Book Review 50: Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias

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I must admit I did not think my first review for 2014 would be a non-fiction book. Since I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction and all my reviews reflect that truth.  Anyway, there is always a book that jumps out at you and asks to be read and reviewed.  Why Jesus by Ravi Zacharias is such a book.

Also, I have one more admission to make before I get into the review.  Ravi Zacharias is my favorite Christian apologist.  I’ve hesitated in reviewing this book because I didn’t want to have my objectivity compromised by someone you truly respect and admire.  However, I believe in reading this book has been this best thing for me because you still have to judge the book on its own merits and not about your personal feelings towards the author.

Zacharias tackles one of the biggest themes currently in Western Spirituality.  The subtitle of the book (Rediscovering His Truth In An Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality) covers a wide ground and Zacharias does an admirable job in presenting his argument for Christianity.

He explains how the New Age Movement got spiritual lineage from Eastern pantheistic religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.  The attractiveness of those religions have been craftily repackaged for Westerners who are seeking spirituality away from Christianity.

Zacharias argues that all religions are not the same and have exclusive tenets for their believers.  However, one of the effective marketing methods of the New Age Movement is that you can have spirituality without the religious and theological dogma of monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard him speak about this book recently and he wanted to title the book From Oprah to Chopra.  But, the publisher decided against it and went with the aforementioned title. Zacharias devotes a couple chapters to Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra and I feel that non-Christian believers would read those chapters and see him attacking them for their embracing of New Age Spirituality.

However, I thought in reading those chapters were worth the entire price of the book.  Zacharias shows quite a bit of sympathy towards Oprah while bringing up strong arguments against some of the beliefs she had incorporated on her TV show.  While he does go after Chopra quite strong for some his views, Zacharias argues point-by-point against those beliefs in a fair manner.

What reading Why Jesus reveals  that most people have a spiritual hunger inside and are determined to seek it.  Now that we have a religious supermarket where people can choose some of this religion and a little bit of that religion unfortunately misses the mark.  Zacharias reveals that all religions have a worldview and to create a gumbo spirituality will truly not make you spiritual or religious.

In closing, I would like to write as a Christian reading and reviewing a book like this one does affirm and strength my faith.  That’s easy.  However, I believe that non-believers should give a book like this one a try. Because it isn’t always about affirmation but information.  Even though you may not believe in Christanity. Whatever your beliefs are have an origin and worldview they subscribe to. At least one should have some kind of knowledge on where your beliefs come from.

Also, I would like to write that I studied Taoism and practice Astrology before I became a Christian.  I have always been a searcher for spiritual truth and it has led down some interesting paths.  And reading a book like Why Jesus shows that knowledge and truth about different faiths is needed in order to satisfy the spiritual hunger that man has always had.

I give Why Jesus by Ravi Zacharias a highly recommended rating and a good start to my reading and reviewing year in 2014.

Introduction to the Book of Titus

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A few years ago, I decided that I would I do online bible studies for the lesser known books of the Bible. It seems even amongst Christians, we have our favorite books of the Bible.  From the Gospels to Paul’s most popular letters (Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, 1 and 2 Corinthians…etc) to Genesis and Exodus in the Torah to Psalms and Proverbs and so on.  Even though I’ve heard many pastors proclaim that we should learn and study the entire Bible from Genesis to Revelation.  However, the reality is far different from that proclamation.

Well, I have taken that proclamation seriously and I did my first study on the Book of Ecclesiastes several years ago and most recently did a study of the Book of Habakkuk.  Since I have done two Old Testament books for study, I thought it is time do one on a New Testament book.

My hope for these studies is that we as believers truly begin to read the word for ourselves and apply these principles to our daily lives and truly live out faith in an honest and unashamed way for a world that needs to see authentic Christianity.

For the next three weeks, I will post the Book of Titus one chapter at a time.  Well, there are only three chapters and the entire book can be read in about 30 minutes.   Here’s a introduction to the study of Titus:

The letter of Titus was written by Paul to a young protege named Titus somewhere between AD 62-64 on the island of Crete.  It has been considered that Paul did a fourth missionary journey to Crete, but it was not recorded in the Book of Acts.

As a result, there have been some critics who have questioned the authenticity of Paul’s letter to Titus.  However, the letter of Titus has strong evidence that it was written by Paul and theology of the letter is aligned with Paul’s doctrine.

The theme of Titus is the inseparable link between faith and practice, belief and behavior.

–The letter covers the church’s need of authentic leadership and how that can be destroyed by false teachers. {Titus 1:1-16}

–True leaders live by the gospel and their actions reflect their faith. {Titus 2:1-3:8}

–Discipline false teachers and troublemakers.  Cut them out of the gospel in order to preserve the foundational truths of the faith.  {Titus 3:9-15}

Paul wanted to give Titus instruction on what a healthy church should act and look like. This lesser known epistle is relevant to our day because I believe we accepted entertainment and number-counting as being authentic expressions of our faith.  Instead of equipping believers how to live out being a Christian in world that has decided to turn away from Him.

See you next week!

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.31: The Descendant of Destiny by Marion Hill

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Here’s the cover to my upcoming novel, The Descendant of Destiny.  

I have been working my novel for the past several months and not blogging as frequently.  I’m planning for a March 2014 release of my novel.  Here’s a brief overview of the story:

The Descendant of Destiny is a Christian Contemporary Fantasy Novel and the first book of the United Kammbia Trilogy.

My novel tells the story of Diondray Azur, who has been chosen to go to Santa Sophia, a city in the fictional world of Kammbia.

However, Diondray is a member of the Azur Family of Charlesville. The Azur Family is the ruling family of Charlesville and they would never allow him to go to Santa Sophia.

The world of Kammbia is divided into two regions: Northern and Southern. Santa Sophia is the major city of Northern Kammbia and Charlesville is the major city of Southern Kammbia. The Kammbian Forest separates the two regions. The citizens of Northern and Southern Kammbia do not interact with each other.

However, there is a prophecy revealed in the Book of Kammbi that ties the two regions together in the past.  The Book of Kammbi is the sacred book for the people of Northern Kammbia. Diondray Azur will become the person that is the fulfillment of this prophecy and unite the two regions into one.

More to come.

What do you think of the cover?

Book Review 45: All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers

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What is pop culture?

That’s the one question I’ve always wanted to get a definitive answer to in all of my adult life. Well, I believe I have found a book that attempts to give me that answer.

All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers explores the relationship between Christians and Popular Culture. I heard the author on Christian Radio last year talking about the re-issue of his book. It was first published in 1989 and the re-issue got a new cover (see above) and a new introduction by the author.

“My answer to the question about Christian involvement with popular culture is essentially the same. You can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols.”

That quote sums up the author’s answer on how Christians should deal with the omnipresence of popular culture. Myers examines the historical lineage of popular culture from its roots in Romanticism of the mid 19th century and how it came into full bloom in the 1960s.

Myers explains how Christianity and Popular Culture have always been at odds with each other because one side believes in history, tradition, and the eternal things of life.  While the other side believes in the present, always looking the next thing, and focuses on self-fulfillment.

However, the author doesn’t take the easy route and totally bashes popular culture as one would expect from a book like this. Myers does warn how much popular culture has affected the church and how modern evangelicalism has a symbiotic relationship with it unfortunately.

As previously mentioned,  All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes was published in 1989, Myers ends the book with the pernicious effect of television but doesn’t address how social media and the internet have taken over television’s role in pop culture.  Because of that, the book does feel dated and out-of-step with the 21st century. Nevertheless, the best books still have timeless principles to reflect on and can always be read even if the culture has progressed from when it was published.

In closing, I believe in reading All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, I have gotten as close to a definitive answer to what is popular culture that I’m going to get.  Because of that, I’m truly grateful and will wholeheartedly recommend this book to those who want to know how to live in a world where popular culture dominates every aspect of our lives.

Book Review 44: Gray Matters by Brett McCracken

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“Christians have a hard time with nuance, gray areas are not out strong suit.”

“Discernment is a tricky business, much more complicated than a checklist or matrix of black-and-white criteria. And it begins on the inside, with an awareness that while discernment is a virtue we should all aspire to, it doesn’t look exactly the same for all of us.”

“Legalism has tainted my generation so much that we don’t even want to go near rules or think in terms of “dos and dont’s.” In the process we’ve lost the idea that character and virtue matter.”

Those three quotes set the thematic scope for my latest book review, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism and Liberty by Brett McCracken. This is my first non-fiction book review for 2013 and I’m glad waited until now to review this important book.

McCracken makes the argument that we have gone from one side of the pendulum as legalists and separate ourselves from the culture to the other side of the pendulum as hedonists and accepting everything the culture has to offer. The author shows throughout the book that there is another route to take instead of those standby positions by having proper discernment and learning how navigate those nebulous areas in our lives.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections (Food, Music, Movies, and Alcohol) that covers an area where Christians have taken one of the aforementioned standby positions.  McCracken begins each section with a historical and biblical perspective on how Christians have dealt with those issues.  Then he offers guidance on how to become more discerning with these gray areas.

The most controversial section of the book is the Alcohol section.   Should Christians drink alcohol?  The author walks a fine line……like a dental floss line in this area but I appreciate the fact he didn’t shy away from its dangers and tried to present an objective view on probably one of the most scrutinized gray areas we could have as a believers and followers of Christ.

McCracken has written a much-needed and courageous book in Gray Matters. As Christians, we claim to believe that Christ has the right to speak into every area of lives, then we need to be honest with ourselves and learn how to deal with the gray areas in our culture.  The author skillfully shows its not about retreating from the world and waiting for the second coming.  Also, its not about accepting everything the culture provides and trying to prove you are not one of those stereotypical fundamentalist Christians.   But, it is about having good judgment and faith in Christ that he can guide you through all types of situations in your life.

Gray Matters is one of my favorite reads of the year and will get a highly recommended must read for Christians and even non-Christians who want to learn some principles on having discernment in their daily lives as well.

Bravo to Brett McCracken for being courageous and may this book create authentic dialogue amongst believers in the faith.

Book Review 37: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

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“For me writing has always felt like praying.”

“Adulthood is a wonderful thing, and brief. You must be sure to enjoy it while it lasts.”

Those touching, powerful quotes are from Minister John Ames, the protagonist of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. Gilead tells his story in letter form to his young son about his life and struggles as a man of the cloth in the town of Gilead, Iowa.

Robinson creates a three-dimensional picture of Minister Ames through his belief in Jesus Christ, the struggles with his faith, and the relationships with his family and others in the town.

There were two relationships in the novel that I believe truly formed Minister Ames.  The first one was with the atheist, Edward Feuerbach and this comment said a lot to me about their relationship:

“Boughton takes a very dim view of him, because he unsettled the faith of many people, but I take issue as much with those people as with Feuerbach. It seems to me some people just go around looking to get their faith unsettled.”

Ames was willing to risk having a friendship with a man that could shake his faith. It exhibited the depth of his conviction and a genuine love for humanity not something learned from seminary or taught over the pulpit.

Even though, I thought the relationship seemed distant and remote at times, Ames clearly loved him and mentioned in the story his failed attempt to convert him to Christianity.

The second relationship was with his best friend, Jack Boughton’s son, John Ames Boughton.  The younger Boughton believed in Christ growing up but drifted away from the faith as he got older.  However, he always had a respect for Minister Ames and came to him often for spiritual questions. Even though, Minister Ames answered his questions, the younger Boughton could never get over the intellectual hurdles he had in order to become a believer.

This relationship with the younger Boughton was more dynamic than his relationship with Feuerbach.  As a result, it showed a man who truly believed the gospel was for everyone.  From those who believed blindly and uncritically to those once believed and rejected it to those who never believed in the gospel.  Minister Ames walked the walk as well as he talked the talk.

Gilead was the first novel I’ve read that grew on me.  It was okay at first, because the lack of action or suspense and even no chapters.  As I kept reading, I began to like the novel more and Robinson created such a full, rich character that it made me think of my own spiritual journey.

I would highly recommend Gilead and consider it to be the best novel I’ve read and reviewed in 2013 so far.

Quotes 77

“Many modern artists, it seems to me, have forgotten the value that art has in itself. Much modern art is far too intellectual to be great art. Many modern artists seem not to see the distinction between man and non-man, and it is a part of the lostness of modern man that they no longer see value in the work of art as a work of art.
I am afraid, however, that as evangelicals we have largely made the same mistake. Too often we think that a work of art has value only if we reduce it to a tract. This too is to view art solely as a message for the intellect.”

(Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible)

Book Review 34: The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell

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Have you ever read a book that you knew instantly you should have read years ago?

I knew it after reading the first chapter of The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell.

I was working at a mom-and-pop bookstore in Santa Fe, NM in 1996 when this novel was published. I remembered the sales rep from Random House promoting The Sparrow at that bookstore and how he believed that readers would be talking about this book long after they read it.

Of course, it was the sales rep’s job to promote their publisher’s books and their objectivity could be questioned as the sales reps were more concerned about the bottom line then the quality of the novel they were selling to these small independent bookstores. Nevertheless, I’ve came to this novel a decade and half later (better late than never) and realized that sales rep was right in his prediction.

The Sparrow tells the story of Emilio Sandoz, a Jesuit priest, who leads a first contact mission to the Planet Rakhat. However, he returns to Earth as the only survivor and is blamed for the mission’s failure. The priest reveals his side of what happened on the mission to his father superiors of the Catholic Church in Rome and undergoes a crisis of faith that becomes more apparent by the end of the novel.

The characters are what makes The Sparrow a great novel. Russell creates real, three-dimensional characters that will remain with you long after the story is finished.  Actually, my favorite characters of the novel were Anne and George Edwards. They were liberal, agnostic, and Emilio’s best friends. Their relationship develops throughout the story and shows how the author did an excellent job of not sugarcoating their differences with the Edwardses’ non-belief in God and Sandoz’s belief in God.

There is a scene in the novel where Anne, a doctor, wants to blame God for letting one of their comrades (another priest) on the mission die while she did everything she could to save his life. That scene was raw and unforgettable as anything I’ve read in contemporary fiction.

The only issue where I could be critical of the novel is in the density in explaining the trip to Rahkat. I could see for non science-fiction readers it might be a bit boring and seem like a “info-dump” in which that genre is known for.  However, Russell does an excellent job of not letting that density slow the pace of the novel.  It is woven into the plot very well and doesn’t take away from the rest of the novel’s strengths.

This is a thoughtful, moral work of fiction and proclaims itself being just as effective as a book of theology or a run-of-the-mill sermon at your local church in showing how faith can be shaken under difficult circumstances.

I haven’t been excited and saddened by a novel like this in a long time. Excited by having read it and saddened by finishing it and wanting to read more.

I will give The Sparrow my highest recommendation to be read by all serious readers. Also, I will add it to my favorite novels list.

Welcome aboard…….The Sparrow!

Book Review 33: The Child Goddess by Louise Marley

Can you judge a book by its cover?

Well, this old adage was put to the test by me in reading The Child Goddess by Louise Marley. I was perusing at our local used bookstore here in San Antonio and made it to the science-fiction section to see this striking cover of a bald woman with her right arm around a child. It intrigued me and knew instantly I would be reading this novel.

It’s a surprising literate story about a woman named Isabel Burke, who is a Priest from the Order of Mary Magadalene (she has been a popular topic in a lot of modern fiction recently) and her relationship with a child named Oa from the planet Virimund who can not age. The child is about a hundred years old, but her body and mind has not reached beyond the pre-pubescent stage.

The scientific community thinks the child is carrying a gene that could lead to an anti-aging virus and make them famous. The priest thinks differently and has developed a relationship with the child. However, the novel goes well-beyond the stereotypical science versus religion argument and shows both sides in a fair manner in dealing with this kind of dilemma.

Also, the characters are well developed and shows the priest having an honest dose of human desire as well and not trying to be a perfect religious person. As a matter of fact, the story reveals rather adroitly Isabel’s feelings for a married prominent scientist that causes a realistic tension between them as they worked together to find out about Oa’s condition.

The best speculative fiction stories always ask the question, What If? The story succeeds admirably in that regard and reminds me of a novel that Ursula LeGuin would write but substituting her Taoist perspective for a Catholic perspective instead.

The Child Goddess is not the greatest novel ever written. However, Louise Marley gives us the insight into the second question an excellent speculative fiction story should ask, What does it mean to be human? For that, I applaud the author in giving a possible answer in such a non-conventional manner.

I will include The Child Goddess as one of my favorite books I’ve read and reviewed for the blog in 2012 and even recommend it to those who would not usually read this genre of fiction.

Moreover, I guess the old adage can be true every once in awhile.  You can judge a book by its cover!

Habakkuk 3:1-19 (Habakkuk’s Prayer)

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O Lord, I have heard the report of you,

and your work, O Lord, do I fear.

In the midst of the years revive it;

in the midst of the years make it known;

in wrath remember mercy.

God came from Teman,

and the Holy One from Mount Paran.

His splendor covered the heavens,

and the earth was full of his praise.

His brightness was like the light;

rays flashed from his hand;

and there he veiled his power.

Before him went pestilence,

and plague followed at his heels.

He stood and measured the earth;

he looked and shook the nations;

then the eternal mountains were scattered;

the everlasting hills sank low.

His were the everlasting ways.

I saw the tents of Cushan in affliction;

the curtains of the land of Midian did tremble.

Was your wrath against the rivers, O Lord?

Was your anger against the rivers,

or your indignation against the sea,

when you rode on your horses,

on your chariot of salvation?

You stripped the sheath from your bow,

calling for many arrows.

You split the earth with rivers.

The mountains saw you and writhed;

the raging waters swept on;

the deep gave forth its voice;

it lifted its hands on high.

The sun and moon stood still in their place

at the light of your arrows as they sped,

at the flash of your glittering spear.

You marched through the earth in fury;

you threshed the nations in anger.

You went out for the salvation of your people,

for the salvation of your anointed.

You crushed the head of the house of the wicked,

laying him bare from thigh to neck.

You pierced with his own arrows the heads of his warriors,

who came like a whirlwind to scatter me,

rejoicing as if to devour the poor in secret.

You trampled the sea with your horses,

the surging of mighty waters.

I hear, and my body trembles;

my lips quiver at the sound;

rottenness enters into my bones;

my legs tremble beneath me.

Yet I will quietly wait for the day of trouble

to come upon people who invade us.

Though the fig tree should not blossom,

nor fruit be on the vines,

the produce of the olive fail

and the fields yield no food,

the flock be cut off from the fold

and there be no herd in the stalls,

yet I will rejoice in the Lord;

I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

God, the Lord, is my strength;

he makes my feet like the deer’s;

he makes me tread on my high places.

(Habakkuk 3:2-19 ESV Bible)

The prayer of Habakkuk is one of the finest Hebrew poems in the entire Old Testament. It was written in the form of a psalm and was probably designed to be sung by Levites in the Temple services (1 Chron 25:1-8).

It becomes the capstone of the book and reveals the triumph of faith in the face of adversity. It is a fitting conclusion to the theme of the book. As such, it records a touching and heartwarming example of the manner in which the just can triumph over the adversities of life. Habakkuk looked beyond the vicissitudes of daily life and the threat of invasion to a time when God would right the wrongs of mankind and reward His servants for their righteousness. (pp.50-51 from Everyman Bible Commentary, Habakkuk and Zephaniah by Cyril J. Barber)

As the writer of the above passage stated that Habakkuk’s prayer is one the best Hebrew poems in the Old Testament, I recently heard a good friend tell me the exact same thing.  She remembered this prayer from her seminary studies and referred back to it from time to time.

I must admit I was surprised by her comment because in all the years I’ve been a Christian, I had never heard anyone make that kind of comment.  Or this prayer being mentioned from the pulpit and the entire book of Habakkuk being taught to the congregation.

There were a few things that stood out from the prophet’s prayer.  In verses 3:3-15, Habakkuk refers back to when God freed the Israelities from the Pharaoh of Egypt in the Book of Exodus. Because, the people of Judah were under control by the Babylonians, Habakkuk wanted God to reveal his power like he did in the aforementioned sentence.

What that section of the prayer revealed to me is the interconnectedness of the entire Bible.  Habakkuk referred back to the earliest time of God’s story for what He did for his people under dire circumstances. And he foreshadowed in Habakkuk 2:4, a key principle of Paul’s ministry in the New Testament.  Who knew this obscure book had this kind of connection in the Bible and makes me realize that we should read and study God’s entire word not just what’s popular in our current form of Christianity.

Second, in verses 3:4, 9, 13, the prophet inserted the word Selah. The only other place that word is mentioned is in the Book of Psalms. It revealed that Habakkuk’s prayer was meant to be set to music.  Also, that insertion was to give worshippers time for reflection.

Hmm…reflection.  Do we reflect in our society?  Do we really take time to stop and think about God’s word and what we are to learn from it?  Or do we consume it and move on to the next sermon or bible study?  It seems in a culture of information, there’s not time for any kind of reflection and I believe that is one of the downsides of having access to almost everything we want at our fingertips or a click.

God’s word demands reflection especially when bad things happen in our lives. Prayer is that time for reflection more than any other time in our busy lives. If we don’t pray and reflect, how can we ever get closer to Him and draw on his strength when we needed the most.

Lastly in verses 17-19, Habakkuk’s closing was best describe like this:

As one compares the beginning of the book of Habakkuk with its closing, it is clear that outward circumstances had not changed. Only the prophet had changed. His former bewilderment and confusion had given way to peace and trust in the Lord. It was the Lord who then filled the prophet’s vision and satisfied his soul. Although Habakkuk’s questions had not been answered, his doubts had been resolved. The vision God had given him of His plan and purpose had met the deepest needs of the heart.

Habakkuk’s faith and trust in the Lord illustrate the way Christians today should face adversity. He did not give way to fatalism, nor did he adopt a stoic attitude. He avoided the pitfall of passive resignation as well. Though his inward parts trembled, his attitude was one of submission to the will of God, and he exercised active dependence upon Him. (pp. 62 & 64, Everyman Bible Commentary, Habakkuk and Zephaniah by Cyril J. Barber)

Those above passages were well written and reveals to me a big reason why unbelievers have problem with the God of the Bible and refuses to believe in Him.

Trust.

How can I trust a God that has allowed slavery, oppression, and the wealthy exploit the poor throughout human existence? How can I trust some entity that is unseen and will probably never to get see even though his believers keep talking about a second coming?  It’s easier to trust in a government that can give me assistance when I’m in economic trouble or create laws to right societal wrongs.

Well as a believer, I can not give you the most reasoned and logical answers to satisfy your doubts.  However, in reading Habakkuk and being a Christian for the past decade I’ve learned the change comes from within.  Being a religious person means changing yourself not other people.  I can’t change my wife or my children or my friends or that other ethnic group or rich people and as along as you always focus on the outward things of society, I believe you will never or ever be able to trust in God.

As long as you trust in yourself and your own abilities, you will never be able to cross that bridge to trust in an unseen God.  But, the great thing about this God is that he will receive you with open arms even if you have rejected him repeatedly. That, I can speak from direct experience.  And after reading Habakkuk is a reminder of this principle.

I would like thank everyone who read this study on the Book of Habakkuk and I hope this little obscure book from an obscure prophet is made a little more known to all of us who believe in Him and even those who don’t.

God Bless!