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.

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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!

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.

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!

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.10: For Those Who Are Angry At God After Yesterday’s Tragedy

There are many people who are angry with God today.  Both believers and non-believers are angry with the Lord because of what happened yesterday in Connecticut. The atheists, agnostics, and other non-believers are saying, “How could we believe in the God of the Bible that would allow twenty innocent children to be killed like that. If this God is so good, He should never allowed something like that to happen.”

Well, let me write that I don’t have a high-falutin’ theological answer or a common “Christanese” phrase to persuade or convince you after a disaster like this. However, as a believer I have realized that we must turn towards Him even more and to pray asking that He give those grieving parents comfort and strength through this horror they are dealing with right now.

Irrational…..yep

Illogical…absolutely

Crazy….to some I guess

What atheists, agnostics, other non-believers, and even many Christians miss or overlook is that God doesn’t spare us from witnessing or dealing with tragedy at some point in our lives.  I have always said that the Bible we read and study is not a G-rated book.

The capacity of human beings to do the unspeakable comes back to dealing with our sinful nature. Uh-oh….I just wrote the “s-word” that nobody uses in our culture anymore.  The word “sin” is antiquated or outdated and only used by those old-time firebrand preachers that believe God is angry at humankind all the time.  Shucks, our current preachers even avoid that “s-word.”

Nevertheless, if we keep avoiding the ugliness that humanity can show often or our sinful nature, we will keep running to our “Lets get rid of all the guns corner” or “The government is not going to take all my guns. I have a right to bear arms corner.” or “He just snapped corner and his bad childhood made him do it corner.”  or ” He was influenced by comic books, violent movies and video games corner.”  Then we will always want to diagnose the symptom from a societal standpoint but never cure the disease from a moral and human nature standpoint after such a catastrophe.

In closing, God knows that there are many people who are angry with Him or curse His name and will refuse to have anything to do with Him. But, He will keep holding up a mirror to show ourselves in all our warts, blemishes, and ugly spots to reflect back on why we need Him more than ever in the hope that you will choose Him to lean on, to draw on, and to ask for his strength especially after a tragedy like this.