Saturday, August 22, 2015

God Speaks~ Dr. Craig Evans

God Speaks: What He Says, What He Means

If I had the privilege of helping a new Christian begin to seek the Scriptures, I might be inclined to give them this book.

"God Speaks" is a high altitude survey of the Bible- why it's reliable, why it's valuable, the claims it makes for humanity, and the character of the God who gave it- and occasionally it touches down on particular points, such as what Jesus taught, and how to interpret a passage in context and informed by church wisdom through the ages. 

If you're new to your Bible, this book could help orient you as you start out, and whet your appetite for further reading. 
As a basic introduction, it has plenty of helpful resources. There's a timeline of events, spanning from the call of Abraham to the writings of Augustine, a giving you a glance at those who lived the Hebrew history and those who articulated the new-born faith. 
And here's a chapter about biblical archeology- the study of textual data and material evidence. He includes brief descriptions of discoveries, and explains where those artifacts fit into the scope of history recorded in the Testaments. 

If the reader were ready for more after finishing "God Speaks," then I'd begin adding in other books. 
I think I'd give them Norman Giesler's "How we Got our Bible" if they wanted to know about the inspiration of the text and collection of the manuscripts and recognition of the canon. 

I'd hand out J. Warner Wallace's "Cold Case Christianity" if they wanted to think specifically about the New Testament, and what (if any) evidence suggests its authenticity. 

I'd hand out a small library of Ravi Zacharias if they wanted to explore the questions of the human heart *and* look at the Man who claims to be the Bread of Life and Living Water. "Jesus Among Other Gods," "Why Jesus?" and "Can Man Live without God?" would be good ones to begin with.

I'd probably slide Randy Alcorn's challenging-yet-ultimately-comforting "If God is Good..." into the pile if they wanted to read more about suffering and evil in a God-made world. 

So yes, "God Speaks" could be an ideal jumping-off point for all sorts of Christian studies. 

I would also like to explore more of Dr. Craig Evans books myself. "God Speaks" is the first one of his that I've read. I'll be keeping an eye out for "Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels" and "Jesus and His World" and "From Jesus to the Church: The First Generation."  

I thank Worthy Publishing for providing me with a review copy in exchange for an opinion. 

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Argument-Free Relationships. Really?

The Argument-Free Marriage: 28 Days to Creating the Marriage You've Always Wanted with the Spouse You Already Have

Is this possible? An argument-free relationship?
I've personally thought that it could happen, and in this book Fawn Weaver explains why she thinks so to.

First, a definition is necessary. Argument-free does not mean disagreement-free. It does not mean a relationship without differences of opinion, conflicts of interest, and personal preferences that tend to clash. (You'd have to marry a programmed robot to achieve this! And Fawn has no interest is being a robot, or wedding one.) It means you handle your disagreements without argument. 
That blows your mind, don't it? So simple. 

(Let's define argument as an exchange of words, designed to cut somebody up and run them down, said in anger, ostensibly revolving around an issue that needs dealing with. From what I know, these exchanges aren't problem-solving study sessions. Nope, they're torture to live with and usually get swept under the rug until they happen again over some other issue.) 

She has a 230 page book, formed around a 28 day challenge, that all boils down to the most basic of concepts. 

First, unless it's a full-on emergency, choose a sensible time to discuss a problem. Why court a fight by bringing up inflammatory things when everyone's out of patience and suffering from low blood sugar? 
And if there is a real problem, find a way to solve it together. Resolve to speak to that end- uncovering a solution.
If there's no resolution on the horizon, then find a way to bear the trouble together.  
(Wait- what if you're the only one who sees the problem? Yep. That's always a challenge. Persistent, honest communication about why you're so troubled may bring the other person to a place of concern over the issue as well.) 

Focus on your original emotion- what lies deeper than the anger? Anger is easy, because it comes with a surge of power and justification, and the force of it can beat somebody into responding. Vulnerability is not easy. When you want to argue, and choose to find your original emotion instead, you're choosing to open a hurting heart up and explain yourself. That takes courage, but it can foster trust.

One idea that I really liked was found in the "Get a clue, get a cue" section. The clue comes from deciding to evaluate yourself before you diagnose your partner. "There's tension here- am I contributing to it, even if I'm in the right?" That's strong medicine to take, whether you're married or not! 
The cue section is more fun. Fawn says that many couples she's interviewed have developed cues over the years- when they recognize their spouse becoming nervous or upset, they signal to them subtly. It's a secret code that says "I can tell there's something wrong- let me help. Let's talk this out." 
Personally, I've done this with my siblings over the years. I imagine it would be useful in a marriage.

Remember- if this relationship is a marriage, then you've got a lifetime to work this stuff out. A bad moment is a moment, and it can get better. Ultimately, the relationship is what matters. How can you best keep that going strong amid stupidity and struggle? 
Presume innocence when you go into a disagreement. They may not have intended to misunderstand you/neglect you/set you off. If you're assuming the best in them, you'll be less likely to attack and more likely to seek understanding.

Cultivate gratitude. You chose this person. Why? It's possible those wonderful qualities are still there, and it's your vision that's changed. Can you recover the ability to see them through the eyes of love? Not delusion- just a gracious acceptance that finds the best amid the flaws.

I came away from this book with a renewed desire to replace arguing, unproductive unkindness, and manipulative shunning with discussion, grace, and honest explanations of why I feel the way I do. Will it always "work"- always elicit the perfect response? Hell no. Will trying it grow me as a person? Probably yes. 

And if Fawn wants to reignite a generation's hope for good marriages, then this book will further that goal. Who would want to lock themselves into a decades-long argument? Nobody. But if we can rescue marriage from the gladiator pit, and replace fights with partnership through life's problems, maybe marriage can earn high esteem again. 

I thank Thomas Nelson for providing me with a review copy through BookLook. 

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Road to Becoming~

The Road to Becoming: Rediscovering Your Life in the Not-How-I-Planned-It Moments

"The Road to Becoming." What a catchy title. Yet think about if for a minute- becoming is an action verb. It describes a process, not a destination. 
And when you start reading Jenny's thoughts, you see that that's the point. The destination is the process. 
We're traveling the road of life not just to get somewhere, or to find something, but to become. 

Jenny Simmons tells one heck of a story in this book. The craziest thing is, it's true. It's her story. I won't even try to catalog her experiences. Just know that you'll be shaking your head, laughing at her sense of humor, empathizing with her troubles, and encouraged to look for the glory all around.

Yeah, this book has a catchy title. It's got a cute cover. The author has a fresh voice and an ear for language and how to use it best. And she delves down inside herself to find the treasures that God hides there, to show them to her fellow travelers. This is a story of not knowing where to go or what to do, and of the God who woos us in the wilderness of that not-knowing. It's a story of learning to listen to the moment you're in, and of learning to grieve and bury what feels so lost.

"Where there is life, the Divine is at work." ~Jenny Simmons

I thank Baker Books for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion.

Monday, August 17, 2015

"Christ in You"

Christ in You: Why God Trusts You More Than You Trust Yourself

Sometimes, I don't feel up to the challenges of life. 
My strength seems insufficient, my efforts inefficient, and my level of hope is deficient. 
In short, I feel desperate. I think that I "need" things that I don't have. 

As Eric Johnson says, "It is tough to experience the vastness of the Kingdom when we are desperate. When we act desperate for the things we already have access to, we are choosing to live in a state of unbelief."  

Eric Johnson has one core message in this book, and the title makes it rather clear: Christ in you. 
The hope of glory, yes, and the source of whatever we need to live well today. Our job is to realize that our desperation can be hunger- hunger for the nourishment found in Christ. "Hunger is based on an awareness of abundance," says Eric. And Christ is our abundance. 

That's the point of this book. And Eric makes it well, telling stories and exploring Scripture. Yes, he is a Charismatic. He wants to keep his eyes peeled for all the works of God that are actively happening in the world. He believes that there is no end to the fullness of God, and he believes that God delights in caring for us, and providing for us, out of that fullness. 

This is a short and valuable read. After all, what is it that makes Christianity distinct from every other attempt at religion? 
Christ in us. 

I thank Chosen books for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Saturday, August 15, 2015


Brimstone: Why Jesus's Final Word on Judgment Is Good News for You

Hugh Halter's "Flesh" was one of my favorite reads in 2014. The heart of that book was the age-old question "How do we live like Jesus?" 
Hugh gave us not only a challenge, but a reassurance too. He made the argument that our humanity doesn't stand in the way of our holiness. Instead, holiness grows out of our full humanity, when we learn to be human like Jesus. Hugh called this phenomena "whimsical holiness." 

When I saw "Brimstone" in the catalog, I knew I wanted a copy. And now it's here, and it was worth the wait. While enlarging the portrait of whimsical holiness, this book tackles some serious questions.
What is judgement? 
Does Jesus judge? 
Am I equipped to judge? 

This is not a unique observation, but "Christianity" and "judgement" have become linked in a lot of people's minds. And they're not thinking about the Day of Judgement, either, when God shall destroy all evil and Christ shall reign over a Kingdom made whole. Nope, they're thinking about the critical, unkind, unbending, arrogant, strident, self-righteous judgements made by professing Christians. 

Now, we Christians mostly don't mean to wreak havoc.
We hope to save our culture by protesting the "moral slide." 
We hope to make converts by critiquing lifestyles- warning people away from the edge, as it were. 

And that all works well in theory. 
If we're preaching to a choir of folks just like us, we can rail against other people's choices all day long, and finish up with a round of "Worthy is the Lamb." 
This just doesn't work so good when we're dealing with our family, neighbors, and co-workers. Somehow, we repel them when we start railing. Especially when our depiction of "biblical convictions" suspiciously meshes with our personal preferences, and we denounce all that we disagree with.   

So, we need a new way to be. We need the art and the act of holy nonjudgement. And that's what Hugh talks about. 

Now- don't jump down the author's throat. He's already got enough people doing that. He's not a Universalist. He does believe in sin. He does have convictions. Feeling better? 

He just thinks that we need to get back to the Gospel, take our sainthood to the streets, and discuss real issues without being a judgmental jerk. 

And this book is your conversation-starter, your jumper-cables to the brain, your spoonful of truth, your whack upside the head... 
Try it. It'll give you a lot to wrestle with, and it will give you a new idea to rest in: We don't have to fight everything wrong all the time. 
(Sex trafficking? Fight it. Tattoos? Let it be. The health of your own marriage? Fight for it. Speculating about the divorce down the street? Let it be.) 

Sometimes, we can just make friends and take care of people, working out whimsical holiness, shaking up people's preconceived notions of how Christians are. 

I thank David C Cook for giving me a copy in exchange for my opinion.

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Legend by Eric Blehm

Legend: A Harrowing Story from the Vietnam War of One Green Beret's Heroic Mission to Rescue a Special Forces Team Caught Behind Enemy Lines

History we need to know, told in an utterly riveting way. 
That's how I'd describe "Legend."

If you read James Bradley's "Flags of our Fathers" and "Flyboys" for World War II, then you should read "Legend" for the Vietnam War... and Karl Marlantes novel "Matterhorn" also.

This book focuses on Special Forces staff sergeant Roy Benavidez, who willingly placed himself in grave danger on behalf of his fellow soldiers, and who saved multiple lives while sustaining terrible injuries. Ultimately, he was recognized with the Congressional Medal of Honor. 

Eric Blehm mined never-before-released documents and made use of extensive personal testimonies to create as full a picture as possible of the May 2, 1968 Special Forces mission and all what led up to it. As an author, he puts the facts together coherently, but he also tells compelling personal stories. 

We get to read excerpts of letters and transcripts of audio tapes sent home by these these soldiers to their families. We see their character, their fortitude, their fidelity. We see young men (ordinary young men- who never expected to be called heroes) who knew what it was like to stare death in the face daily, to eat and drink war, and who did what was necessary to protect their brothers in arms. They made the hard choices. They spent themselves in the name of serving their country. We see "greater love has no man than this- to lay down his life for his friends" in all its original rawness. 

I'd put this book on a required-reading for high school students.  
Now I'm off to wrap and mail my copy down to a college age cousin who's minoring in Military History. 

I thank Crown Publishers for providing me with a review copy through Blogging for Books. 

Friday, August 7, 2015

"Questions Jesus Asks"


As much as we all think we'd prefer answers, sometimes what we really need is a question. 
A question can cut us right in half, pare us down to our deepest secrets, reveal the truth we already knew.

Jesus asked a lot of question. 
"Who you you think I am?"
"Has no one condemned you?"
"Why have you forsaken me?" 
"What are you seeking?" 

Just a few words apiece, these questions continue to echo through our universe. Yes, they meant something the moment they were uttered, and they still mean something today. In this book, Israel Wayne looks at 20 questions from the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles. From these questions, Israel draws lessons about the lordship of Christ, the forgiveness of sin, the hope of the resurrection, and the sovereignty of God. 

The questions that Jesus asked can move you from just "knowing another thing" about some facet of Christianity to realizing what it means for you. (And I think He knew that when He asked them.)

Each chapter is short and to the point, making this ideal for a Bible study (one chapter per question) or as a faith-enriching read. 

I'll be shelving Israel Wayne's "Questions Jesus Asks: Where Divinity meets Humanity" near another similar book, "Dare to Answer: Eight Questions to Awaken your Faith" by John Busacker. 

I thank the author and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest opinion. 

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wild in the Hollow~

Wild in the Hollow: On Chasing Desire and Finding the Broken Way Home

I can read most books- even really good ones- without becoming viscerally involved in the reading experience. I can enjoy them, pick up wisdom from them, highlight and underline, and then place them on my keeper shelf, all without feeling like my chest is being cut open. 

Not so this book: "Wild in the Hollow," by Amber Haines. As I read the words of her story, my own wondering and wanting and worshipping was all brought to mind, and I had to stop reading and remind myself to breathe. I eventually took this book and went outside, and read in the green light of a summer dusk with the crickets calling. This was a book that, for me, begged to be read in nature. 

A word fitly spoken is magic and mystery. It is a gift to write that word and send it out to the world. 
I had Amber's words, sliding into my heart, slicing through me, resonating with what I know about being human. I had her story, lived somewhere else and begun a while before mine, reaching me here in my particular place. 

I could point to some of the many themes that come through Amber's story:
The God who gets low and who loves first and last and always.... 
The way we humans are small, and that smallness is poverty of spirit, richness in God... 
The times you're so aware of God that it feels like you're walking in "clumsy prayer"...
The recognition of goodness and glory all around. 

Ultimately, as I read, I heard Amber inviting me to listen: The Spirit and the Bride say "Come!" and the Kingdom is at hand. 

Do yourself a favor and make time to read this book. 

Thank you to Revell Publishers for providing me with a complimentary copy in exchange for my honest opinion. 

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Brave Enough~


"Everybody's been there,
Everybody's been stared down by the enemy
Fallen for the fear
And done some disappearing...
Honestly, I wanna see you be brave.

Maybe there's a way out of the cage where you live
Maybe one of these days you can let the light in
Show me how big your brave is."

~Lyrics from the song "Brave" by Sara Bareilles.

That song has a way of getting caught inside my head whenever I hear it. Who doesn't need somebody encouraging them to be brave?

Nicole Unice has written this book to point us towards the best kind of bravery: Jesus-Courage, she calls it. See, apparently there was a word for it in the Greek New Testament, "tharseo," and it means to have courage or cheer in your heart, or strengthen or comfort your heart with courage. And apparently, that's the word that Jesus used rather often: "Take heart, for I have overcome the world.... for your faith has made you well... do not be afraid, it is I."

Nicole suggests that this Jesus-courage can saturate our souls to the point that we are brave enough to face life with His courage even in our fear.
In each chapter, Nicole adds another aspect of life that we can be Brave Enough for.

Brave Enough to get in the race, to say to Jesus "Teach me who you are, and show me how to carry on and find the goodness you've given me."

Brave Enough to love grace- because despite the pretty name it has, grace is frightening. It's everything for the child of God, but trusting grace is like falling into an invisible safety net. Sure, you tell me it's there, but I won't know until I fall down and find it there.

Brave Enough to explore your territory- to find your gifts (whether they appear to be big or small) and dare to accept them. She has a wonderful image for a woman who's found her gifts: She's a prism, and now the light can stream through her and make a rainbow. That picture will stick with me. What makes you feel like you're casting a rainbow?

Brave Enough to know your own limits, and to leave space in your days for your soul to breathe.

Brave Enough to fight *for* what matters, especially in relationships. We can learn how to move away from the win/lose and guilt/innocence narratives, because those only lead to an attack/shame posture. We can learn to face conflict with an eye for reconciliation and renewed hope.

After all, as Nicole points out, what does it mean to take up your cross each day, unless it means we must operate out of our daily brave?

I thank Tyndale House for providing me with a review copy in exchange for my opinion.

Tuesday, August 4, 2015

No Fear in Love~

No Fear in Love: Loving Others the Way God Loves Us

Half-way through this book, Any Braner quotes his friend Bob. Bob's thoughts were an affirmation of everything that Andy was learning, and they could be a reorientation for the evangelical church. 

Bob said "Andy, the key to growing in your own spiritual formation is to encounter Jesus in the fear and pain your life has served. We all have specific moments in our lives that change our trajectory, and most of us just try to hide it and move on. But what happens is that point of fear becomes the place we make every life decision." 

We all fear things. The question is, what will we do with that fear? 
Specific to the topic of this book, what do we do with the fear of the Other and the Unknown that we encounter as Christians journeying in the Wide World? 

How do we translate all the evangelism training and the carefully taught apologetics into our daily life with the unconverted- whom we meet down the street and across the world? 

Now, Andy Braner admits that this book has a target audience. He's aiming for the American Evangelical, who knows how to move within the church culture and how to talk to their fellow Christians, but who isn't sure what to do with the Rest of the World. 

How do we move into true understanding of other people, without turning into some kind of Universalist? 
How do we give others what matters so much to us (the Gospel) unless we have common ground to stand on? 

"No Fear in Love" is a short, story-driven, powerful read that takes us back to one point, again and again. God calls us to love, He gives us His love, and love casts out fear.

Whether you're dealing with a hot-button political issue, or talking to a person who practices a very different religion, there is a way to handle it with grace for everyone's good and God's glory. That's what Andy says. 

"These issues aren't impossible. They do take a bit more thought and action than we usually see. They take time. They take a heart of caring for another human being, a heart that is at the core of our faith tradition." ~Andy Braner

I thank Baker books for providing me with a review copy. 

Monday, August 3, 2015

Sacred Marriage~


The first Gary Thomas book that I read was "Sacred Search," a book for the not-yet-married. While he gave a ton of practical advice to those wanting-to-be-wed, he was mostly concerned with what God does inside of us when we're singles. 

It turns out that "Sacred Search" was a companion of sorts to his more well-known work, "Sacred Marriage." I've been keeping my eye out for a copy of "Sacred Marriage" for a while now, and when this newly repackaged edition was released, it seemed like an ideal time to give it a read. 

I now know why so many people consider this book a very unique look at marriage. 
It isn't a better-your-marriage book, per se, though Gary tells us that he hopes your relationship will grow deeper and richer because of what you may learn. Instead, it's a how-is-Christ-being-formed-in-me book. 

Gary works his way through eleven aspects of a marriage relationship, looking to reclaim the "spiritual purpose and significance" of each one. It all comes down to "How can God work in you as you try to live well with your spouse?" What is so refreshing about the book is that it's nothing new. 
And we need more books like this, where the author draws from the deep wells of Christian wisdom and reintroduces us to truth we may have lost. 

Truths such as... 
Struggles are an opportunity to form your character- Love is possible even when you're dealing with an unlovable behavior- It's your intertwined history that matters, that reminds you why you're better together- Every day that you're married, you'll have to "fall forward," to lean into each other, trust each other, and reconcile with each other. 

Now, that stuff may all seem painfully obvious, but Gary has a way of making it all seem like a beautiful challenge. He may seem to take a hard stance- "Holiness above Happiness!"- but really, he's convinced that a long, loving, life-giving marriage is a real possibility, and what would that be other than a source of holy happiness? 

Please, do your self a favor and try to read this book for you. God knows that I read a lot of books for other people- "Hphm. This is so her. If she would get this, her life would totally change." And from what I hear, it's even more tempting to "read" for an other person when you're married to them. You know them so well, you can't help but know exactly what lessons they need to learn! "This chapter- he needs this. This would straighten him right out. I'm underlining all my favorite parts so he can't miss them." 

Of course, some parts of the book make sense only in terms of a marriage, but most of this applies to every relationship. The section about learning to "fall forward" may have been my favorite part. By nature, Gary reminds us, fallen humans are runners and hiders, grasping for fig-leaves and retreating into shame. Those maneuvers won't do a marriage any favors. We've got to become good at meeting one another, hearing one another, assisting each other over obstacles that can be surmounted, and bearing together all the burdens that can't be changed.

So yes, I recommend this book. In an ordinary (mostly-healthy-but-definitely-flawed relationship) the wisdom of "Sacred Marriage" could help you set a new course towards greater Christian maturity and remind you why you want to love your people well. 

If you really want a full picture of marriage, ala Gary Thomas, grab a copy of his "Lifelong Love" too. 

I thank Zondervan through Booklook Bloggers for providing my review copy. 

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Together with You~

Together with You

"Together with You" is a strong story that hits all the right notes of hope and reality. 
The hope comes when the characters realize that they can build a very good life, even when their reality will include hard choices and perpetual struggles. 

Carly Jo comes from a tight-knit Kentucky community, and her beloved father is the town's preacher-man. From him, she learned the truths of her faith, and he modeled care and kindness and fidelity. It's no wonder that she would end up working with children. 

It is a wonder that all the steps and stops of her life would take her so far from her roots. We meet her in California, living in a doctors home, as a nanny/caregiver for his motherless daughter. 

This story may remind you of "The Sound of Music" in all the right ways. 
There's a serious man, a decent man, who's lost touch with his children's hearts. 
There's a handful of kids who need both guidance *and* some good times with their dad. 
And there's a gentle woman, strong enough in the strength that comes from God to give her all in the name of healing a family. 

This is a romance, most definitely, but the author remembers a critical point- that there are many kinds of love in the world- and she weaves them all into her story.  There are moments of innocent humor, and moments of familial goodness, and moments of tenderness between two people who are better together than apart. 
I'll be on the lookout for another book by Victoria Bylin. I thank Bethany House for providing me with a review copy.