Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Vindicating some so-called "vixens" in the Bible

The title Vindicating the Vixens may have an alliterative flair, but it somewhat distorts the point of the book unless the meaning of "vixen" is stretched beyond its normal use. The subtitle, Revisiting Sexualized, Vilified, and Marginalized Women of the Bible, gives a clearer picture of what to expect. Both the preface and introduction give an apologetic for the work. "This is not some book written by theologically liberal, wannabe scholars attempting to be politically correct or manipulating the text in order to be culturally relevant" (22).

While I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the authors, I found some arguments almost as much of a stretch as applying the term "vixen" to Mary, the mother of Jesus and dedicating a whole chapter to her. For example, the chapter on Eve argues that her act of giving the forbidden fruit to Adam was apparently not an attempt to encourage him to disobey God's command not to eat of it.

The chapters with the best arguments (that is, those that make their case primarily from Scripture, church history, and common sense) were the following:

Tamar: The Righteous Prostitute
Bathsheba: Vixen or Victim?
Deborah: Only When a Good Man is Hard to Find?
Mary Magdalene: Repainting Her Portrait of Misconceptions

I certainly learned from reading this book, but the arguments in some chapters were not as compelling as I had expected them to be. Many authors stray from their subjects to provide extended commentary on matters that, though related, seemed outside the scope of the book.

I received a media copy of this book from the publisher in order to write my review.

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Faithful sermons in 8 hours or less

How long should it take to prepare to preach a sermon? If you're not a pastor, you might be surprised to hear that a study from LifeWay Research found that almost 70% of pastors spent 8 hours or more each week in sermon prep. Over 20% said they spent more than 15 hours on it. That seems like a lot of time to invest in something that only takes 30-60 minutes to deliver. This is especially so for bi-vocational and pro bono pastors. These guys put in 40+ hours at their regular job, take care of home and family needs, serve in other capacities at the church, and prepare and deliver a sermon on top of all that. How do we cut down on prep time without sacrificing the quality of our message?

I was pleased to find Moody Publishers willing to send me a review copy of 8 Hours or Less: Writing Faithful Sermons Faster by Ryan Huguley. I set aside my normal scepticism over such a title because it was endorsed by James MacDonald, who I know from experience to preach solid, biblically-grounded sermons week after week. I also noticed that the book wasn't very large—a good sign. A book about writing faithful sermons in 8 hours or less shouldn't take 8 hours to read.

Huguley shares how he was exhausting himself week after week agonizing over his sermon preparation until he developed a method revolving around three basic principles: divided work, daily milestones, and determined deadlines. After spending a chapter defining what a faithful sermon is, he lays out his framework for putting in a total of about 8 hours, Monday through Friday, to craft his sermon. He also describes his typical Sunday morning leading up to the moment of delivery. The final three chapters are appendices about sermon notes, preaching labs for developing new preachers, and recommended resources for a first-time preacher.

I found the entire book helpful. I don't preach all the time, but the weeks I'm called upon to preach tend to be hectic. Huguley's words: "[M]ost of us simply don't have the time to read twenty commentaries on every passage we preach," shone the spotlight on one of my weaknesses. I was spending too much time reading everything I could get my hands on about the passage I was preaching. When you have the time, that's great. Most weeks I don't. Huguley quotes one of my all-time favorite preachers, Charles Spurgeon, and he recognizes the role of the Holy Spirit during prep time, not just delivery.

Because this book is a quick read, I can get a refresher without having to invest a lot of time. Most of the chapters use headers, numbered lists, bold font, and italics to give it structure. In the blank space opposite one chapter I wrote out a brief outline of the chapter. It makes the book that much more usable (and teachable to others).

It's amazing how good time management and division of labor can turn a challenging process into something much more manageable. While I won't necessarily follow the exact order Huguley recommends for Monday through Friday, his process is very adaptable. Fortunately, I had already begun to implement some of these time-saving strategies before I read the book, so my adjustment period won't be that long.

Friday, November 10, 2017

NIV Comfort Print

I recently received the NIV Thinline Bible from Zondervan for review. There are already plenty of good reviews out available from scholars, pastors, and others in ministry on the NIV translation itself. Here I'm focusing on a few unique features of this edition (ISBN 978-0-310-44877-8).

Words of Jesus in red
This feature doesn't impress me, and I'm glad fewer Bibles have it. Setting Jesus' words apart by using a different color creates an artificial distinction between the black ink and the red, as though one were more important than the other. "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness" (2 Tim. 3:16).

Two satin ribbon markers
Most Bibles have one ribbon marker. Having two allows you to follow a reading plan with simultaneous readings in the Old and New Testaments.

NIV Comfort Print® typeface
Zondervan commissioned a new font for the NIV. My initial reaction was discomfort. Although the font itself is very professional looking, its creators opted to not connect the lines in all the letters. Lowercase a, b, d, e, and more leave a tiny gap where the letter normally would close the loop. It looks distracting, but I didn't notice any problems when I sat down to read with it.

It's nice to have a good quality Bible for private reading and use at church. It's leather, indexed, and easy to read, all things considered.

Irenaeus: A biography for children

Simonetta Carr's Christian Biographies for Young Readers series sheds light on important figures from church history for children. Her newest title, Irenaeus of Lyon, introduces a man who defended the Christian faith against the heresy of gnosticism with his clear and insightful writing. Irenaeus grew up under the teaching of on of the Apostle John's disciples, and he later moved to France where his ministry and writings earned him a place of honor in Christian history.

Irenaeus of Lyon, like other books in this series, provides rich details both on the man and his times. Despite not having specific information about Irenaeus' childhood, Simonetta Carr painted a picture of what life was like for children in 2nd century Roman society. She also highlights Irenaeus' concern for the well-being of both orthodox Christians and those who were trying to introduce the false teachings of gnosticism to the churches. He loved them "better than they seemed to love themselves."

The illustrations and photographs combine with a rich prose to make the book beautiful in its own right and a treasure for what it communicates. This is the kind of book I want my children to read because they learn about why Irenaeus made a significant contribution to history as well as how his faith motivated him to live and act the way he did.

In light of recent events including mass murder of Christians while they gather for worship, I found one section in the book particularly relevant for talking about this tragedy with my children. Forty-eight Christians were murdered in Lyon by official government sanction. "In that difficult moment, Irenaeus had the responsibility of strengthening and encouraging the Christians who were alive and comforting those who had lost their loved ones" (p. 30). He emphasized God's plan of salvation and the future promise of an end to sin and suffering. It encouraged me to know this man was at ground zero of a horrible persecution and this was his focus in comforting others.

I highly recommend Irenaeus of Lyon and the Christian Biographies for Young Readers series.

Saturday, October 28, 2017

The NIV in 4 volumes

A few years ago a Kickstarter project raised over a million dollars to produce a multi-volume Bible with high-quality design and no chapter or verse numbers—a true reader's Bible. Since then, the major Bible publishers have been in a rush to produce similar Bibles in both single-volume and multi-volume sets. I recently got the NIV Reader's Bible, a beautiful all-in-one Bible, and I was impressed. Then I got the four-volume NIV Sola Scriptura Bible and was blown away.

The NIV Sola Scriptura Bible (henceforth NSSB) is the highest-quality Bible I've ever owned. It's cloth over board, but the covers are more solid than other cloth-over-board Bibles I own  (NIV Reader's Bible, the ESV Reader's Bible, and the Bibliotheca New Testament). Each of the four volumes has a brief introduction explaining both the NSSB and the volume itself: why the books are arranged the way they are, and what the significance of those books is.

Only Volume I: The Torah and Former Prophets (Genesis–Kings), follows the book order of our modern Bibles. The three Old Testament volumes follow the Hebrew major divisions (Law, Prophets, Writings), but the individual books follow a different, though understandable order. The New Testament has the most novel arrangement. It is divided into four sections headed by each of the gospels and followed by other books associated with each gospel either by relation (Paul to Luke, Peter to Mark, the writings of John), or theme (Matthew, Hebrews, and James are more distinctively Jewish). Because the NSSB is focused on enhancing the reading experience by removing distractions, there's no need to follow the traditional order of books. Reading a more chronological or thematic order may help produce insights you might otherwise miss if reading through in the traditional order.

The NSSB's best qualities are the strong, durable design and thick, white paper providing a strong contract between the page and the black ink of the biblical text. Other reader's Bibles may have larger margins (Bibliotheca), slightly larger spacing between lines (Bibliotheca and NIV Reader's Bible), or a marginally larger font (10.3 compared to 10.5 in the NIV Reader's Bible), but the overall quality of the NSSB is hard to beat. I've yet to get my hands on the 6-volume ESV Reader's Bible, but for anyone looking for a multi-volume, easy-to-read Bible, the NSSB is a great set to bring home.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Good Night Tales

My children love Good Night Tales almost as much as I do. The book contains 12 fairy tale stories meant for reading aloud. C.S. Fritz has managed to capture the feeling of a good fairy tale well told that I've not experienced since my own childhood. He writes for the ear and illustrates for the eye, creating a book I'm already convinced I will have to preserve for my grandkids someday.

Each story is inspired by a passage of Scripture, yet the telling is straight out of a collection of Aesop's Fables or Grimm's fairy tales. At the conclusion of the book are a number of questions for guided discussions that make the link to Scripture that much clearer.

Each story is set in the same world, though each character is unique. My favorite story is probably the first I read to my son, about a buttonbush troll who parts with everything in order to obtain what he finds most precious. The most developed story is probably the first, with allusions to most of biblical history. You and your child will find your own favorite stories you want to hear again and again. Highly recommended.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher in order to provide my review.

Sunday, October 8, 2017

The NIV Reader's Bible is a sight for sore eyes!

Reader's Bibles have been all the rage after a Kickstarter project proposing to produce a high-quality Bible without chapter or verse numbers made over a million dollars. A five volume set may look nice, but it's not as portable as a one-volume edition like the recent NIV Reader's Bible published by Zondervan.

I own the ESV Reader's Bible, which has been out now for a few years, so it made sense to compare the two. The ESV has certain advantages over the NIV. First, it has a rounded spine with ridges, giving it a professional and high-quality look. The ESV also comes with a slipcase and has two marker ribbons, allowing you to follow a reading plan with readings in the Old and New Testaments.

But the NIV Reader's Bible is the better Bible. It has about the same measurements as the ESV, but it's almost one inch taller and just a little bit thicker, and this makes all the difference on the inside. The NIV is eminently more readable. It has a 10.5-point font size, whereas the ESV is only 9 pt, and there lines are slightly more spaced out. The NIV also retains its textual notes as endnotes at the end of each book of the Bible. I honestly would have preferred the notes to remain as footnotes rather than endnotes, but their choice makes the reading experience smoother. The ESV dropped its notes entirely, which is a little frustrating because it's sometimes nice to know that a person's name has special meaning, like when Sarah names her son Isaac because she laughed (his name means "he laughs").

I am encouraged by new reader's editions coming out in more widely-read translations. My ESV Reader's Bible has helped me read through the Bible a couple times already at a relatively quick pace, giving me a better grasp of the narrative flow of the Bible. I anticipate this NIV will help me even more so, both because the translation is a little smoother in English and because the font and spacing choices make it easier on the eyes as well.

Disclosure of material connection: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.