fundamentals of administrative efficiency are compromised. This is especially in the area of conflict resolution and communications within and without the organization.
  10. PROLONGED POSITION HOLDING in which some leaders stay too long on their positions and prevent newer people from stepping in.
Thankfully, the authors conclude not with pitfalls, but the rewards of a spiritual leadership that honours God and moves people toward God's agenda.  They point to two kinds of rewards. The first kind are the tangible rewards like monetary, legitimate power, respect and prestige. The second kind focuses on five types of spiritual rewards. Firstly, it is a reward of God's affirmation and calling. Secondly, it is the integrity at home, at work, relational, and self. Thirdly, the reward of contribution to people, to organizations, and to the next leader in line. Fourthly, the rewards of relationships in family and friends. Fifthly, the rewards of influence.

Closing Thoughts

This is a very comprehensive book on spiritual leadership. If Oswald Sanders's book of the similar title has done for his generation in the 60s-80s, the Blackabys have done the same for the generations beyond the 80s. With the many stories, illustrations, and wisdom of real life examples, the individual points are communicated clearly and powerfully. The authors have not only given readers a broad range of leadership material, they have helpfully reminded all leaders past, present, and future, or leaders to be, that leadership is not about us or the organizations we serve in. Leadership is beyond just seeing the big picture. It is living beyond ourselves by looking at the world from God's perspective. It is replacing worldly goals and agendas with God's agenda. It is not about moving up the hierarchy of power and prestige but moving people along toward God's will and purposes.

This is what spiritual leadership is all about. I recommend this book highly for students of leadership, existing leaders, teachers, trainers, and anyone concerned about the quality of leadership in any organization.

Rating 5 stars of 5.


Monday, April 16, 2012

"Just Walk Across the Room" (Bill Hybels)

TITLE: Just Walk Across the Room: Simple Steps Pointing People to Faith
AUTHOR: Bill Hybels
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006, (224 pages).
ISBN: 978-0310-27218-2

This book invites Christ-followers to walk as Jesus walked, and talk as Jesus talked. It is based on evangelism up close and personal, to be willing to step out of our comfort zones, to learn to strike up a conversation creatively, to use our life stories in the faith talk, and to adopt different methods for different people. The key idea in this book is to see evangelism as natural as possible, and as personal as possible. Experiencing God with others is not that difficult once we are able to create circles of friendliness and genuine love.

Beginning with a look at how Jesus ministers to the people then, Hybels notices the apparent natural and non-manipulative ways of Jesus. Jesus was able to strike up normal conversations with people from all walks of life. After going through some of the 'evangelistic fads' over the past few years, Hybels opts for the need to live in the Spirit, and to move in the Spirit in our evangelism. He offers the 3-D model:

  1. Develop Friendships;
  2. Discover Stories;
  3. Discerning next steps.
It is important to be able to tell our own story first. After opening up a conversation, Hybels gives four criticisms of how some good stories can go bad. Some Christians tend to be long-winded that they lose their audience. Secondly, they are too fuzzy in their messaging that listeners lose the point. Thirdly, some Christians use too many 'Christian' language that non-believers find hard to understand. Fourthly, some Christians come across as arrogant in their sharing. Hybels suggests the following:
  • Keep it brief: Brevity
  • Keep it clear: Clarity
  • Keep it simple: Simplicity
  • Keep it humble: Humility.
I like the three illustrations he gives about why people come to Christ.

  1. Bridge Illustration: Jesus is the bridge to link people to God
  2. Do vs Done: We are saved by grace, and need to simply trust God's work already 'done' on the Cross.
  3. Morality Ladder: Why try to bridge the gap on our own good works? 
In learning how Jesus evangelizes, Hybels learns several lessons. Firstly, see how Jesus is able to bridge the gap between God and the hearers. Secondly, notice how Jesus asks questions out of ordinary circumstances. Thirdly, see how Jesus is patient with the Samaritan woman. Fourthly, learn from Jesus how he manages to stay on track, and not be easily distracted by the words of people. Finally, see how Jesus gives hope to the hopeless. The way Hybels highlights Greg Ferguson's song, the 'Peacemaker' is brilliant. 

This book can be used in small groups because every chapter ends with a set of discussion questions. It can also be used as an idea generator for evangelistic training. It deserves to be one of those books on any Church's library, especially the outreach section. 

I highly recommend the book for its simplicity, wisdom, and very practical steps to practice walking our faith and sharing the gospel.


Monday, April 9, 2012

"The Gift of Years" (Joan Chittister)

TITLE: The Gift of Years: Growing Older Gracefully
AUTHOR: Joan Chittister
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Bluebridge, 2008, (226 pages).

This book is a gift for all ages. For the young, it is a gift of illumination about what all persons will eventually go through. For the old, it is a gift of knowing that the greatest value we have is our beings. Chittister was 70 when she wrote this book. In fact, she even called herself young! It reminds me that age is very much heart-based, rather than counting the number of wrinkles on our skin.

In the book, Chittister encourages readers, especially the older ones, to embrace their aging years, seen often as the golden years. Instead of feeling more helpless about physical abilities, or hopeless about future possibilities, readers are urged to enjoy the years through avoiding burdens and accepting blessings. The book essentially goes through every detail of life, like a zipper joining two seams together.  Through 40 meditations, Chittister masterfully begins with a quote about old age from a famous person. She then explains the reasons that often weigh old people down, that old people are either sour or serene. After describing the often downward pattern of thought that makes people sour, she moves toward giving hope, saying that we need not remain depressed or sad. All it takes is a change of perspectives. While understanding the physical limitations, older folks need to remember that their spiritual discoveries are in the horizon. Life after retirement is not doom and gloom. Instead, it is the blooming of wisdom, and room to grow in a different way. In a nutshell, Chittister suggests:

  • Aging is a gift to be embraced; not burdens
  • Aging is a special period, a beginning of a new phase
  • Aging is beautiful especially in the spiritual realm
  • Aging is not old but a new way of life
  • Aging is purposeful
  • One can grow old gracefully and gratefully.
My Thoughts

I like the way Chittister display her understanding of the aging psyche. She accompanies the reader like a careful listener, discerns the paths like a wise sage, and shows the way like a reliable compass. Each of her meditations is conveniently summarized in terms of burdens and blessings. After showing the ways that can make one sour or serene, she offers the reader an opportunity to say yes to the new opportunity to grow. Every page oozes with wisdom. Every emotions is thoughtfully phrased. Every common symptom of aging is recognized but not denied. This book itself is a gift to the aging community. At the end of the book, Chittister shows us again that death is not something to be feared. The symptom of good aging eventually lies in our outlook at the end of our lives. Aging well does not mean living in fear of dying. In aging well, we will look serenely forward to be joined with our Creator, trusting in God's perfect time. There is no fear, only love. 

This is one of the best books on aging well. It is well written without theological jargon. It has great wisdom and spiritual guidance. Above all, it gives hope to a new way of living. I highly recommend this book for all readers.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, April 2, 2012

"Life of the Beloved" (Henri J. M. Nouwen)

TITLE: Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World
AUTHOR: Henri J. M. Nouwen
PUBLISHER: New York, NY: Crossroad Publishing, 1992, (122 pages).

Henri Nouwen is well known for his short books but deep reflections on spirituality. In this book, Nouwen touches on one of his favourite topics: Becoming loved as the beloved in Christ. Based on a friendship that Nouwen has with a young journalist called Fred, Nouwen sees the common refrain in living in this secular world.

"I believe that people can make choices and make them according to their own best aspirations. I also believe that people seldom make these choices. Instead, they blame the world, the society and others for their 'fate' and waste much of their life complaining." (13)

What Nouwen is trying to point to is that while we cannot tell the world how to behave, at least we can live in a manner that does not let the world tell us how to behave. Our desire for friendship, for greater intimacy with people should not be based on the agendas that secular living offers us, but on our recognition that God is in control, and we are God's beloved. The book is then divided into three categories; 1) Being the Beloved; 2) Becoming the Beloved; 3) Living as the Beloved.

Part One - Being the Beloved
Being the Beloved means recognizing God's gift of love to us. The world's default is basically rejection of us until we are found worthy of its standards and values. God's default for us is acceptance of us in Christ, regardless of how well we perform in the world's stage. This is the essence of being the beloved. By depending on the world means slavery to the world. By depending on God means freedom from the world.

Part Two - Becoming the Beloved
Nouwen then moves to describe what it means to become the beloved.  It is not just a lofty idea or plan, but an exhortation toward living it out all of our lives.

"Becoming the beloved means letting the truth of our belovedness become enfleshed in everything we think, say or do." (39)

One of the ways that Nouwen emphasizes is the need to respond to the Spirit's Work in our lives through four ways: 'taken, blessed, broken, and taken.' All of this happens within the remembrance of the Lord's Supper, the highlight of our spiritual practice. The first step in becoming the beloved is to be TAKEN, chosen by God. All of us need to hear the assurance that God has chosen us for who we are, and not what we do. The world tends to be destructive in its treatment of us. What are some of the ways that the world tries to take us away from God? I paraphrase Nouwen's three guidelines in the 3Ds below.

  1. Destructive Control: The world manipulates, controls, and makes us hungry for power which eventually destroys our true selves.
  2. Distracts Our Identity: The world tries to label us otherwise, seducing us to reject our real selves in favour of something artificial.
  3. Delusions about Entitlement: The world deludes us into thinking that we are entitled to worldly stuff. Instead, we ought to learn to oppose such secular delusions by being grateful.

The second aspect of becoming the beloved is BLESSED. The world tries to motivate us through fear, anxiety, and some sense of insecurity. Instead, living spiritually in a secular world is to remember we are already blessed in God. Like children being blessed by parents, we can in turn bless others as blessed people ourselves. Nouwen offers two further suggestions on how to bless and be blessed.

  1. Prayer Constantly. Whenever we feel the world pressuring us to conform, pray. Wait for the Spirit to move in our hearts, and instead of becoming victims of the tyranny of the urgent, and worldly expectations, we become victors when we become agents of blessings.
  2. 'Cultivation of Presence:' Being attentive to one another is increasingly difficult in a busy and distracting world. Do we pay attention to those who are needy? Do we recognize the need to be patient? Have we taken the time to just relax and enjoy God's creation, instead of the daily hustle of rush and hush?
The third aspect of becoming the beloved is BROKEN. Each of us are unique and no one brokenness can be compared with another. Nouwen writes:

"Our sufferings and pain are not simply bothersome interruptions of our lives; rather, they touch us in our uniqueness and our most intimate individuality. The way I am broken tells you something unique about me." (71)

The world is a broken world, and tries to drag us into a spiral of destructive brokenness. Nouwen makes two suggestions to tackle this.

  1. Befriend our brokenness: It is part of our identity. Do not deny ourselves the time to 'befriend it.' For Nouwen, when we embrace our brokenness as a part of ourselves, we know ourselves better, and we appreciate our uniqueness more. The world tries to tell us a good life is a happy life. No! A good life is a life that embraces the essence of our joys and our sorrows, our pleasures and our pains, our ups and our downs.
  2. Put Our Brokenness Under a Blessing: It is not a curse. In fact, this second suggestion underlines the first. Learn to make plans to address our pain in a meaningful way, rather than outright rejection of it. Like every failure is an opportunity to learn what not to do in future.
Fourthly, just as Christ gave of himself, we the Beloved ought to be GIVEN.  The greatest fulfillment for each of us is to give our ourselves. Nouwen suggests two ways to give.
  1. Giving in Life: Here we learn to use our gifts and talents for the benefit of our community.
  2. Giving in Death: Strange though it may seem, this suggestion basically means that all of our life is actually to prepare ourselves for a good dying. Like Jesus whose purpose on earth is to die that the world may live, we too are to adopt an attitude of keeping the end in mind. This is what makes the spiritual life so much more powerful and meaningful than the world of secular living.
Part Three - Living as the Beloved

This part essentially summarizes the whole book, that we ought to live as the beloved in both life and in death. We do not belong to this world, so why live according to the values of this world? We are blessed from above, so let us live as blessed from above. We are sent out into the world, and we ought not to live worldly.

"What I want most to say is that when the totality of our daily lives is lived 'from above,' that is, as the Beloved sent into the world, then everyone we meet and everything that happens to us becomes a unique opportunity to choose for the life that cannot be conquered by death." (108)

I highly recommend this book. It is a simple but powerful way to resist the ways of the world but to live as Beloved sons and daughters of God in this world.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, March 26, 2012

"Spiritual Leadership" (J. Oswald Sanders)

TITLE: Spiritual Leadership (Commitment To Spiritual Growth)
AUTHOR: J. Oswald Sanders
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Press, 1994, (192 pages).
ISBN: 0-8024-6799-7

This book is a classic work on spiritual leadership. First released in 1967, it has been republished several times and remains one of the key references for learning about spiritual leadership. Initially given as a series of lectures for the Overseas Missionary Fellowship (OMF) in Singapore in 1964 and 1966, this book has been updated and revised for the new generation.

One look at the way the book has been setup is a clue that this book was not meant to be published as a book in the first place. Sanders has prepared the work to be spoken rather than written. That is why there are no neat categorizations or broad structural flows in the texts. Moreover, some of the chapters appear to end abruptly, just like how some preachers cut short their sermon endings when they run out of time. Nevertheless, the value of the book lies in its constant assertion that Christian leadership is spiritual in nature. It is an honourable ambition. It is designed with Christ as our Model and our Leader. Sanders compares natural and spiritual leadership in terms of flesh vs spirit. He brings out biblical insights from Paul and Peter, as well as many examples from the Old Testament.

Some essential qualities of leadership include the fundamental aspects such as discipline, vision, wisdom, decision, courage, humility, integrity, and sincerity. He also deals with the challenges to leadership like how to deal with anger, leading with humour and friendship, tactful, inspirational, and one who communicates well. Most importantly, Spiritual Leadership is to be led by the Spirit.

Other aspects of leadership includes how the leader prays, the use of time, reading, and the courage to face suffering and persecutions. One of the most important aspects of leadership is the readiness to deal with the challenges to spiritual leadership.
  • Counting the costs in self-sacrifice, always mindful of Christ's greatest sacrifice.
  • Temptation of loneliness that weighs leaders down.
  • Threat of criticisms
  • How rejections can bring a leader down
  • About the pressures and perplexities of life
Sanders ends with an exhortation on the prophet Nehemiah, saying that the primary task of spiritual leadership is to 'build the faith of others.' Indeed, a leader can lead by example, and to live through his own life challenges. In order to strengthen the faith of others, the leader needs to strengthen his own faith. In order to encourage others, leaders need to find encouragement in God and how to deal with their own discouragement. In order to make disciples of Christ, leaders need to be disciples themselves. In order to be spiritual leaders, they need to be led by the Spirit.

Be warned. This book may be easy to read, but practicing it requires us to be led by the Spirit.  Interestingly, note the subtitle on the front page of the book, 'principles of excellence for every believer.'  This book is not just for leaders. It is for ALL believers.

Rating: 4.75 stars of 5.


Monday, March 19, 2012

"Unfriend Yourself" (Kyle Tennant)

As social media becomes more ubiquitous, it is important to take a step back now and then, to think about why we are doing what we are doing. This review has been previously published here.

TITLE: Unfriend Yourself: Three Days to Detox, Discern, and Decide About Social Media
AUTHOR: Kyle Tennant
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2011, (89 pages).

This little book takes a critical look at the ubiquitous social media icon: Facebook. In a world where many people simply hop onto the social media bandwagon without asking why, or simply because everyone else is doing it, Tennant helps us to understand why it is important to look before you leap. He constantly reminds us that he is not bashing Facebook per se. Instead, he is calling upon readers to think critically, and to recognize the limitations of social media.

He offers a three-fold challenge for readers over a three day Facebook fast weekend. Firstly, unplug and start the process of detoxification. Recognize what Facebook can do and not do. Facebook friends are very different from face-to-face friends. He then goes through some false promises that people have of Facebook.

  1. "Media are amoral."
  2. "It's ok to make it all about you."
  3. "Community can be found anywhere."
  4. "Nowhere is somewhere, and it can be anywhere."
These promises are not viable on the Facebook medium. The chief concerns surrounding uncritical use of Facebook is summarised as follows:

  • Facebook provides a tempting platform for one to present themselves as more important than others.
  • Facebook is the modern fig leaves that cover up our sinful selves
  • Facebook is a powerful tool for self-promotion.
Secondly, he urges readers to discern what is best for them, and to discern and discover the pros and cons of social media. He points out that bad old sin lurks in the social medium. Digital communications is a convenient and easy cloak to hide our real selves from others. In other words, how can we build real community if we only showcase the nice parts of ourselves?

Thirdly, Tennant challenges readers to decide what is best for themselves. This final section is worth the price of the book. Instead of simply blasting away the use of social media, Tennant provides some suggestions to redeem the way we use it. 

Closing Thoughts

Tennant openly admits that he is a 'technology pessimist.' He prefers to err on the side of caution. Personally, I feel that this book is an important contribution to check the tsunami of interest and uncritical use of social media. Many have argued against the use of Facebook using statistical data and expert advice.  What Albert Borgmann and Neil Postman have done at a scholarly level to argue warnings about technology using us, Tennant has done for the layperson. The observations in the book is a reminder to us again that technology, social media such as Facebook needs to be on a leash. Uncritical usage of social media is like a pit-bull terror let loose, devouring others, and finally us. 

One need not agree with all the pointers, but I urge readers to keep the warnings fresh as they use Facebook. If all self-control fail, when all self-discipline is gone, then do the best thing for ourselves: Unfriend ourselves from Facebook.

Ratings: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Moody Publishers and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All comments offered are freely mine.

Monday, March 12, 2012

"When a Nation Forgets God" (Erwin Lutzer)

First published at Booksaint on 5 Feb 2012.

TITLE: When a Nation Forgets God: 7 Lessons We Must Learn from Nazi Germany
AUTHOR: Erwin W. Lutzer
PUBLISHER: Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers, 2010, (160 pages).

Erwin Lutzer is like a modern prophet speaking out against the deceptions of the world. In this book compilation of what looks like a series of sermons, Lutzer warns the modern world of the alarming similarities of the values in America now with the values that led to Nazi Germany. He leads the reader through seven trends that ought to wake us up. His key contention is this:

"I don't expect that America will ever gas millions of people because they belong to the wrong race; but the same values that destroyed Germany are being taught in many of our centers of learning today." (10)

#1 - "When God is Separated from Government, Judgment Follows"

Hitler slyly separated the Church from the government under the guise of freedom, tolerance, and what is best for the country. Systematically, Hitler proceeded to marginalize the Church, and eventually used the Church as a tool for his means. His point is, that the Church should confine itself only to church matters, and let Hitler take care of the rest. The point is: Church should let Hitler do what Hitler wants, as long as Hitler promises to 'take care' of the German people.

In modern America, if God is removed from government, this leads to a 'raw use of power,' 'eroticism,' 'arbitrary judicial rulings,' and pragmatism being the new moralism. Lutzer argues that the curtailment of the freedom of religion in America will ultimately lead to judgment. The crux of the matter is, such separation changes giving to Caesar what is Caesar's into a give to Caesar even those things that belongs to God.

#2 - It's Always the Economy

Economic concerns were the mainstay of German society at that time. With greater economic benefits, other things such as human rights are given a lower priority. The danger of modern America is that it is moving toward putting economic concerns as the key objective. When this happens, Scriptural warnings about debt accumulation are ignored. Bribes are accepted in the name of a better economic future for all. Stealing becomes justifiable, even from the rich.

#3 - That which is Legal Might Also Be Evil

Adolf Hitler created new laws to justify his persecution of the Jews. Being in power, the law courts are powerless against him. When God is separated from society, it slowly weakens the law structures. Firstly, in America, this is happening through a 'survival of the fittest' theory of evolution, where the one with the greatest power survives. Secondly, liberal theology continues to weaken the Christian influence in the traditional law. Thirdly, there is a sociological evolution where right and wrong are increasingly blurred and attributed to genes and physiological reasons. The founding fathers, who made laws based on their religious convictions are gradually seeing their laws being modified to suit a new generation's humanism ideals. Man has become god in lawmaking.

#4 - Propaganda Can Change a Nation

Hitler manipulated the media to his advantage to advance the Nazi cause. Look at modern America. Propaganda can manipulate facts based on mere feelings. It can cast uncritical support to movements they choose to support, like gay rights, without fairly representing other views. They use propaganda to wear out the opposition. By constantly appealing to popular emotional appeal, right and wrong are blurred, and eventually, propaganda can turn anything wrong into everything right.

#5 - Parents Not the State are Responsible for a Child's Training

Hitler ruled that public schooling is compulsory, which enables him to influence young minds to the Nazi cause. It is state-sponsored indoctrination at the highest degree. Instead of training young minds to think for themselves, the state indoctrinates minds to think the Nazi cause. In America, such a pattern is growing. Children are taught to suspect absolutes and to think more in relative terms. Psychological manipulation of kids to the humanistic doctrines are absolute. Increasingly, gay sexuality are promoted as a normal thing. The point Lutzer makes is that the responsibility of the child's upbringing remains very much at home.

#6 - Ordinary Heroes can make a difference

Here, Lutzer makes a more encouraging turn. Using Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an example, he points out that ordinary folks who practice costly grace can make a difference. He shares about Zakaria Botros, a Coptic priest who risks his life to share the gospel with Muslims. He talks about Corrie Ten Boom, whose power to forgive remains one of the most memorable. He highlights Charles Colson, whose life has blessed many in the Prison Fellowship. He points out Donnita Travis, an unknown, whose simple desire to want to help illiterate children leads to the setting up of a Hand Club for kids.

#7 - We Must Exalt the Cross in the Gathering Darkness

Christians cannot be afraid to suffer. They need to learn to resist temptations of physical healing as proof of Christ. The health and wealth gospel is more deception than truth. The use of gospel for sole material gains are to be rejected.  Subtly, one of the dangers in churches is the deception of community being more important than the cross.

Closing Thoughts

This is not a popular book for modern Christians to read. In fact, the cover of the book can be quite off-putting. Few people are willing to associate Nazi Germany with modern America. People will be easily upset about the thought of any attempt to equate them. Yet, I urge the reader to consider carefully the values behind the consequences. We know how evil the consequences are with regards to the Nazi regime. Yet, the remarkable similarities of the values Hitler tried to impose on Germany need to make us sit up and take notice about our modern society.

  • What about lobbying groups who are economic 'mercenaries' for the highest bidder?
  • What about the rising debt of the country being seen as a normal thing?
  • What if wrong is being justified as right? Without absolute values, anything wrong can become absolutely right.
After reading this book, I am more troubled than annoyed. I really hope that Lutzer is wrong about the increasing similarities of the Nazi societal values and of modern America. The trouble is, Lutzer's observations should make us sit up, take notice, and take action. Dismiss this book's warning at your own risk.

Rating: 4.25 stars of 5.


Monday, March 5, 2012

"Every Body Matters" (Gary Thomas)

TITLE: Every Body Matters: Strengthening Your Body to Strengthen Your Soul
AUTHOR: Gary Thomas
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011, (256 pages).

Keeping fit and bodily exercise is a legitimate and necessary spiritual discipline. This is the big idea that wraps the whole book together. In this important book, Thomas meticulously argues for the place of physical exercise disciplines in a world where people tend to eat more and exercise less. Having participated in the Boston marathon a few years ago, the author is writing from a deeply personal experience, which in a way communicates to those of us who gravitate toward couch potato lifestyles of a high-calorie and low exercise diet.

What makes this book special is the way Thomas infuses spiritual disciplines with a call daily exercises. He weaves theological underpinnings behind each exhortation to get physical. He underlines the dangers of sloth. He warns about the bad testimonies Christians unwittingly display. Strong faith is not exactly coherent with unhealthy physical bodies. In fact, a healthy body does good, and even more for one's spiritual health. In order to cultivate 'souls of silver' which is better than gold, physical fitness is a must.

Thomas argues against spiritual laziness that comes across as physical wimpiness. He argues for an active physical lifestyle that not only saves us money in the long run, it helps us live better as we age. He argues for making friends with 'Morty' in terms of learning to attack (mortify) sin rather than wait for sin to ambush us. A 300-Ib pastor, or believer will be an embarrassment rather than a testimony.

What I appreciate about this book is the holistic treatment Thomas has thoughtfully given. He never dichotomizes spirituality from the physical, unlike the gnostics. He shares from the rich reserviours of spirituality gleaned from the desert fathers, the church fathers, and contemporary theologians.  He puts himself as a prime example of what not to do, like his early years of indulging in sweet stuff to the point that he develops an embarrassing weight problem. Arguing for a 'muscular Christianity,' this book essentially challenges all believers to develop muscles that can lift heavy weights for God, not fat that drags down people's energy levels. The title is cleverly done, suggesting a double meaning that is both true: 1) Our physical bodies matter,; 2) Every individual matters.

This book is vital for the Church today. I believe that it is so good that it should not be placed under the religious or self-help sections of bookstores. Apart from spirituality, it needs to be in the sports section, the medical section, as well as the physical fitness sections.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


This book is provided to me free by Zondervan without any obligation for a positive review. The opinions offered above are given by me freely.

Monday, February 27, 2012

"7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind" (Anthony Selvaggio)

This review was first published at my new books blog at BookSaint.


TITLE: 7 Toxic Ideas Polluting Your Mind
AUTHOR: Anthony Selvaggio
PUBLISHER: Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R Publishing, 2011.

Amazing. Once in a while, we get a book that speaks frank and direct about what is right and what is wrong. As our world becomes more interconnected, with pluralism and widespread acceptance of everybody regardless of lifestyles, Selvaggio brings clarity without mincing words. The key concern in his book is that toxic ideas will lead to idolatry. Slowly but surely.

A 'toxic idea' is anything that changes a worldview. The author writes:

"The consequences of ideas become even more powerful when these ideas morph into a comprehensive ideology, or worldview. When an idea becomes a worldview, it can alter the entire course of a civilization." (14)

The Seven Toxic Ideas

They are technopoly, neophilia, egalitarianism, individualism, materialism, consumerism, and relativism. The danger of technopoly is due to the uncritical acceptance of technology which leads to 'disengagement, distraction, and disembodiment.' The danger of Neophilia is the uncritical acceptance of all things new, that leads to a disregard for history, choosing progress over preservation, and choosing the new simply because they are 'new' and discarding the old simply because they are 'old.' The danger of egalitarianism is the total disregard for order and hierarchy, placing equal authority on everybody, leading to an inability to discern good from bad, fostering in kids the arrogance of equal rights regardless of how capable they are. The danger of individualism is the way it encourages narcissism, self-indulgence, which ultimately leads to self-destruction. The danger of materialism is that it leads one to subtly reject the fact of man being created by God, that we are of no spiritual significance, and that man can perfect himself. Worse, it can lead man to think that he is God. The danger of consumerism is the tendency to worship our 'stuff' that we live to consume more and more stuff. Pointing out the dangers of the prosperity gospel, and how Church has also been infected by consumerism, the author urges the reader to reject consumerism. The danger of relativism is that it assumes that everything is relative, even God. It projects two errors. Firstly, that it is not possible to know the truth, and secondly, it is possible to avoid truth.

In dealing with all of the toxic ideas, Selvaggio defines what it is. He points out the tricks of the adversary. He lists the dangers in the culture at large, and the insidious dangers when it infects the church. He then goes through some biblical principles before ending with a call to reject such worldliness including the pulpit and at all levels of the church.

My Comments

This is a tough book to read for people who are already steeped in the toxic ideas. Like the proverbial frog in the kettle, the longer we are in the warming waters of the kettle, the less sensitive we are to changes. Selvaggio supports his ideas with frequent references to scholars and influential writers. For instance, the word 'technopoly' is borrowed from the fame cultural critic, Neil Postman. He affirms Marva Dawn and Albert Borgmann's ideas about the dangers of accepting technology uncritically. He quotes DA Carson rather frequently, with thoughts critical of the emerging church movement that tends to adopt too quickly the 'newness' in terms of 'relevance' and jazzy technosavvy programs.  I thought his chapter on egalitarianism is particularly poignant. In an age where many societies are preferring to fight for their rights rather than to discharge their responsibilities, many people base their opinions not because it is right or wrong, but simply because they have a right to say something. The sad thing is that egalitarians may refuse to accept correction arguing that any attack on his ideas constitute an infringement on his rights! Now, that is toxic!

Some may critique the book for being too 'fundamentalist' or too 'rightist.' I prefer to see otherwise. The book is basically a warning against the wholesale integration of these worldly ideas that masquerades themselves in becoming all things to all people. I believe this book is an important contribution to the frog in the kettle syndrome all over the world, even in the church. We need to wake up and stand up for the truth. We need to be bold to correct one another gently in love. We need to grow deep roots in God. We need wisdom to know, and discernment to choose. We cannot let toxic ideas continue for it becomes even more toxic over time.

Ratings: 4.5 stars of 5.


This book is supplied to me free, courtesy of P&R Publishing and NetGalley without any obligation for a positive review. All comments given are freely mine.

Monday, February 20, 2012

"Deep-Rooted in Christ" (Joshua Choonmin KANG)

TITLE: Deep-Rooted in Christ: The Way of Transformation
AUTHOR: Joshua Choonmin KANG
PUBLISHER: Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2007, (176 pages).

Like what Richard Foster says, this book speaks into the heart. Not only that, it speaks simply, clearly, as well as with conviction and with the Spirit's power. This book is the Korean counterpart to Richard Foster's Celebration of Discipline. Translated into English from the original Korean edition, this book's wisdom is made available to a wider audience, namely the English speaking world. Though Foster writes from the Western perspective, Kang reflects from an Eastern perspective. Both however are united in the Christlikeness perspective. The author is a Korean-American, ministering in a Church in America. He is well schooled in the spirituality of the West, and also very connected with Asian culture.

Using 52 brief meditations on the Christian life, and how to grow more spiritually aware of God and people, Kang is a gentle mentor for all readers in at least 8 ways.

Firstly, Kang urges us to begin with emptying our ourselves in order to be filled with Christ. Secondly, in order to be rooted in Christ, one needs to rid the bad roots, and to direct growth with Christ as the foundation of spirituality. Thirdly, growth is cultivated in the attitude and atmosphere of grace. It needs to be initiated by God, leading to an increase of knowledge and understanding, and a sharpening of the vision of spiritual outlook in grace. Fourthly, the growth needs to continue via discipline and training of solitude, listening to God, prayer, self-denial, serving, and be schooled in the 'wilderness of the Holy Spirit,' which is essential to help us be more thankful and more humble. Fifthly, growth can only be maintained through adequate soul care. In this aspect, one learns to cultivate balance, tend the inner garden, and enable oneself to let our actions, our thoughts, and our feelings be harmonized. Sixthly, Kang leads us through the development of fruits as evidence of spiritual growth. Seventhly, Kang introduces an even higher goal of spirituality: Purity of heart. The goal of purity is Jesus. Finally, one's true identity is attained when one is transformed in Christ to become more like Jesus.

Kang helpfully summarizes the whole Christian life in seven ways:

  1. Choose the narrow way. (Matt 7:13-14)
  2. Always abide in Jesus. (John 15:5)
  3. Live a Spirit-filled life (Ephesians 5:18)
  4. Deny ourselves daily. (Luke 9:23)
  5. Be watchful, and be on guard against the wiles of the devil.
  6. Loving God means serving others.
  7. Be filled with God's Word, and be full for God by sharing God's Word.

While some of Kang's spirituality borders on the Platonic philosophy, especially in his idea of 'balance' of spirituality and the Word. He calls this 'balance' as most important in mature spirituality. I am not sure I can agree with him, as the Christian life is not necessarily balance. For example, do we love God with all our heart, or do we love God only with a somewhat 'balanced,' manner? There are times when God calls us to sacrifice, or to give up a substantial part of our life in order to attain Christ. Apart from this, I highly recommend this book for your reading and edification.  Written in brief meditations, you can easily read this book one chapter a day, and you can be done within 2 months.

Rating: 5 stars of 5.


Monday, February 13, 2012

"How to Read the Bible in Changing Times" (Mark L. Strauss)

TITLE: How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God's Word Today
AUTHOR: Mark L. Strauss
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011, (278 pages).

This book is one of the clearest and helpful guides to laypersons wanting to learn how to interpret the Bible. Beginning with a humourous rendition of some extreme literal reading, Strauss plays a few roles in the writing of this book. As a Bible tour guide, he shows readers the various genre terrains in both the new and old testaments. He provides the highlights of Scripture as well as themes. As a gentle teacher, he shows readers how to read and how not to read Scripture. He shares his key Heart of God hermeneutic which is essentially entering the story of God and with neighbours, learning the ways of God and living out the biblical principles through fellowship and witness to the world. All of these are done through the empowering Holy Spirit.

As a scholar, Strauss weaves in many different perspectives of Bible reading. He details the various genres and themes in both the Old and New Testaments. He talks about the different levels of bible interpretation, the various criterion of understanding, and also the three hermeneutical frameworks. He crafts out four general questions that help us understand and apply God's word today.

  1. What is the passage saying in the light of the whole Bible?
  2. What is the author's contexts, purpose, and place in the light of the historical, literary, or genre?
  3. How does the passage inform our understanding of God and the world?
  4. How does the passage teach us to be (attitudes and character) and to do (actions and goals)?

What I like about this book is the clear manner in which difficult topics are dealt with. Apart from the point by point explanations, the author uses lots of Bible references and examples to demonstrate the use of the texts. Strauss generally adopts a 3-point framework. He first states a perspective. Secondly, he explains it in simple terms and examples. Thirdly, he provides an application. These things are hallmarks of a good teacher. The last chapter, "Where Cultures Collide" is certainly worth expanding on.  My critique is that this chapter is too short.

If you are a keen Bible reader, this book will enhance your Bible reading. If you are a student, this book is a must have in your personal book shelves. If you are a Bible teacher, you will love this book and use this book in any introductory level book on hermeneutics. If you are always wondering how to apply ancient texts to modern contexts, this book is an essential read.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.