Book review: Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening

by Robert D. Cornwall

★★★★★

Is it about time for another Great Awakening?

This is the fourth book by Cornwall that I’ve reviewed and his writing never disappoints. Although this isn’t the type of book I usually enjoy, it’s one I can say I’m glad I read. I needed this.

Cornwall wonders if the Church isn’t on the verge of a new transition, guided by the Spirit. Though now a Disciples of Christ pastor, his roots are Pentecostal, and he recognizes that charismatic Christianity has a deep appreciation for the Spirit that many of us shrug off. Maybe the Spirit is making a comeback? Is it breaking in a new age of spiritual experience, discipleship, and hope? I found Cornwall’s portrayal of the Spirit inspiring: “Offering a variety of gifts, activities, and services, the Spirit moves through the community of faith like a refreshing breeze, enlivening and empowering the community’s worship, fellowship, and service.” Today’s Spirit-empowered communities are committed to bringing into play the world-healing presence of God’s Spirit. The goal is not to rescue us from hell to heaven but to fulfill God’s promise of making Abraham’s offspring a blessing to the world.

Yes, that’s you and me, and anyone else who carries the banner of “Christian.” Are you familiar with the Briggs-Myers personality test? Cornwall, like me, fits the mold of INTJ, so perhaps that explains the kinship I’ve felt with his writings in the past. Let me put it this way: I have an Introverted, iNtuitive, Thinking, Judging personality (INTJ), as contrasted with the other extreme, an Extroverted, Sensing, Feeling, Perceiving personality (ESFP). This tangential discussion isn’t really a core part of Cornwall’s book, and there are no “right” or “wrong” personalities; I bring it up just to emphasize what rare, leave-me-alone oddballs he and I are. How can people like us possibly feel the flow of the Spirit, and then contribute productively to the community? What spiritual gifts might even we be given that we can use?

Cornwall approaches this topic with practicality and pastoral care. He suggests assessing our spiritual resources with a “gift inventory.” This will help sort through our ministry opportunities and our feelings about various ways of contributing. Yes, each of us in the Church has a ministerial role, not just pastors. Cornwall calls this “embracing a theology of giftedness,” while pointing to the teaching of Paul that all members of the Body play a worthwhile and necessary part. In gift-based ministry, it’s assumed that every member of the body contributes to the welfare of that body. We INTJ’s will leave a hole as deep as any other if we neglect to make use of our own God-given gifts.

Having convinced us of our unique importance, then, the second half of the book tells us how to get our hands dirty. It provides practical advice for various types of Christians, emphasizing how each gift is needed for a healthy community.

Every Christian should read this one.

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Book review: The Brother of Jesus

by Hershel Shanks and Ben Witherington III

★★★★★

This is really two books in one, and both are excellent. Hershel Shanks (editor of my favorite mag, Biblical Archaeology Review) tells the story of the discovery of the James ossuary, and Ben Witherington describes the person both scholars believe this limestone burial box belonged to: James, the brother of Jesus. I’ve been following Shanks’ arguments in BAR over the years, so I already know he’s a proponent of the ossuary’s authenticity.

The box itself is inscribed “James, son of Joseph, brother of Jesus.” The Bible agrees: Jesus’ father was Joseph and one brother was James. The box was discovered in the collection of a private collector, who had no recollection of its origin … and no idea of its potentially incredible value. It’s dated pretty accurately to the first century, so while we cannot say with any certainty that it’s authentic to THE Jesus, both authors are convinced it’s an authentic first-century bone box.

This practice of removing the bones from the tomb and burying them again in a small box was practiced only for a short time, from about 20 BC to 70 AD. This, too, points to the period of Jesus. But what are the odds that this box once held the bones of the brother of Jesus? All three of these names—Jesus (Yeshua), James (Ya’akov), and Joseph (Yosef)—were quite common back then, but it’s still possible to estimate the odds. One estimate is that about 20 such James’s (with the indicated brother and father) would have lived in that period; another estimate is between 2 and 4. But how many would have a brother so famous that his brother’s name would be indicated on his ossuary? That would be a rarity. If this is the brother of the “real” Jesus, then, as Shanks posits, this little box may be “the most astonishing find in the history of archaeology.”

Then Witherington takes over halfway through the book to tell us about James, the brother of Jesus. Who he was, what he taught, how he died. While Peter and Paul may have become the most famous apostles, James was in reality probably the most important after the death of Jesus. He was appointed as the head of the Jerusalem church, the mother church.

Among other things, Witherington goes head to head with the Catholic doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. While the Bible lists several brothers of Jesus, Catholics maintain that Mary remained a virgin after Jesus was born, and many believe the listed “brothers” are really just cousins. This idea was promoted by St. Jerome. Witherington quotes John P. Meier, a leading Catholic New Testament scholar, as saying that if the James ossuary is authentic, it is probably the last nail in the coffin of Jerome’s view of the brothers of Jesus being cousins.

I’ve always enjoyed the writings of both these authors, and this book doesn’t disappoint.

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Book review: Seismic Shift: From God to Goodness

by Keith Martin

★★★★

On the heels of a fascinating book about transitioning from various spiritualities to Christianity (Is Reality Secular by Mary Poplin) I present this book describing one person’s journey in just the opposite direction. I do enjoy reading these different personal discoveries, if for no other reason than to remind myself that every person is in a different place in their spiritual journey, and has differing spiritual needs. This is a good one: sincere yet in all ways respectful of the religion he left behind.

Keith Martin found himself jettisoning Christianity because it just didn’t ring true. Rather than take up with another religion, though, he strengthened that purpose of his Christian heritage that did provide meaning: Goodness. Although Martin flirted with progressive Christianity for a while after leaving the faith, he finally just stepped away from Christianity completely to avoid confusion. Most people who think of Christianity think of worshipping the Son of God, and that no longer fit Martin’s worldview.

The Rwanda genocide was his wake-up call, which both dashed his belief in an all-powerful God and increased his resolve to pursue Goodness in place of religion. Explains Martin, “When I capitalize Goodness, I mean more than just aspiring to be good. I mean bowing to Goodness the way religious people bow to God. I mean letting Goodness in all its forms—love, justice, compassion, mercy, kindness, etc.—guide and govern my life the way many faiths say God should govern our lives.” As we taught our kids at Christmastime, we need to be good for goodness’ sake.

This is an honest and heartfelt journey, about loss and new discovery, and post-Christian meaning. Many people are already taking this next step. By understanding God as a metaphor for Goodness, our spirituality once again rings true.

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Book review: Is Reality Secular

by Mary Poplin

★★★★★

Well, this book was a trip. Great book, yet Mary Poplin and I definitely do not agree on all matters. I highlighted many passages that Poplin presents as fact but which critical scholarship concludes are otherwise. The book of Daniel wasn’t really written 600 years before Christ. Peter couldn’t possibly have written the book of II Peter. There really are mythical beings in the Bible (Poplar claims there are not). I experienced a wide range of emotions as I read the book: anger, frustration, respect, admiration. Then I gave the book five stars, because it is indeed well-written, intelligent, convincing, accurately reflective of Poplin’s Christian experience … and because she changed my mind in places.

I’ve often said that every person should undergo two major overhauls in their belief system during their life, for their own spiritual growth. I look forward with great anticipation to my next spiritual revelation, but I know I’m not ready yet.

Poplin was ready. She embraced Jesus hook, line and sinker, to the point where she sometimes sounds naïve. Yet she has clearly located the worldview that works for her. Poplin is surely aware of this odd contrast, with naiveté and intellectual writing side by side, and makes no apology, as she titles her final chapter “What if Christianity were true?”

This book is her spiritual journey and studies, comparing four worldviews (material naturalism, secular humanism, pantheism, and monotheism) and concluding that the latter, Christianity in particular, is the higher truth. The fundamental concern here is whether one of these worldviews is actually true. While each worldview contains a partial truth, Christianity supersedes each and carries believers further, opening up deeper revelations. These revelations did not come all at once for Poplin; she reflects on twenty years of following Christ, including a stint in Calcutta with Mother Teresa.

Her approach to “proving” Christianity is not normative apologetics. It is measuring the benefits of each worldview in various ways, which is why the book so appealed to me. Which worldview leads to the healthiest morals? Which best fits scientific discovery? Which psychology is most beneficial? In examining such things, Poplin journeys from truth to Truth, a higher level, and concludes that Christianity carries a person far beyond the limited truths of its competitors. Christianity, and the Trinity, encompasses the true and reasonable principles of all three other worldviews and offers even more. We get science without naturalism, humanism without relativity, and the spiritual beyond the impersonal and individual. But the problem in “proving” such claims is that Christianity can only be comprehended in a shallow, textbook way, until it is lived.

Here is an example. When Poplin converted to Christianity, she became deeply remorseful over two abortions she had had. Until her conversion, the healthiest option she could come up with to live with herself was to deny her sin, pretending that sin didn’t really exist, moralizing that by aborting she had made the logical, secular decision. After her conversion, she writes “Now I see that the solution to sin—the simple acknowledgement of sin for what it is and seeking God’s forgiveness and cleansing—is one of the most brilliant, hopeful and freeing principles of Judeo-Christianity.” The higher truth: Life is better as a Christian, and our eyes are opened.

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Book review: The Gospel According to Femigod

by Femigod

★★★

In what appears at first to be an anonymous book, “Femigod” first questions mainstream and organized religion and then presents various spiritual and philosophical alternatives as superior. The author, it turns out, is named Femi (whether male or female I was unable to detect) and concludes that we are all gods in our own right, more powerful than we are led to believe. “Femigod” describes his/her own spiritual enlightenment by lightly skimming a plethora of belief options.

The traditional Eastern, Western, and African religions are covered first, highlighting their inconsistencies, contradictions, and absurdities. None of these objections are covered in detail, and none are original or deep; all are reflections of the author’s own disillusionment with no counterarguments, presented more as questions than answers in order to encourage you to critically examine your own faith upbringing. (Why is God male? Why does he want to be worshipped? What is God’s hangup about sex? etc.)

After delving into various myths and introducing a number of philosophers, Femigod then presents metaphysical alternatives: The astral world, paganism, astrology, and more. Along the way, you’ll learn a little about Tarot, angels, and mind-altering drugs.

My disappointment in the book was not in the topic, nor the obvious metaphysical slant, but in its shallow presentation. This topic is simply too much to cover in 168 pages. Read this one if you’re already questioning traditional religion and looking for something else to dive into. Then find other books to learn more about those alternatives.

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Book review: All You Want To Know About Hell

by Steve Gregg

★★★★★

I really enjoyed this one. I asked for a review copy because I had previously devoured Steve Gregg’s Revelation: Four Views. This guy is an engrossing writer who gets right to the heart of the matter. While Gregg doesn’t entirely mask his own opinion, he does manage to fairly represent several alternative views with these books, and this time around he gives voice to the following opinions about hell:

  1. Traditionalists, who stick with the common view of everlasting conscious torment.
  2. Conditionalists, who argue for annihilation of the sinful. “The wages of sin is death.”
  3. Restorationalists, who insist that hell is a place of rehabilitation. Everyone will eventually find their way to heaven.

Universalists, at least those who reason that for God to be victorious no one could find themselves in hell, are not strongly represented in the book. Hell is too real in scripture to dismiss.

It’s important to emphasize that all three views are solidly founded in scripture. Lots and lots of scriptural references are provided for each view, and all views have thoughtful, scholarly supporters.

We’d all like to know the ultimate truth about hell, but I just don’t think the scriptures are in total harmony in this matter. That’s where this study led me, though I doubt that’s where Gregg meant to lead. The more I study topics like this, the harder it is to believe in Biblical Inerrancy. I remain baffled as to why otherwise thoughtful Bible scholars rage against the obvious … that doctrinal differences in the Bible are a natural result of differing opinions among the Bible’s writers.

Nevertheless, this is a book to make you think, and to make you appreciate the richness of the Bible even as it examines the most frightening topic known to man.

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Book review: Coffee with Jesus

by David Wilkie

★★★★

Coffee with Jesus isn’t your everyday comic book. You think it’s easy putting words on the lips of Jesus, while avoiding the sacrilegious? I get the feeling that Wilkie toned it down just a little to take the edge off. He could have been much more pointed. Yet it really is as amusing as it is serious how Jesus pokes holes in our religiosity, just sipping coffee and offering advice. Jesus’ gentle sarcasm hits the mark time after time.

It’s a great book, but I have to point out a couple negatives. The print is small, and the same artwork is repeated throughout. I’m guessing there are maybe a dozen unique frames throughout the book, which differ only in the words printed underneath the character drawings.  Whenever Joe, the Pastor, turns to look to the right, the part in his hair magically shifts to his left side … the wonders of mirror imaging. Obviously, you’re not buying the book for physical humor or captivating artwork. This format works well for a daily publication; not so much for a book, where the repetitiveness may begin to wear on you.

Artwork aside, though, you’ll fall in love with the personalities and their many character flaws. How like you and me they are, and how patient Jesus is with each of them! Definitely a feel-good book, whether or not Wilkie meant it to be!

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Book review: The Making of the Lamb

by Robert Harley Bear

★★★★

What really happened during Jesus’ “lost years” between his appearance at the Temple at age 12 and his ministry at about age 30? Did he grow up in Egypt? India? Or working with his father as a carpenter in Tiberias?

Bear’s story builds upon a medieval legend of Jesus visiting Britain, perhaps under the care of Joseph of Arimathea, who was in some versions of the legend Jesus’ great uncle and a tin merchant. Maybe you’ve read Gordon Strachan’s Jesus the Master Builder: Druid Mysteries and the Dawn of Christianity. Strachan takes these legends seriously, painting Jesus as a Druid.

Bear’s rendition doesn’t go that far. It is presented as fiction based on legend, but Bear’s research is exhaustive. Bear spins a tale of Jesus’ coming-of-age years based on the legend that encourages the reader to come to his or her own conclusions on how the cornerstone ideas of the Christian faith originated in the One we’ve accepted as Lord. The book is lightly tinged with pluralism, yet in all ways respectful of Christian beliefs; I’ve no reason to believe Bear isn’t a practicing Christian. His book brings myth and legend alive with meaning, speculating about how Jesus slowly began to piece together his mission in life. It’s also a well-researched glimpse into Roman oppression throughout the land, setting the scene for Jesus’ pacifistic opposition to the Empire.

In the story, Jesus develops a special relationship with the Father from a young age, but the Father’s ways are mysterious. Jesus contemplates his role as savior of the world and how the Father’s vision of the Messiah differs from the warrior figure Jesus envisioned; he learns what it means to be born again of the Spirit; he learns how to forgive and how to respect our differences. In short, readers of Bear’s novel witness the Making of the Lamb…the one who gave up his sword to die on the cross.

It’s a fascinating journey worth taking with the young Jesus. A book you won’t soon forget.

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Book review: Philosophy for Believers

by Edward W. H. Vick

★★★★

This is an introductory philosophy text, complete with worksheets, focusing primarily on the subject of the nature of truth and how we know something to be true. What makes this text unique is that it chooses Christianity for its playground.

Do not assume an argument will be presented justifying Christian belief. Apologetics is not the focus at all. The exercises and examples often relate to Christian thinking, but you’ll find little resolution. In fact, the discussion seems to meander around several philosophy topics without ever zeroing in on any solid answers. The point is to introduce the philosophy of examining truth.

Along the way, you’ll discuss what is means to believe, the nature of religious belief, how God is experienced, providence, cause and effect, dualism, even miracles and the afterlife. Finally, Vick touches on the friction between science and faith, and the role of both. It’s an appropriate finish, and the book closes with an enigmatic discovery: “One cannot reasonably claim that knowledge results only from one kind of experience, or only from one method of understanding the world.” In other words, science and faith should cooperate in the search for truth.

My favorite section was a discussion of self-deception. Is such a thing even possible? This topic borders on the psychological. Does anyone ever really hold contradictory beliefs, or does one simply refuse to acknowledge the contradiction?

I can’t say this book is what I expected, but I did enjoy the study!

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Book review: The Certainty of the Unexpected

by Pamela Ruth Stewart

★★★★★

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. –Romans 8:28

If ever there was a testament to the comfort of believing in God, this book is it. I cannot share all of Pamela’s beliefs (which are too conservative for my taste), but I rejoice in the comfort her God brings into her life, through good times and bad. I can’t help but award it five stars: warm, honest and heart-felt, this book is certain inspiration to believers.

Pamela tells of outgrowing the solemn way that was a burden to her in her childhood, into a full trust in the boundary-crossing grace of God. She grew up in the same Christian sect as I did, which she calls the One True Way to highlight its exclusiveness. No single belief system is right for everyone, and this one simply could not satisfy Pam’s spiritual needs. She found the church meetings suppressive and joyless. While she was still a child, a close friend died in an accident, who was outside the exclusive boundaries of the sect. Was this friend going to heaven or not? Pamela was distraught, until one day, God gently pointed out Proverbs 20:11 (“Even a child is known by his acts”) and Genesis 18:25 (“Should not the judge of all the earth do right?”) God’s love was greater than she had ever been taught. Still, the emotional turmoil of leaving behind the religious tradition she had been born into was very strong. Telling her parents of her change in beliefs was the hardest thing she ever did.

Choose this day whom you will serve. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the river and in Egypt and serve the Lord—Joshua 24:14-15

Also hard was the first time Pamela attended another church. All such churches had been condemned by her former belief system. But had she never made the transition away from exclusivism, she would never have been able to draw strength from the God of grace for the greater test around the corner. Her husband contracted cancer, and began slowly wasting away.

Romans 8:28 became Pamela’s “rainbow” in a world of pain. The end result of the long, cancerous journey with her Godly husband is this book, about the goodness of God.

Definitely recommended.

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Book review: The Question of Canon

by Michael J. Kruger

★★★★★

The Christian “canon” refers to that set of books, complete and bounded, that we accept as scripture. Modern Bible scholars often examine the development of the canon from an extrinsic model, noting that the canon was formed over the course of several centuries as the church fathers selected their favorites. Many argue that Irenaeus, in the late second century, was the first to feel the need for an authoritative canon. But what if the selection of accepted writings was more intrinsic … that is, guided from within, rather than from without? What if the New Testament writers themselves understood that they were writing Scripture, and their work was quickly recognized and adopted as such, perhaps with God’s guidance?

Kruger doesn’t deny the extrinsic claims, that the canon was fluid and argued over for centuries. He simply highlights the evidence that our New Testament writers were knowingly writing Scripture, and our earliest Scripture readers knew it. This Kruger does by critically examining five tenets of the extrinsic model to see if they really do hold water. The five tenets he questions, in five chapters, are:

1. We must make a sharp distinction between Scripture and canon.

2. There was nothing in earliest Christianity that might have led to a canon.

3. Early Christians were averse to written documents.

4. The New Testament authors were unaware of their own authority.

5. The New Testament books were first regarded as Scripture at the end of the second century.

Kruger hits his stride at about chapter three, and it gets stronger from there. So if you find the book winding up a little slowly, I promise it’ll be slinging fast balls by the end. Kruger’s research is convincing and well-argued, with generous footnotes. At the very least, this book will make you a believer in the passion and conviction of the New Testament writers, even as they sought to remain anonymous, letting the gospel message speak for itself on its own authority.

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Book review: The Dave Test

by Frederick W. Schmidt

★★★★

Can a downer be a positive reading experience?

This is a book that needs to be read, even though it’s not enjoyable. It’s about how to relate positively to those who are going through hard times. How to be a friend in love. It’s written from a Christian perspective by an Episcopal priest, but it does not pretend that faith solves all the hard problems.

Schmidt’s younger brother Dave was struck with cancer, and endured seven years of the disease before succumbing to death. Sometimes life just sucks. Hoping for a handy guidebook about what to do in such situations, maybe a collection of pick-me-up promises like “God won’t give you more than you can endure” or at least a can’t-fail casserole recipe to bake for a suffering friend, I read all the way through to the end before I finally accepted that I was not going to be given any Biblical solutions for coping or helping another cope. This is just down-to-earth advice on how to validate and share the pain of another. As Schmidt would say, ditch the stained-glass language and learn to walk wounded.

And yes, it WAS a frustrating read for me, most of the way. If I’m going to endure a downer of a book, can’t it just teach me to dispense a little Hallmark wisdom and send me on my way?
Perhaps the best advice I gleaned from the first nine chapters (by reading between the lines) is this: When times get tough, go befriend a couple of recovering alcoholics. They understand struggle and neither coddle you nor make light of your pain.

Schmidt’s message finally sank in as I neared the end of the book, with these three strange words: Availability is incarnational. It’s really not as cryptic a message as it sounds. After stressing that Jesus’ interface with humanity was in the flesh–incarnational–and after stressing that sincere love is sharing a genuine presence, making oneself available, the advice finally hit home. There’s lots of other advice in the book, of course, this just happens to be the message that finally penetrated for me. The simple secret of dealing with another’s grief, for both your own benefit and that of your friend, is this: Availability is incarnational.

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Book review: Worshiping with Charles Darwin

by Robert D. Cornwall

★★★★

I’m a fan of Robert Cornwall’s writing. It’s hard to overrate brevity, common sense, and simple honesty. Last year, one of his books made my Top Ten for 2012: See Faith in the Public Square.

In this book, Cornwall tackles the sticky subject of evolution. He writes as a theologian, not a scientist, but as one who recognizes his limited expertise and therefore respects and appreciates the contribution of scientists. Cornwall believes evolution is true not only because our greatest minds have offered convincing explanations, but because they have made great strides in medicine by building atop this biological knowledge. Cornwall believes the war between science and religion harms both sides, and that truth can best be approached by leaving the experts on each side to do their jobs without interference.

Cornwall is not alone in this opinion. A few years back, Dr. Michael Zimmerman penned a letter encouraging the compatibility of religion and science, and this letter has now garnered over 10,000 clergy signatures. “Evolution Sunday” was born, marking the closest Sunday to the birthday of Charles Darwin (February 12th), and at last count nearly 600 churches celebrated this day by using their worship service to address the issue, declaring that evolutionary science and faith are compatible.

Worshiping with Charles Darwin is a series of non-technical sermons and essays to that end. Many of the points and themes repeat in multiple sermons/essays, so there’s a bit of redundancy, yet I believe this book fills an important niche, with the theologian side of the war respectfully reaching out to make peace.

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Book review: Christian History Made Easy

by Timothy Paul Jones, PhD

★★★★

This beautiful full-color book highlights the major personalities in Christian development over the last 2,000 years … from A.D. 64 to 2009.

It’s a short book, so I confess I felt a little frustrated at the lack of depth. The book takes on a little too big a topic for 188 pages of text, and religion is a topic where oversimplifying by bouncing along the surface can distort as much as elucidate. Therefore, to get the full benefit of the book, treat it like an instruction course and take advantage of the internet research suggestions peppered throughout the text. But for my money (for a lot more money, I’m sure) I’d love to have 600 pages between the covers of this one.

One other minor frustration: Jones is a Southern Baptist whose subtle preaching permeates the book. For example, Deism is at least twice referred to as a false doctrine. This is probably just a personal issue, but I find it easier to trust a scholar who does a better job of hiding his own religious bias.

With my complaints out of the way, let me say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading the text! It’s a fun read, full of tidbits from history and helpful explanations of Christian terms. Every Christian should know at least the basics of Church history, and I definitely recommend this book as an entertaining stepping stone to whet your appetite for further in-depth reading.

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Book review: Creation Strikes Back

by Robert Core

★★★★

If you begin with the Bible as God’s honest truth, and add an appreciative-but-critical respect for evolutionary studies, where does the journey lead you? For Robert Core, it led to a startling conclusion.

Before delving into the review, I should probably make my bias clear up front. Proper science cannot be shackled by religious belief, and thus I do not see a niche for this book outside already-believing Christians with a soft spot for science. My four-star rating reflects an entertaining voyage with an opinionated expert culminating in a bizarre conclusion that I’m certain I won’t forget for a looooong time. This is certainly a new twist on evolution!

In typical dry humor, Core insists—quite seriously, I must add, and with much thought—that the biological relationship between man, ape, and chimpanzee is Biblical. I’ll not elaborate further on the book’s most titillating premise; best to leave it at that as a teaser.

Along the way, Core jumps into the debate about whether the odds are too great for life to ever form randomly on its own. This debate refuses to die because, much as creationists want to make it into an exercise in probability, it’s only half about the numbers. It’s also a philosophical puzzle. Core (a retired biology instructor) calculates the odds of randomly “getting a DNA sequence correct” at .25 to the power of 1 trillion. Pretty slim chance, eh? But of course, there is no particular reason why life has to be designed with a four-nucleotide DNA code, so where do these odds really get us? To see why the debate about the origin of life is as philosophical as it is numerical, consider that as I write this, I am sitting in front of my library, in which nearly 1,000 books are arranged in a particular order. Wow, what are the odds of that order happening by chance? My calculator throws up its hands trying to calculate the factorial of 1,000. Must be astronomical! (It is.) I’m sitting in front of a miracle!

In other words, until it’s proven that there’s something inherently special about this particular recipe for life, its odds are meaningless. Nevertheless, the debate rolls on … not so much about whether it is unlikely for life to happen by chance, but how unlikely, and whether the odds preclude seriously considering happenstance. Several scholars have weighed in on the issue, including Hubert Yockey, Frank Salisbury, and Henry Quastler. Even Carl Sagan has stuck his head in on the debate. For as much as my own unprofessional opinion matters, I side with Core. The most likely answer to the puzzle is that life must have had a little help getting started.

But having reached the conclusion that life probably didn’t start by chance, where do we go from there? Core points us to scripture. He leads us through chapter one of Genesis, falling prey to the temptation to take the Genesis myth and “science it up,” harmonizing the facts of evolution as we know them with Scripture. Because the book is too short for a detailed explanation, it’s best if you already have a basic understanding of evolutionary theory, biology, and cosmology. The book reads a little like one crinkly-eyed old scientist reminiscing to another on a Central Park bench … but that’s what makes it worth reading! It’s also best if you’ve learned how to laugh at yourself, because if you haven’t, somewhere along the way Robert’s sarcastic humor will strike too close to home. And I do hope you aren’t easily offended, because the writing is really funny and Robert does have something to say.

Just be sure you stop reading before day “seven” of the six-day creation, or you will never feel comfortable again visiting the primates section of your local zoo.

(this book is due for publication 1/7/14 by Tate Publishing)

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Book review: Messiah: Origin

by Mark Arey, Kai Carpenter, Matt Dorff

★★★★★

Are you into graphic novels? I’ve never considered them my thing, always picturing such texts as little more than a comic book. So I was surprised to enjoy this one as much as I did.

A graphic novel attempts to communicate on a different level, with penetrating images. The artistic lines and colors, at least in this book, are vibrant, stark, evocative, powerful … this is a visual journey with a serious tone.

Messiah: Origin is the beginning of the gospel story, from the birth of Jesus through the ministry of John the Baptist. I presume it’s the first publication of a series. What sets this “novel” apart is that it contains no words except as translated directly from the Greek of the New Testament. It is a narrative harmony of the four Gospels, translated by Mark Arey, a Greek Orthodox clergyman, arranged in story form by Matt Dorff, and illustrated by Kai Carpenter … an effective partnership.

Definitely recommended as an enjoyable and moving story, though anticlimactic … I do wish I had more of the story of Jesus to read.

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Book review: John’s Gospel: The Way It Happened

by Lee Harmon

★★★★

I’ve been somewhat remiss in promoting my latest book, so allow me to repeat a review here from My Book Addiction.

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JOHN’S GOSPEL: THE WAY IT HAPPENED by Lee Harmon is an interesting Christian Book & Bible/Reference/Educational. It is “A Dubious Disciple Book” and the sequel to “Revelation: The Way It Happened”. What an interesting concept on the Gospel of John.

“A collection of individual writings, compiled over a thousand years, with the author of each one expressing his unique opinion.”

The author has interwoven fiction with fact in his account of the Gospel of John. It is brilliantly written, although, you may not agree with all his assessment. He has woven scriptures throughout, the story is told from various points of view and opinions, as the story progresses. Very interesting, educational and thought provoking. You will have to read “John’s Gospel” and find your own opinion. I would recommend this title to anyone who enjoys Biblical gospel, historical events, religious studies and anyone interested in a very good read. The author has written a vivid account and added characters to make the Gospel of John seem you are there. We often forget the Bible was written based on real life accounts, by real life people who struggled, fought oppression and came through years before our time. What a lesson we can and have learned. A blessing! Received for an honest review from the publisher.

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Book review: Battles of the Bible

by Martin J. Dougherty

★★★★★

As a teenager, I was enthralled with wargaming. Though I outgrew the tendency of boys to glorify battle, I never did outgrow my interest in military strategy. Well, here is a book for battle aficionados, with a Biblical setting.

I picked this book up from the bargain shelf at a Barnes and Noble, and really, it’s a fun read. It covers battles in Palestine from 1400 BC to 73 AD. Some are in the Christian Bible and some are not. For example, the Seleucid wars will be found only in the Catholic Bible, which includes the deuterocanonical books about the Maccabees, and the fall of Jerusalem is predicted by Jesus but happens after the time frame of the Bible.

The authors researched the battles from multiple sources, and do not give the Biblical accounts more credence than are warranted. Biblical exaggerations are toned down in many places. However, it was still a challenge for the authors, as it’s very difficult to know how much to trust each historical source. The battle description of Masada, for example, includes Josephus’s story of mass suicide, and the battles in the time of Joshua presume a very large invading army from the exodus of Egypt.

Twenty different battles are narrated, and each battle highlights the who, what, when, where and why, before presenting the full story, accompanied by an easy-to-read battle diagram.

Whether you use this book as a coffee table conversation piece (it’s very beautiful, with full-color pictures), as a reference book, or read it all the way through as a military history of Palestine, the way I did, I’m sure you’ll be satisfied.

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Book review: The End of Apologetics

by Myron Bradley Penner

★★★

As we transitioned from a premodern to modern world, as the Enlightenment opened our eyes, and as more and more atheists came out of the closet, Christian apologetics thrived. In this new world, we Christians feel it is our inherent responsibility to prove the truth of our Christian worldview. We feel the need to justify our beliefs. But, when it comes to spreading the Gospel, has apologetics become more hostile than helpful? Does it edify, or does it tear down?

Penner wonders if apologetics is not the single biggest threat to genuine Christian faith. Who do we think we are, trying to bring the Truth (capital T) of God down to our human reasoning level, and strip it down to bite-size truths (little T) that we can nail into our opponents? There’s a difference between knowing something is true and showing it to be true.

Penner feels it’s time to take the next step to postmodernity in our approach to apologetics. The modern Enlightenment worldview is just one way of viewing the world, and may not be the most appropriate way for Christian witness. An apologetic approach that doesn’t respect the identity of our listeners, or that doesn’t highlight the role of Love (for, at it’s most basic level, the Truth of God is about Love), does an injustice to the Gospel. If the Gospel we present isn’t good news, it isn’t true. And truth, says Penner, is something you live, not something you own.

He compares experts to prophets in his discussion of proper, postmodern apologetics. The prophets are preferable; we cling to our experts and trust them to present the facts, but it’s the prophets who deliver a higher truth. Bible prophets cared little about proving the truth of their message. What utter silliness would that be, to question a message from God? Instead, they lived the message.

All of this sounds intuitive and wonderful, yet somehow, the book didn’t inspire a change in me. Too dry, perhaps, or too few real-world examples. I found it intellectual and mildly stimulating, yet ultimately unsatisfying. The philosophical presentation stayed on an intellectual level through the whole book, and never broke through to the heart where it could make a difference.

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Book review: Doubting Stephen

by Anne Borrowdale

★★★★★

What if everything you’ve built your life on turns out to be a lie? From marriage relations to religious convictions, Borrowdale takes her readers on a journey from happy naivete to open-eyed acceptance of the truth.

This book’s draw, for me, was its extremes of character development—whether the nauseatingly religious or the flaky crystal healers—while managing to present everyone as normal, next-door-neighbor types. Thirty pages into the book, I was already convinced of its reality, as if Borrowdale were writing about her own family (I hope she wasn’t).

This is supposed to be a murder mystery, but so intrigued was I with the personal development of the innocent, struggling to survive the shakeup of their beliefs, that I lost interest in uncovering the guilty, until the latter chapters when the twisting plot line drew me in so tightly that I couldn’t put the book down. It really is a great story. I was a bit cranky about one minor aspect of the ending, but to present details here would be a spoiler, so I settled for complaining to the author.

Just kidding. Sort of. Either way, this is one book you definitely want to read. But beware: truth trumps in the end, for better or worse.

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