Thursday, February 23, 2017

What is the What--Eggers

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What is the What
by Dave Eggers
Vintage Canada, 2006, 535pp.

*** Incredible read. It's been a long time since I read a book so quickly! --LS
The Dinka of southern Sudan are secure in their confidence that they have been blessed by God in choosing to accept His gift of cattle and fertile land and in leaving the unknown 'what' for their Arab neighbors. That is, until the upheaval of civil war commences in which their way of life and their very lives are at stake...

This is the masterful re-telling of the story of 'the Lost Boys', those hundreds and thousands of young boys orphaned and/or displaced by the Second Sudanese war (1983-2005), as told through the eyes of one, Valentino Achak Deng.

Have they unwittingly been actually cursed by God in eschewing the unknown 'What'?
What is the What anyway?  Is it the superior force of the central Sudanese government in Khartoum? Is it the AK-47?  Is it the opportunity to emigrate to the United States

Dave Eggers weaves a fascinating, suspenseful, tender story shot with rays of humor as he unfolds the destiny of the Lost Boys as they escape death en route to the refugee camps where they will grow up into men with the chance to choose their own unknown, to keep on walking in search of grace and a future.  This is an absolutely compelling story that informs and appalls as it unfolds leaving the reader with an insider's grasp of the conflicts in southern Sudan prior to their independence as a nation.

"We're men.  Now we can stand and decide.  This is our first chance to choose our own unknown.  I'm so proud of everything we've done, my brothers, and if we're fortunate enough to fly and land again in a new place, we must continue.  As impossible as it sounds, we must keep walking.  And yes, there has been suffering, but now there will be grace.  There has been pain but now there will be serenity.  No one has been tried as we have been tried, and now this is our reward, whether it be heaven or something less than that." (p.531-2)


Thursday, October 20, 2016

Fieldwork--by Mischa Berlinski

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by Mischa Berlinski
Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2007, 320pp
(available in audio book, narrated by William Dufris)

This book was a delightful mix of private investigator, anthropology fieldwork and missionary 'biography'. It was delightful to find an author who had done his homework and was prepared to show missionaries as ordinary people doing super-ordinary things with excellence such that anthropologists sought them out for their insider information. I very much enjoyed Berlinski's descriptive and detailed writing. 

The audio version of this book (William Dufris,available on Hoopla) is superbly narrated! 

Spoiler alert: Background information about the 'roots' of this story is available at the author's website, but read the book first!

If you enjoy missionary biographies and/or investigating the intricacies of other cultures, you will enjoy Mischa Berlinski's well researched creation.


Thursday, October 24, 2013

The In-Between—Goins

***(It’s ok but…)

The In-Between: Embracing the tension between now and the next big thing
by Jeff Goins
Moody, 2013, 164pp.

Jeff Goins has earned his audience as a blog writer aimed at helping writers write.  With this second paperback he edges into the publishing world beyond blogging with the conviction that the greatest growth in our lives comes in the lulls between the 'big things'. He reminds us that growth comes imperceptibly, as we learn to slow down and relish the mundane moments that make up most of life.

To illustrate, Jeff candidly shares experiences from the growth seasons of his own life: a semester of study in Spain, a year traveling with a Christian band, proposing and getting married, the birth of his first child… Though these narratives are of mixed quality from a strictly literary standpoint, each is a vulnerable opening of Jeff's heart to the reader. He walks us introspectively through his own 'in-between's reflecting on what he has gained from each. His hope is that we too will slow to notice the growth in our own souls in the waiting seasons of life.

His retelling of his wedding ceremony brought tears to my eyes. Other sections, particularly the final two scenarios, were unduly drawn out and unconvincingly presented-- as though they were necessary filler to round out Part Three.

The book is light reading and, like blogging, can be picked up and put down in those waiting moments every day holds. It is best read in this way, as too analytical a reading will disappoint.

The light copy-editing throughout contrasts sharply with the professional cover and formatting of this book. Under scrutiny numerous passages are unclear, cumbersome or otherwise awkward:

"Maybe it was the fact that he didn't grow up with much money or maybe he just liked looking good, but Al was a precise, clean-cut man."

"…I swaddle our son in the dark, wrapping him in thin sheets we bought at Target for more than a glorified blanket should cost."

"…and I'd often pull out my parents' cell phone, which I rarely used, and call my friend Ashley."

"The train had to be going half the pace as the ones in Europe,…"

Whether this is a book directed to 'believers' or 'non-believers' is also unclear and problematic. "God" is mentioned throughout but often in the most apologetic of ways. Those who don't share Jeff's faith are offended (as per the Amazon reviews), or assume any 'god' will do. Those who may in fact share his beliefs are uncertain what he actually believes and why he is so reticent to say so… This fence-sitting position in hopes of appealing to a greater audience is unlikely to have a life-changing impact on anyone. For this reason I was disappointed that Moody would carry it under their publishing banner, but grateful to receive it free-of-charge in exchange for an honest review.

Considering the fine job Jeff does as an up-and-coming blogger to would-be writers of all kinds, the lax copy-editing of this book seems an unfortunate decision. Though his informal, self-doubting 'voice' is preserved, his reputation as a serious writer is called into question. On the other hand, perhaps this is just the book to illustrate the need for long waits between the 'big things'--such as getting published. Some things should not be rushed. It does indeed matter what a writer does with the 'in-between' stages in his career.


Monday, August 19, 2013

The Bible Savvy Series—Nicodem

This series consists of four volumes:

Epic: The Storyline of the Bible
Foundation: The Reliability of the Bible
Context: How to Understand the Bible
Walk: How to Apply the Bible

by James L. Nicodem
Moody Publ, 2013, 576pp

This is a fantastic little set of books to increase your Bible Savvy, whether you are a newbie or an old-timer when it comes to God's Word. They are not only good-looking in four tidy little volumes, but they are user-friendly reading besides! My first impression was that they would be ideal for youth and new believers as the language seems geared to them. This is especially true of the first volume, Epic, which is an overview of the Bible around the theme of Redemption. But wait, here is an excellent presentation of the Gospel taken from the book of Genesis! Could you do that? This first volume, Epic, and the second one, Foundation: the Reliability of the Bible would be strategic for seekers and skeptics who have never understood the cohesive and trustworthy nature of Scripture.

But Volumes 3 and 4, WALK and CONTEXT are written as tools specifically for believers and in my opinion are sorely needed tools in the Body of Christ at large, whether among new believers or well-seasoned ones. Too few of us give priority to the personal reading and study of the Word. These two volumes spur us on to dig in and apply what we find, but not before heeding the Context!

The volume on Context is a 'must read' for every believer who has not been instructed in how to interpret the various genres of Scripture. You don't have to look far to see that these principles are not widely heeded, even among people who profess to teach the 'truth' of Scripture. Here is a call back to the basic ground rules. No one should teach or preach or lead a Bible study without understanding these principles! These are not volumes only for 'beginners'!

For more detailed reviews, please see my reviews under the individual volumes. Thx. I received this set of books free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest opinion.


CONTEXT: How to Understand the Bible


CONTEXT: How to Understand the Bible
by James L. Nicodem
Moody Publ. 2013, 152pp

(Book #3 in the Bible Savvy Series)

--Without context any text can become a prooftext for a pretext!--

The Bible can be difficult to understand but every believer can learn to read it with confidence once they know the ground rules. That's what this little book is about—the principles that must be applied to interpret the various genres of Scripture accurately. In my opinion this topic is essential for every believer to understand, and Nicodem tackles it in such a user-friendly down-to-earth way! He breaks the study of context down into four aspects of setting that must be considered to properly understand any text: The historical setting, the literary setting, the theological setting and the immediate setting.  Then for each he suggests two or three guidelines to follow in interpreting each.

Historical setting is important because the Bible is based on objective historic facts. Knowing the 'who, what, when, where and why' of the cultural setting is the starting point for getting the most out of any passage.

Noting the literary setting is the second factor. It makes a difference whether we are reading laws, history, poetry, proverbs, prophecy or epistles. Each is governed by different principles. For instance reading a figurative passage of poetry will require different skills than deriving a lesson from a historical account. Making sense of Old Testament laws will be easier when you recognize some are civil, others are ceremonial while others can be classified as moral laws applicable for all time. And realizing the nature of a Proverb is to show how life generally works will keep us from 'claiming' Proverbs as though they were promises with guarantees attached.

Pastor Nicodem does an exceptional job of presenting a few basic rules for each genre. But this is not dry theoretical reading. He gives clear examples throughout, humorous anecdotes and even a chance to practice with the study questions that follow the chapter!

His discussion of theological setting is essential reading! Following this principle would prevent so much bad teaching from being propagated. Essentially the point is that any truth gleaned from one verse must be supported by the rest of Scripture. We are not free to interpret verses randomly without reference to the rest of Scripture. Because the Bible is inspired by God we can expect it to be consistent with itself, or as Nicodem says repeatedly: "the Bible must always agree with itself because it all comes from the same Mind." This chapter includes a careful explanation of progressive revelation with the great example of polygamy vs. monogamy in Scripture. He then demonstrates letting the Bible interpret itself with three topic overviews: prayer, hell and baptism. He's not afraid to step on toes here or expose teaching that does not follow this principle!

The final setting to consider is the immediate context. Words may have multiple meanings and should always be understood in their contexts. The larger context of sentence, paragraph, chapter and even book may need to be considered as well. In this chapter Pastor Nicodem gives some common sense cautions regarding word studies and choosing a balanced Bible translation. His strong preference is the NIV Study Bible, but he recognizes other legitimate and excellent choices. Once again his illustrations are compelling and will challenge the reader to consider whether he may have disregarded the context in his own understanding of various texts.

I highly recommend this short but comprehensive book for every believer who has not been specifically taught principles of Bible interpretation. Knowing and practicing these principles will safeguard the reader from deceptions and confusion of all sorts that pass as 'Bible truth'. New believers or old-timers will find great profit here! Too often people assume pastors and teachers are the only ones who need to know this 'stuff'. Not so. In my opinion, this is the most crucial book in this series. Don't miss it!


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

WALK:How to Apply the Bible—Nicodem

WALK: How to Apply the Bible
by James L. Nicodem
Moody Publ. 2013, 132pp

(Book #4 in the Bible Savvy Series)

--Practical steps for moving from text to life--

In this concluding volume of the Bible Savvy Series, Pastor Nicodem lays out a step-by-step guide for applying the Bible to one's own life. He stresses that it is not enough to know Bible facts; they must transform the way we live. For this to happen will require the Holy Spirit's illuminating work and a willingness to submit to what is taught. A valuable preliminary chapter is devoted to these essentials before Nicodem unfolds his nifty methodology for Bible reading and application. For apart from the Holy Spirit's indwelling the Bible will be intelligible but lack personal significance.

The remainder of the book is devoted to teaching believers how to handle the Word as a tool that will change the way they live. Using the acronym COMA Pastor Nicodem lays out four steps that can be used with any Bible passage to gain understanding and apply it personally:

Know the CONTEXT of what you're reading.

Make OBSERVATIONS of the theme, repeated words or concepts, anything striking, facts about God

What MESSAGE is God communicating to you; Is there a timeless principle?[Hint: Is there a Sin to confess? a Promise to claim? an Example to follow? a Command to obey? a Statement about God?]

What APPLICATION can I make to my life. (Be personal and specific. Write it down. Pray about it.)

This methodology is thoroughly introduced with extensive personal examples and numerous practice opportunities both in the text and in the Study Guide following this chapter. Nicodem's "mantra", as he puts it, is: "It's not how much of the Bible you get through that matters, but how much of the Bible gets through you!"(38) So he stresses NOT to hurry through the reading of this book but to stop and try out the COMA steps on a variety of suggested passages and then compare them with his own examples in the appendix until the method is clear and practicable.

Only then does he go on in the concluding chapter to discuss factors that contribute toward spiritual growth: the Holy Spirit, Personal Effort, Godly Habits, and Role Models. I especially appreciate his explanation of the Holy Spirit's work vs. our own efforts. While acknowledging that "The Holy Spirit is the wind in the sails of your spiritual growth" and "The daily discipline you need to apply God's Word to your life…must come from the Holy Spirit"(99) he insists this does not mean no personal initiative is required. Just as in physical training, training in godliness involves rigorous exercise. We must 'make every effort' to be effective and productive in our knowledge of Christ. (II Pet.1:5-8) This includes being intentional in our Bible reading habits.

I highly recommend this little book for any young believer needing to establish a foundation of Bible reading and study. But it would be equally valuable for even long-time Bible readers who may need the nudge to be intentional in applying what they read to life. This simple, yet effective COMA paradigm would be an excellent way to revive a waning (or absent) Bible reading habit for all ages and stages of believers!


P.S. The Bible Savvy website offers additional helps, a wonderfully do-able  4-year Bible reading schedule!  and a blog by the book’s author demonstrating his real-life practice with COMA.

Oh, and forgot to mention, I received The Bible Savvy series of books from the publisher in exchange for writing an honest review of my impression of them.  I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them for every youth in your life and copies for your church library and yourself as well!

FOUNDATION:The Reliability of the Bible—Nicodem

FOUNDATION: The Reliability of the Bible
by James L. Nicodem
Moody Publ. 2013, 139pp.

(Book #2 in The Bible Savvy Series)

--A user-friendly guide to the origins of the Bible—how it came to mankind and what to make of it!--

This second in the Bible Savvy Series focuses on the nuts and bolts of how the Bible came to be the Bible. What sets the Bible apart from all other books? How do we know it is true? Can we rely on it as an authoritative, fool-proof message from God to us? How do we know the books it contains are not mistakenly included, or that some are not missing? What about the Apocrypha?

Whole textbooks and courses in seminary are devoted to answering these questions, but Pastor Nicodem once again captures the essence of this material for the layperson and devotes four short chapters to the topics of Inspiration, History of the Canon, and Revelation with one final chapter urging the reader to READ this Book that he has now demonstrated to be the inerrant and inspired revelation of God to man. Though the coverage of each topic is necessarily brief, there is always space for anecdote and for clarifying important distinctions and mistaken notions. For instance what exactly does it mean for the Bible to be 'inspired'? Is it the writers who were 'inspired' as they wrote? Or is it perhaps the reader that becomes inspired as he reads, implying that the Word of God is only the Word of God when God speaks through it in a fresh way...Or is there a third option?

And what about all those alleged 'mistakes'? How can we trust a book that contains errors? After offering solutions to a sampling of these supposed errors Nicodem points any unsatisfied reader to a more comprehensive resource for further clarifications while holding to his position that because God is a God of truth, the Bible is true in all facets and therefore worthy as a final authority in matters of life and godliness.

The chapter on the doctrine of revelation deserves a careful reading, as there are many ideas 'out there' about how to get to know God, many of which would decry the Bible as insufficient or outmoded or just not essential for a relationship with God. "I have my own ideas about God" is a commonplace opinion and defense against hearing anything absolute, especially from Scripture. But the author maintains that God has purposely given us the Bible so that we can know Him. It is God's revelation of Himself to man. Without it we cannot accurately know what God is like or comprehend His offer of salvation or our sin problem that necessitates it. Nor can we know what God requires of us apart from God's revelation to us. 'Knowing God' in nature is a limited revelation, demonstrating that He exists and that He is powerful, but not detailing the means of relationship with Him. For this the 'special revelation' of the Word of God is essential.

I also appreciated the advice in this chapter on revelation, regarding knowing God's will. Though the Bible may not contain explicit advice for every conceivable decision we must make, the author states if we will saturate our lives with the Word of God, we will be prepared to make wise decisions, because we will be becoming wise people. Otherwise we'll be scrambling like an ill-equipped football player to study the playbook when it's time to be on the field playing football. This is a great reason not to delay getting to know the Word of God personally.

This potentially theoretical discussion of the Bible's origins is brought down to very practical terms in the closing chapter of this little (139pp) book. In a chapter called 'Get a Grip' Pastor Nicodem comes back to his reason for underlining the reliability of the Bible. He wants the reader to read it! He goes so far as to say that "If we are not voracious readers of God's book, our relationship with God and our spiritual growth are going to be seriously stunted." (107) He then commends five essential practices: Listen to it regularly, attentively and discerningly with intent to put it into practice. Read it daily and completely. (He recommends the NIV Study Bible here and throughout his other volumes.) Study it (This point is covered very minimally here; one would hope to at least be pointed to resources detailing the 'how-to'; perhaps his further volumes will elucidate this point). Memorize it (with a simple 'here's how) and Meditate on it.

It's impossible to read this volume without gaining a fresh appreciation for the supernatural nature of the Word of God and a renewed resolve to dig in and live it out!


I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.  I haven’t seen anything so compellingly readable on this topic!  Highly recommended!