Thursday, October 31, 2013

Review: The Question That Never Goes Away

The Question That Never Goes AwayThe Question That Never Goes Away by Philip Yancey
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Where can we find comfort and healing?

When tragedy and violence strikes, victims and the rest of the world want to know "why." We think that if we can just figure out the reasons why bad and evil things happen, we will find solace and comfort. Those who specialize in grief know otherwise. Answers to the "why" question may satisfy our intellectual curiosity and perhaps offer some place to lay blame and anger, but it does not offer comfort or healing.

Philip Yancey, in The Question That Never Goes Away, states flat out that the Bible does not pretend to answer the "why" question related to suffering, violence, and evil. For Christians to try to answer this question, with or without the Bible, is misguided and frequently results in more harm than good. Rather, Yancey suggests that what the Bible does describe is a God incarnate who suffers with us, who walks with us in our pain, and who promises that the results of evil will someday be redeemed toward good. Yancey writes that the Church is part of God's person in the world today whose work is to be with those who are suffering.

Yancey suggests that God does not provide answers to "why" because to do so would turn focus away from the affected peoples to the situation. When things go wrong (not necessarily tragic events), governments, businesses, and other organizations want answers to "why" so they can prevent future problems. We want to fix life so that it is safe and secure. Perhaps God does not give the "why" because part of the reason is that life cannot be "fixed" in the manner we would like.

Yancey is very clear in his writing that he does not believe in God's agency in tragic events; i.e., God does not cause or desire bad things to happen. In other words, "God is not in control" as opposed to the way popular Christianity often portrays God and his (assumed) sovereignty. According to Yancey, God values freedom so much that he does not overwhelm and overrule human freedom to do evil. God's sovereignty is not found in his power and might, but in his love. Love cannot exist without freedom to reject love and work against it. Thus God values freedom over control.

Yancey does not present any new, groundbreaking material in this book. What he does is incorporate his experiences working with survivors and victims from recent tragic events such as the tsunami that hit northeast Japan, the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, and others. He updates his earlier insights in light of these new experiences.

God does not provide answers to "why" but he has provided for "where" the world can find comfort, healing, and redemption. This book will likely not satisfy our intellectual desires. What it does is encourage us to become agents of love in a world that hurts, and thus be part of God's redeeming and transforming process in the world.

(This review is based on an advance review copy provided by the publisher through NetGalley.)

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Review: The Art of Storytelling

The Art of Storytelling: Easy Steps to Presenting an Unforgettable StoryThe Art of Storytelling: Easy Steps to Presenting an Unforgettable Story by John D. Walsh
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Making Stories the Point of Storytelling

People of all ages enjoy listening to a good story told. Stories are often a more effective means of conveying instruction and truths than didactic, analytical teaching. John D. Walsh, in The Art of Storytelling: Easy Steps to Presenting an Unforgettable Story gives readers, whether new to the art or are already experienced public speakers, tips and tools for improving their craft. Through numerous exercises and activities, the reader is encouraged to participate and practice honing skills that are introduced in each chapter.

John wants stories to become the point of telling stories. Too often in modern public speaking, stories are relegated to "spice up" sermons and presentations and to illustrate some points in them. The modern mindset has been conditioned to accept that stories are for children (and must have a stated application or moral), that "real teaching" happens in didactic lectures. John discusses how people relate to and recall stories far better than didactic teaching - lectures and sermons with "the big idea" or "here are three points."

The book itself is divided into three sections. Part one, the longest section, teaches the aspiring storyteller fourteen steps in preparing to tell a story. John further subdivides these steps into ten essential steps toward telling a good story, and four optional steps that may be taken to raise a good story to a great one.

Part two covers seven tools that the storyteller should be cognizant while telling a story. These tools cover the "how to tell" aspects when actually in front of an audience. These considerations include things such as gestures, voice, facial expressions, and nervousness.

The final section of the book focuses more narrowly on retelling Bible stories. John discusses why churches ought to be telling more stories instead of preaching more sermons and making people sit through lectures. He discusses how the storyteller, the listener, and the Bible stories interact. He refers to two resources, available on the web, in which he has taken part developing. (, He relates his experience teaching skeptical adults on the values of stories.

Right near the end of the book John ponders the conventional wisdom in many churches about evangelism and faith. This conventional wisdom states that if a person doesn't accept Christ by the time he or she is twelve years old, the chance that they will later is almost minuscule. He writes how the stories of Acts goes completely against the conventional wisdom. In Acts, all the conversions are of adults. As he thought about he, he writes how he realized that in modern churches, age twelve is about the time stories stop being told (because stories are for children) and so-called "solid food" of doctrine and ethics start being taught didactically. John suggests that if churches continued to use stories as the primary vehicle of communicating faith, adolescents and adults would come in to the church and stay.

This book is written by a Christian with the Christian audience in mind, but it can be valuable to anyone who speaks to an audience, whether to one or a million or anywhere in-between. Particularly, sections one and two are applicable to all public storytelling engagements. Even the third section can be valuable as case studies on how to turn written materials that may not initially strike the reader as a story, into an engaging story that can be told to an audience.

I highly recommend this book for all public speakers, but especially for pastors and church teaching staff.

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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Book Review–Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt

Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-DoubtConfidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Debunks conventional ideas surrounding self-confidence.

Western culture, and particularly the American subculture, emphasizes the value and need for individuals to have a high self-confidence if they are to perform well and achieve success. Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, in Confidence: Overcoming Low Self-Esteem, Insecurity, and Self-Doubt, argues that high self-confidence is mostly a liability and that a low self-confidence is more positively correlated with successful individuals.

Through research data, discussions of studies, and anecdotes Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic argues forcefully and persuasively that modern society has confused, to its significant detriment, confidence with competence. In the eyes of many people, highly confident people are thought to be competent, but there is no correlation between the two. Yet at the same time we tend to view negatively those who are extremely self-confident and narcissistic. Modern society rewards the highly confident because competition is rarely about competence, but rather, confidence. (E.g., We elect high-confidence individuals to political office and then complain about their incompetence.)

In this book, Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic shows that it's okay to have low self-confidence and that there are many advantages to it. Individuals with lower self-confidence actually are more competent, they make fewer mistakes, they are better judges of themselves and others, and they are more able to learn from their stumbles. The idea that low-confidence is an obstacle to success and achievement has no basis in reality. People without a high view of themselves have just as good an opportunity to achieve success in their careers, in social relationships, and in health as those who do have high self-confidence in these areas.

In the area of careers Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic writes that success is 90% preparation and 10% execution. Low self-confidence individuals, because they tend to worry and are anxious about their competence, excel in preparation. High self-confidence individuals, on the other hand, because they believe in their unfounded competence, fail to prepare.

In the area of social interactions low-confidence individuals worry about how others view them. Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic writes that this is a good and positive characteristic. It leads them to be cautious and careful, to be more empathetic. On the other hand high-confidence individuals tend to not care about what others think and thus come off as brash, boorish, arrogant, and narcissistic.

In the area of health low-confidence is also an asset. Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic writes that many people think they are healthy when they are actually not. Low-confidence individuals with their worries and anxieties are better able to see signs of unhealthiness than high-confidence individuals who falsely believe in their health. Low-confidence individuals, again, are more cautious and careful and tend to avoid risky behaviors, whereas high-confidence individuals tend toward risky behaviors believing in their unfounded invincibility.

In the final chapter Dr. Chamorro-Premuzic argues for a less-confident world. He believes that such a world would be less corrupt, safer, more peaceful, and a generally better place to live.

I see the chapters of this book divided into three major sections. The first three chapters lay out the thesis and provide the theoretical framework that supports it. The next four chapters apply the thesis to the areas of career, social relationships, dating, and health. The final chapter provides a summary.

I found this book engaging and interesting. It was very thought-provoking in the ways it challenges conventional attitudes toward confidence. This book should be particularly helpful to the many people who do "suffer" from low self-confidence. But it might be even more valuable to those who pride themselves in their self-confidence, if they allow themselves some time for self-examination.

(This review is based on an advance review copy provided through NetGalley by the publisher.)

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Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Book Review: Feasting on the Gospels-Matthew, Volume 1

Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word CommentaryFeasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary by Cynthia A. Jarvis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A practical commentary for practicing preachers.

This may be one of the most user-friendly commentaries I've encountered. It takes a passage-by-passage (pericope) approach rather than verse-by-verse. Its foremost concern is to provide the reader with practical insights and suggestions on preaching the passage to his or her congregation. (This volume covers Matthew 1-13.)

The format of this commentary is as follows: The text of the passage is given on the left page, which is followed by four columns spanning both the left and right pages. These columns continue for two more spreads (so six total pages for each passage). The layout is most easily read in a printed form. (Review copy was en e-book form and the reading didn't flow nearly as smoothly, in my opinion.)

The four columns provide four different perspectives of the text. 1) Theological, 2) Pastoral, 3) Exegetical, 4) Homiletical. Respectively they roughly answer the following questions a preacher may pose to the text:

* Theological: what does this passage reveal about God? What questions does this passage raise about God? How does this passage fit into the overall narrative of scripture about God?
* Pastoral: In what ways might this passage apply to daily lives of 21st century people? What questions does it raise about how we live our lives as members of God's community?
* Exegetical: How do we interpret this passage in light of literary, rhetorical, historical, cultural, social, political, and religious contexts?
* Homiletical: What are some suggested approaches to preaching this passage?

In my reading I found myself seeing text in ways that I hadn't considered before. The suggestions in the homiletical perspectives looked to be particularly useful, especially for passages that are preached more often, for preaching the text in new ways.

Potential purchasers of this commentary may be concerned with what theological biases might be present. I found it to be well-balanced. The editors and contributors are predominantly from mainline Protestant denominations. It is most certainly not from a decidedly evangelical perspective. But it does treat the text and the Bible seriously and authoritatively. For those worried about liberalism, I found nothing to warrant such fears. I would classify this commentary as being right in the middle, treating both the text and contexts seriously.

I highly recommend this commentary to anyone who is called upon to preach, whether regularly or not. I look forward to the forthcoming volumes in this series.

(This review is based on an Advance Review Copy supplied through NetGalley by the publisher.)

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Fall High School Concert

Last night the Petersburg High School performed their Fall concert. Amy is in the choir and performed two pieces.

Here is a video of the concert. Band and jazz band pieces are excerpts. Choir pieces are presented in full.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Review: Church History–Volume One

Church History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political ContextChurch History, Volume One: From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context by Everett Ferguson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A good, comprehensive overview

This work of history by Everett Ferguson provides a good balance. It is comprehensive enough and provides enough details without become bogged down in minutiae that only academics would likely find interest. Rather than descriptions of historical events in isolation, they are placed within a narrative framework that includes how the past has influenced it and how the event influences the future. The events are described in the context of surrounding cultural, social, political, and other historical events. Even though ultimately the work describes the Western church, its connection to the Eastern church and other less known areas of the world are incorporated.

This book is written foremost as history. It describes both the good and bad of the church's history. It does not seek to defend negative actions, but seeks to explain how and why they happened.

The history of the church is the story of conflicts: doctrinal, ecclesiastical, political, philosophical. It gives credence to the saying, "There is nothing new under the sun." Nearly all church conflicts being experienced in the 21st century have similarities with past conflicts.

Some of the earlier chapters dealing with the first and second generations of the church provide context that help with interpretation of New Testament text.

The writing is very readable and accessible. I think every Christian ought to read it. This would be a good reference work for every church leader to own.

(This review is based on an advance review copy supplied through NetGalley and provided by the publisher.)

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Monday, October 07, 2013

Review: Evolving in Monkey Town

Evolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the QuestionsEvolving in Monkey Town: How a Girl Who Knew All the Answers Learned to Ask the Questions by Rachel Held Evans
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hold on to convictions loosely

With humor and wit, Rachel Held Evans writes of her Christian journey from rigid belief to flexible faith. She speaks of herself as beginning the journey as a fundamentalist, defining this as "salvation means having the right opinions about God... [and] my security and self-worth and sense of purpose in life were all wrapped up in getting God right -- in believing the right things about him, saying the right things about him, and convincing others to embrace the right things about him too."

Rachel tells how the fundamentalist outlook failed to match real-world experience. When exposed to experiences outside her insular evangelical world, she discovered that she didn't have all the answers, the answers she was taught applied badly, and people weren't asking the questions for which she had answers.

Rachel's journey from certainty, to doubt, and to a reborn faith that values questions and uncertainty is one that many Christians have undertaken, myself included. Even as details of the journey differ, I recognized myself, the world that I inhabited, and the journey that I've taken, in her story.

I sensed the concept around "false fundamentals" to be one of the central themes in Rachel's writing. The phrase appears early in the book and the last few pages closes with a discussion around this idea. False fundamentals are those teachings and beliefs that people and groups hold to be unchangeable, but are in reality, not so essential to Christian faith and life. My summary of the book in one sentence would be: Questioning things and embracing uncertainties are what Christians need to do more in order to protect against succumbing to false fundamentals. A phrase that I've used to describe this idea is, "Hold on to convictions loosely."

The greatest value of this book is probably to be found by those who are uncomfortable with fundamentalism, in whatever manifestation they find themselves. It gives permission to embark on the journey to questions and doubt, and back to a stronger faith. Those who are currently on this journey should also find this book helpful, to know that there are many who have traveled the path before them, and many who are with them now. Finally it is helpful to those who have undergone this path because they might be able to see ways in which to compassionately guide those who follow.

Staunch fundamentalists may find this book upsetting, but if they are able to work through it, I hope that they will come to understand that those of us who question things, who interpret and believe things differently, are sincerely living out what we have come to understand as faithfully living the Christian life.

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