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.

Alexander Hamilton and his turbulent times.

Alexander Hamilton is the face we all recognize on the $10 bill. Some of us may know that he was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr. But beyond that, most of us know next to nothing about him. Alexander Hamilton: The Graphic History of an American Founding Father is a "graphic history," a well-researched biography presented in a comic book format.

I expected the book to take a lot of liberties, but the amount of historical analysis and insight into the significance of events astounded me. The amount of political turmoil in the early years of the United States, especially during Washington's presidency surprised me. Hamilton's scandalous affair that tanked his political career could have been pulled from today's headlines. Talks of secession from the state of New York, infighting between cabinet members, and a hotly contested presidential election leaving a controversial figure in the oval office reminded me just how much we need to knowledge of the past to give perspective to the present.

Hamilton lived during the formative years of our nation. His influence as an officer during the American Revolution, a politician, and the Secretary of the Treasury during Washington's administration had long-term effects that can be felt even today. I highly recommend this book.

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

Friday, September 22, 2017

How to read and understand the biblical prophets

Some years ago I had the privilege of walking the halls of the campus of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. A student who must have realized I was new, walked up to me, raised his finger, and pointed down the hallway at a bearded man stepping out of an office and turning around the corner. "That man is a genius," he said, and walked off. That genius turned out to be Dr. Peter J. Gentry, Professor of Old Testament Interpretation.

Dr. Gentry's newest book, How to Read and Understand the Biblical Prophets is a testament to that genius. I read the first chapter, "Calling the People Back to the Covenant," and told my wife, "That chapter alone was worth the cost of the book." The next six chapters and appendix on the literary structure of Revelation were equally valuable. Gentry believes that "having the larger picture right will help to get the details right." Commentaries tend to focus on the details of the text, but run the risk of missing the forest for the trees. Gentry's approach stems from years of research and hard work to learn the intricacies of ancient Hebrew and Middle Eastern literary styles. As a result, he's able to move from 10,000 feet to ground level and back again with relative ease.

In this work he provides great insight on the Biblical prophets, especially the books of Isaiah and Daniel. I'm very excited about returning to these sections of the Old Testament again, and I plan to consult Dr. Gentry's book during my reading. Rarely does a book strike me like this one has.

I received a review copy of this book from the publisher, and I give it my highest praise.

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Finally, a Zondervan Kids' Study Bible I can recommend

The Zondervan NIV Kids’ Visual Study Bible boasts over 700 images. They range from pictures of historical places, objects, and animals; drawings; infographics; timelines; etcetera. Even as an adult it is neat to see what the Biblical places really look like, and the summary graphics like “Big Ideas in [book]” and “Key Words in [book]” help readers of all ages get a better grasp of what they’re reading. There were a few Wordle-like graphics such as Titles of Christ, which includes both the titles and the verse references. There was also a neat cartoon depiction of grafting a wild olive shoot onto a domesticated olive tree in Romans 11.

The study notes average about two or three per page. That seems appropriate for young children and preteens. My five-year-old enjoyed reading a few of the introductory notes to Mark, and I anticipate having her use this Bible more and more as they start using the Bible more in Sunday school.

The last time I reviewed a Zondervan children’s study Bible I was terribly disappointed over the undercutting of traditional Christian teachings about the age and origin of Scripture, promotion of egalitarianism, and a strong stance against Calvinism. This Bible offers no qualifications when it says Luke wrote the book of Acts and Paul wrote the Pastorals. In Romans 9 the notes read “God chooses people. Paul said that God has the right to grant mercy to whomever he chooses,” and, “The example of a potter making pottery. This was aa way of showing that God, like a potter, is in control of his creation and makes choices about the world and people.” The notes do leave it open on the question of whether women can teach and exercise authority over men, but it is only one note that I can find.

Overall I would recommend the Bible for children between the ages of 5 and 12.

I received this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

MacArthur on Paul's Gospel

One of the things I have come to appreciate from John MacArthur's preaching and teaching ministry is his commitment to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. He can sometimes seem like a cranky grandparents when he goes on the attack, but when he talks about the gospel he is right on point. I have enjoyed many of his books, but none that I have read has been so focused on explaining the basic gospel message as much as his recent book, The Gospel According to Paul.

In it MacArthur zeros in on the historical event of the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. He takes a look at Romans to establish that we are all sinners, and explains that we can only be saved by faith in Christ. Looking at Ephesians he shares what it means to be “in Christ” and the role of good works in the life of a believer. In addition to his expository treatment of key New Testament passages, he offers a lengthy defense of the substitutionary atonement in the appendices and some sermons by both himself and the great gospel preacher Charles Haddon Spurgeon.

MacArthur has proven himself to be a capable Bible expositor. Those who find themselves agreeing with much is the elegy will enjoy this return to the basics. Those who find themselves at odds with him on occasion will have less of a reason to do so in this volume if they hold to the one gospel all Christians are called to proclaim.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.

Monday, July 10, 2017

Reformation Women

I like books about history, especially ones related to the Protestant Reformation. I've read plenty of books about Martin Luther, John Calvin, and other reformers, so I was very excited to pick up a copy of Reformation Women. Rebecca VanDoodewaard brings us a glimpse into the lives of 12 women who are not well-known today, but who each lived out their newly-discovered faith at a time when conceptions of the church, the gospel, and what it means to be a woman were all being reassessed. During that time of confusion, "they were reading, writing, and ruling. They were teaching children, sheltering refugees, and balancing husbands. They directed armies, confronted kings, and rebuked heretics."

I read this book with my wife and we both enjoyed learning about these unique women and their contribution to the Protestant Reformation. They truly were amazing women, and they serve as proof that extraordinary faithfulness to God is a better legacy than a recognizable name. I'm thankful that Rebecca VanDoodewaard could reintroduce these women to modern audiences. They are truly exceptional, and both my wife and I were encouraged by their faith. I highly recommend this book.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of review.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

Pray About Everything

Pray About Everything is a short book on prayer that grew out of Paul Tautges' experience holding prayer meetings on Wednesday nights at his church and on other special occasions throughout the year. He writes to encourage believers, particularly church leaders, to pray, especially as a church body. He says, "The old-fashioned Wednesday night prayer meeting has virtually disappeared. And though there is nothing sacred about Wednesday night as a prayer meeting time, there certainly is something sacred about the corporate prayer of believers." Prayer is a demonstration of our dependence on God, and a commitment to prayer—praying about everything— will help us develop what he calls "God-dependency."

Each chapter of the book contains a short meditation on a passage of Scripture related to prayer, such as what it means to pray "in Jesus' name" or praying for unbelievers and government leaders. Tautness keeps it personal for the reader, especially in his chapters on praying for a forgiving heart and how our marital relationship affects our prayer life. As a husband and father of three, looking closely at 1 Peter 3:7 in chapter 8 was a timely reminder of how the way I treat my wife affects my relationship with God and prayers to him.

Because most of the chapters can be read in about ten minutes' time, this book is great for personal devotions or Bible study groups because it leave you enough time to put into practice what you're talking about. He includes a number of short appendices as well, including information on holding special prayer meetings and praying through Scripture. It packs a punch in only 128 pages—perfect for those of us who struggle to make time to pray.

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

Monday, June 5, 2017

A Bible Seek-and-Find Book

My 4-year-old son just loves seek-and-find books, which can be challenging because ones like Where's Waldo are too hard for me, much less him (everyone is wearing red and white). Bible Sleuth: New Testament was just right for him. The pages are a foot tall, there are tons of unique characters in all sorts of poses of doing all kinds of things, and my son can usualy find each person in less than a minute. With 8 people or objects for each of the 14 pictures spread out across 2 pages, it means quite a bit of entertainment for my son.

Each of the pictures illustrates an event from the New Testament along with a paragraph describing what is going on. I doubt most children will pay attention to the description because seek-and-find books are like gamesthe pictures are primary, the story is only secondary. A Bible-themed seek-and-find book is just as much fun as a pirate- or U.S. history-themed one. Because these books are more like games than anything else, it's a good thing such a somber and significant event like the crucifixion is not pictured.

My only real criticism of the book is that a number of the hidden objects are placed in the center margin between the two pages. I can't blame the artist for that since the publisher probably decided on the final format of the book. I still recommend it.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.

Monday, May 29, 2017

David Murray's book on living a "grace-paced" life

I have come to appreciate David Murray and his ministry through the written word. When I saw he had written Reset: Living a Grace-Paced Life in a Burnout Culture, I thought, Yeah, I should probably read that. I am glad I did. Murray writes for men, with a planned follow up for women called Refresh being co-written with his wife, Shona.

Some years ago Murray’s life was upturned by health crisis he never saw coming—potentially fatal blood clots in his lungs. He had been going at a pace that was unsustainable and unhealthy. He was forced to stop everything he was doing and reconsider his priorities. Reset was born out of that experience, as well as his time spent guiding others through the reset process. Murray’s fondness for alliteration comes out in the "repair bays" he walks readers through to reset their lives:

Reality Check

For each of these "repair bays" Murray shares Scripture, examples from his own life and his experiences counseling other men, as well as research (like how much sleep we need and how the food we eat affects our health). Everyone should take a break to evaluate what pace they are living their life at. I found I needed more of these "repair bays" than I wanted to admit. I recommend it to men, especially those in ministry or who are married with kids. Our lives and ministries are too important to not give ourselves an inspection every once in awhile to make sure we’re going at a sustainable pace.

I should add one note about the audiobook version. David Murray narrates the book himself. He does speak with a Scottish accent, but I find that foreign quality all the more enjoyable.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Berenstain Bears 5-Minute Inspirational Stories

It seems like all the companies are banking on our nostalgia these days. Why not do it with something wholesome like the Berenstain Bears? I grew up reading those books with my parents, and though Stan and Jan Berenstain passed away a few years ago, their son Mike is still producing these books. He's pretty faithful to the artistic style of his parents, but Mike uses more overt references to the Bible and Christian teaching in the stories.

I really appreciate Zondervan releasing these books in big collections—The Berenstain Bears 5-Minute Inspirational Stories comes with 12 different stories. Sometimes the stories include Bible verses or someone explaining what the Bible teaches. It usually feels forced to me (and I'm an ordained minister), but the message is positive and it gives parents a chance to talk about their faith, so I can live with the occasional moment of awkward dialogue. Some of the stories are repeats from their 5-in-1 collections, but there are enough original stories here to justify adding it to the kids' bookshelf even if you own one or two.

I loved reading the Berenstain Bears as a kid, and I'm happy to share them with my own children.

I received this book from the publisher in order to complete my review.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

When God Made You (Children's book)

Our family loves to read. I love seeing my kids pick up a book, walk over to their grandparents, and ask them to read. We care about what our children read, so we appreciate book reviews that give us an idea of what to expect, especially when we're considering a new book we've never heard of before.

When God Made You is a BEAUTIFULLY illustrated little book that strongly evokes the limerick and upbeat style of Dr. Seuss's Oh the Places You'll Go. It tells children they are loved by God and encourages them to be true to themselves. There's nothing explicitly Christian about the book, but it comes from a Christian publisher, so it's kind of assumed. As far as children's books go, it's got great pacing, a lyrical quality, and a positive message. Four or five stars...


The book itself did cause me raise an eyebrow a few times, but not enough for me to completely discount it altogether. There are a couple of references to God "dreaming."

"You, you, when God dreams about you,
God dreams about all that in you will be true."

God doesn't dream, either in the sense of sleeping (Ps. 121:4), or in the sense that he's optimistically ignorant about how future events will unfold (Is. 46:9-10).

My real concern lies with the author. His name sounded familiar to me, so I looked him up and found out why. Matthew Paul Turner is not, to put it lightly, orthodox. He was raised in a very fundamentalist church environment, and now he seems to be on a crusade to call all Christians to repentance for not being accepting of others, while constantly affirming to non-Christians that God loves them just the way they are. To the extent that Christians are insensitive or outright hostile to others, they should be called to repent. But telling non-believers that God loves them without a call to repentance and faith is not evangelism, and it's not orthodox, and I'm using that term in the broadest possible way. None of this comes out in the book, but knowing it now kind of makes me glad I didn't pony up the cash to add it to the bookshelf. And it doesn't make me feel guilty if the book quietly disappears from that bookshelf, either.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

A Berenstain Bears Collection

It seems like all the companies are banking on our nostalgia these days. Why not something wholesome like the Berenstain Bears? Stan and Jan Berenstain first started producing the books in 1962, and now their son Mike is continuing what they started. These new books are pretty faithful to the art style of the originals, but Mike uses more overt references to the Bible and Christian teaching.

I love that Zondervan is releasing the books in 5-in-1 collections. My kids never want me to read just one story, so having a multi-volume book like this means we can snuggle longer. The Friendship Blessings Collection includes stories about following mom's instructions, working hard and persevering, being faithful to our friends, being nice to people who are younger than us, and valuing people with disabilities. The first story strays from the usual format by using a rhyming scheme throughout like Dr. Seuss. It's somewhat silly, but my kids loved it. Sometimes the stories include Bible verses or someone explaining what the Bible teaches. It usually feels forced to me, but the message is positive and it gives parents a chance to talk about their faith, so I can live with the occasional moment of awkward dialogue.

I loved reading the Berenstain Bears as a kid, and I'm happy to share them with my own children.

I received this book from the publisher in order to complete my review.

Monday, April 3, 2017

A book on the Reformation that left me satisfied, with six measures left over!

Since 2017 is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation, we can expect to see a good number of books about this period coming out over the next few months. I expect that Reformation Theology will vie for first place amongst them. This book is massive—over 750 pages, but as girth does not always equate to worth, it's the contributors that make this volume a must have for any serious student of the Reformation.

Matthew Barrett, a capable scholar in his own right, as editor leads an all-star cast of theologians and scholars who take you doctrine by doctrine through the eyes of the various figureheads of the Reformation like Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Bullinger, Calvin, Beza, Cranmer, and more. Many of their works and writings are cited, including ones most of us have probably never read, making the Reformers that much more accessible to us today.

"Introductory" materials (about 50 pages) take a step back to consider what we are celebrating this year and bring us back to the principle of reformation itself. From there the book launches into a "brief" (about 80 pages) look at the development of theology in the few centuries before the Reformation, as well as the Reformers themselves. Had the book ended there, I would have been happy and full with what I had gleaned, but then I was invited to the banquet itself and left with six measures more than I could have expected: 17 chapters on doctrines from Sola Scriptura to End Times.

This is not a book most (including myself) will sit down and read cover to cover, at least, not in one go. There's only so much one can digest at a time! But it is a book that I do plan to read cover to cover, a chapter here, a chapter there. I've already read through a good portion of it, and skimmed over a few more sections. It's well worth the read, and well worth having.

I received this book from the publisher in order to provide this review.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Not a good idea to link Bible stories and fairy tales

When I saw the Once Upon a Time Storybook Bible, I was intrigued. Where was Zondervan going with this? My kids love fairy tales, but if there's one thing my wife and I are trying to teach our children, it's that the Bible is NOT a fairy tale.

The 33 stories themselves are well-written for keeping my kids' attention, they cover about three pages each, including illustrations. They start with a title, like "The Battle of Jericho," followed by a related (or not-so-related) Bible verse touching on one of the themes from that story. A little more than half of the stories come from the Old Testament, and of those from the New Testament, all but two come from the Gospels. I would have liked to have more than just one story from the book of Acts, since Paul's travels alone were quite exciting material for a kids' book. The illustrations were fantastic and remind me of the movie The Prince of Egypt. They give a sense of realism that helps to emphasize the fact that these stories actually took place in the real world, not the world of make-believe.

At the base of the book cover it says, "The Bible is not a fairy tale. Every great story happened once upon a time." That assurance aside, my five-year-old seemed a little confused and asked me a couple of times, "Is the Bible real?" and "Did that really happen?" I'm not afraid of these questions and actually welcome them, but I'm not comfortable with a Christian publisher prompting these questions. Despite their good intentions, I'm convinced Zondervan made a mistake associating the Bible with fairy tales.

I received this book from the publisher for the purpose of providing this review.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The context of making disciples

Many of us are content going "to" church without thinking about what it means to "do" church, to carry out the mission of making disciples. In The Life of the Church, Joe Thorn identifies three environments in which the church lives out its mission of making disciples: the table, the pulpit, and the square.
He calls the small gatherings of the local church "the table" because it's usually around a table that these relationships deepen and grow. He develops three brief chapters addressing this subject, but the one on hospitality challenged me the most. There he calls readers to be intentional about inviting others into our lives (and homes), and not just the few people we've already made friends with.

The pulpit does not refer merely to Sunday morning preaching. He emphasizes the fact that our corporate gatherings are to be centered on the worship of God. Thorn points out how we should conduct our gatherings in accordance with Scripture, being careful not to stray from it's explicit and implicit commands, while explaining that the "essentials" may have different expressions in differing contexts.

The square is the public square, and there Thorn points out ways the church, both corporately and as individuals, can engage the world with the gospel. I found it very affirming because I've sometimes felt like I should follow a specific format or method for sharing the gospel, whereas Thorn points out very natural ways for believers to participate in their communities and be a witness. When he talks about doing good works, he explains that they are not only a means to sharing the gospel, but that doing good deeds is part of the gospel's work in our lives.

I've read Thorn before, and I appreciate his devotional style and personal openness, as well as his ability to condense a lot of thought into few words. The book could be read in one sitting, or it could be taken chapter by chapter in a small group or one-on-one setting. He's one of the few authors I keep track of to see when he has new books are coming out because he takes you right to the point and directs your thoughts to God and his word.

I received this book from the publisher in order to provide this review.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

My negative review of a children's Bible

After carefully reading through the notes of the NIV Investigator's Holy Bible, I'm afraid that I cannot recommend it. In fact, I'm going to dispose of my review copy rather than keep it for my children, sell it, or give it away.

On first glance, the Investigator's Bible has a lot going for it. The shiny cover is inviting. The darker-skinned boy with a camera and magnifying glass standing with a lighter-skinned girl holding a Bible and a dog are all smiling should tell children "Hey, we're like you, we're fun, and we like the Bible." Excellent! The introduction explains that Mateo and Isabella are going to help you read and understand the Bible, with notes introducing each book of the bible, answers to questions kids (and adults) might have as they read, explanations of the meaning behind certain names, information about the Bible's varied settings, and summaries at the end of each book. All these are written with kids in mind. Hey, there's even multiple choice questions throughout to help kids remember what they're reading about.

Many of these notes are great at explaining difficult concepts or confusing material. For instance, the note on Myrrh (Genesis 43:11) says, "This plant was used to make perfume. It was also a medicine, and was used to preserve dead bodies. Myrrh was one of the gifts the wise men gave Jesus when he was a baby." Apart from the unnecessary comma in the second sentence, it was just what a young reader would benefit from knowing. Similarly, the note on Luke 2:21 explains that circumcision is when "they cut off a little piece of skin that covers the end of the penis," and, "It's also a way to make sure that this part of the body is always clean." Perhaps that's more information than some parents want their children to have, especially at the low end of the recommended age range (6-10 years old), but it's the kind of information kids need if they're to take the Bible seriously as they get older.

If I had to rate the book based only on the good notes, I'd give it two thumbs up. However, the content of other notes caused me concern:

First, the notes seriously undermine the concept of inerrancy, the traditional Christian teaching that the Scriptures do not err in what they say. This can be seen as early as the book of Genesis. The notes say that it was probably written around 700 BC and finalized around 400 BC. That would place it's writing about 700 years after Moses lived and 300 years after King David, meaning that no one was reading Genesis until around the time that Jerusalem was conquered by Babylon, despite the fact that the Old Testament regularly records that Moses wrote these things down in a book and passages describing events during the life of Moses' successor mention the "book of the law of Moses" (Josh. 8:31; 23:6). The introduction to Isaiah says the book "has probably been edited several times (meaning that it was written and then corrected several times)." Similarly, the New Testament notes question Paul's authorship of a number of epistles.  The note on 2 Peter states "Most Bible experts think the author was really one of Peter's followers, who wrote in his name," and that "it's possible" it was written in the 2nd century AD.

Second, the notes take a clearly egalitarian view of passages about the roles of men and women in the church. Complementarians hold to the historic Christian teaching that men and women, though equal, are different and that God has reserved the pastorate for men. Egalitarians do not. As a result, the notes frequently dismiss passages about distinct gender roles as merely being a product of their misogynistic times: "A long time ago, the law didn't give women any rights. But now we know that men and women are equal." "It's just that the law didn't used to give women any rights. Now men and women are equal." The notes state that Priscilla and Junia "knew a lot about the Bible and they preached," and dismiss Paul's prohibition on women speaking in the church (which does need some explanation) with, "What Paul probably means is that women shouldn't be gossips and that they should listen to the teachings. Doesn't that make more sense?" They even go so far as to suggest that prohibiting women from teaching was just a concession to the culture of that day because Greco-Roman society were biased against women leading a gathering and, "If they saw a woman doing this, they might think Christianity was a bad idea and reject it."

I had other concerns as well, such as the emphatic stance that God in no way hardened Pharaoh's heart, which is clearly anti-Calvinist. Also, when addressing Jewish-Gentile relations in Galatians 2, the notes state that it was the Jews' fault because they "...wanted everybody to continue the Jewish customs from before the time of Jesus." They also come down hard on the Jews in their note on 1 Timothy 1:4 and say, "So that's why they thought they had more rights to land and religious jobs. But that's just not so! Jesus saves us, and God accepts us all equally." I'm not sure if this is intentionally anti-semitic or if it is a subtle reproof to those of us who hold to traditional Christian teachings on gender and sexuality.

Regardless, unless you come from a "mainstream" denomination that has long since said goodbye to inerrancy and a traditional Christian stance on sexuality and gender, this book is probably not for you or your children. I only hope this Bible does not represent the direction the ZonderKidz brand has in mind for the future of their products directed at Christian families.

Note: I requested and received a copy of this book from the publisher in order to write this review.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon

Charles Haddon Spurgeon was one of the most influential preachers of the 19th century. At a time before automobiles, airplanes, and electricity, he regularly preached before crowds of more than 5,000 in his church in London (he once even preached before crowd of over 23,000 people). He founded a college, an orphanage, and was a strong advocate for foreign missions. He was personally acquainted with D. L. Moody and Hudson Taylor. Famous Americans like Mark Twain, John D. Rockefeller, and James Garfield (before he became the 20th president of the United States) visited his church to hear him preach. He left more published words than any other Christian in history, before or since. He has often been called the "Prince of Preachers," and rightly so.

Despite his popularity, or perhaps because of it, Spurgeon received a lot of criticism during his lifetime. His opposition to the new theory from fellow Englishman Charles Darwin earned him mockery from cartoonists and newspapers. His condemnation of so-called Christian slaveholders in America resulted in threats and book burnings throughout the Southern United States, especially from members of the relatively new Southern Baptist denomination. Yet times have changed, and now Southern Baptists are not only among his greatest admirers, but they have begun publishing a planned twelve-volume set of his earliest sermons, never before seen in print.

LifeWay graciously provided me a review copy of The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume I. Over a few weeks I read it cover to cover. Volume I contains the 76 sermons Spurgeon recorded in the first of nine notebooks that will serve as the bases for the rest of the volumes in this series. I was immediately impressed by the aesthetic beauty of the book in my hands. The cloth over board covers, sewn binding, thick and glossy pages, and full color facsimiles of each page of the notebook showed a commitment to producing a high-quality work, and this is only the standard edition (there's a special edition with more photographs, gilded pages, and even a slip cover, too!).

The introductory materials drew me in immediately. A 17-page timeline from 1800-1910 highlights important events from the life of Spurgeon in red and significant moments (both secular and religious) from the 19th century in black. Events of interest to Southern Baptists are included as well. The book also includes chapters looking at Spurgeon's place in history, his relationship to Southern Baptists, and the background of this book series. Excepts are available online, which I encourage you to check out (from the Foreword, Editor's Preface, Introduction, pdf sampler).

Each sermon includes a color facsimile, transcription, and notes. Even as a teenager, Spurgeon's sermons were impressive for his insight and ability to connect with his listeners. He largely used outlines (he called them "skeletons") and relied on his memory to preach extemporaneously. Because this is a critical work, the notes identify sources Spurgeon used (he was particularly fond of John Gill and John Bunyan), references to events of his day, and quotations from elsewhere in his body of work where he treated the same topics or Scriptures in more detail. The notes also discuss ink marks, corrections, and spelling, but I largely ignored these.

I wish my early sermons were as good as Spurgeon's. By the time he was 20 he had already preached more than 700 times. If they had only published the text of his notebook, it would have been worth reading. The addition of introductory materials placing Spurgeon in his historical context and scholarly research of the notes placing his sermons in the context of his sources and later writings make the volume even more valuable.

If you're interested in snagging a copy for yourself, you can find The Lost Sermons of C. H. Spurgeon, Volume I online and in LifeWay stores. Volume II is slated for release in September 2017.

Whether you're interested in Spurgeon's lost sermons or not, you can get access to a digital library of over 3,500 of his sermons by signing up for the Broadman & Holman Academic eNewsletter here. It's free and you can cancel your email subscription anytime.

Thursday, February 2, 2017

Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature

I've grown to love the books published by Kregel Academic. When offered the chance to receive a review copy of Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature in their Handbooks for Old Testament Exegesis series, I couldn't say no. I'm just as interested in gaining a better understanding of the visions in Daniel or the book of Revelation.

The book is divided into six chapters along with an appendix on the possible antecedents to Jewish apocalyptic literature. The first chapter clarifies what is meant by the term "apocalyptic literature" and differentiates it from "apocalypse," "apocalypticism," and other terms. Chapter two discusses major themes in apocalyptic literature. The rest of the chapters walk readers through the process of interpreting apocalyptic texts and preaching or teaching them to others.

I found the chapter on major themes to be the most helpful because of the numerous examples and analyses of Old Testament passages and extra-biblical apocalyptic texts like the book of Enoch, the Apocalypse of Abraham, the Testament of Moses, and more. By seeing the similarities and understanding how to interpret extra-biblical texts, I gained insight into the mechanics of how apocalyptic texts work.

I'm glad apocalyptic literature is getting more attention from serious scholars and not just novelists with a wild imagination. Interpreting Apocalyptic Literature shows that these texts were part of a wider body of apocalyptic literature and that they carried an intelligible message for their original audiences. By studying these texts we can discover how they apply to us today, not to some future generation awaiting a literal fulfillment of all that these books describe in such graphic imagery.

Highly recommended.