{Review} Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany

I’ve always loved a good mystery story. In Dolores Kimball’s new book Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany she presents her case that ‘[Mary's] is an honest-to-goodness, read-between-the-lines mystery story, a mystery that revolves around Jesus’ tribute to her…’  I was captivated by the simple, straightforward words that were used to describe Mary, what we know and can infer about her life, and the applications that can be made to the lives of women today.

(Yes, this is a book aimed at women. That being said, a man might enjoy reading over the shoulder of the woman in his life who is reading this book)

Click here to purchase on Amazon.

Memorial is divided into ten chapters, plus an introduction. There is a little bit of overlap from chapter to chapter, but there is a lot to think over, so that repetition is both helpful and necessary. It seems very well suited to a small group study setting, though it does not include study questions. Discussion and/or journaling questions could easily be pulled out of the text itself, however.

I didn’t enjoy the differentiation that is made in the very beginning between Mary of Bethany anointing the head of Jesus, and the other anointing of Jesus with oil by the ‘sinful woman’. Dolores writes, ‘It is important to make this distinction between them if we are to understand Mary of Bethany, who is never identified as a sinful woman.’ Honestly, I think she is right that they are two separate events. However, the logic relied on is faulty. Why is it impossible that Mary of Bethany lived a ‘sinful’ life before she became the woman who sat at Jesus’ feet, choosing ‘the better part’? Why is it so outrageous to think that a woman who was rescued by God out of a very public and shameful sin would not be the same one to ‘get’ His message, and see further than His disciples to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection? Fortunately, that was a very small part of the book, taking up just a few pages of the introduction.

From the first chapter onwards, I found a lot to think over and enjoy. Here are a few sentences/excerpts that stood out:

“We would all agree that we are not saved by works, but once we’re saved, by golly we had better get cracking! … What we forget … is that God has done it all.” (Chapter 1)

“A woman could learn in the back of the synagogue, in the women’s section. But at his feet, Mary took the posture of ancient disciples and learners who sat at the feet of their teachers. Paul is described as being brought up ‘at the feet of Gamaliel’ (Acts 2:23), so this was a position well-known in that culture. But not for a woman. For her to take such a  position was shocking. But this is not the last time we will see Mary putting herself at risk of criticism to be near Jesus.”

“Her priority was to hear, to listen, to love that truth, to believe it, to hide it in her heart, and to act on it. Every one of Mary’s actions from this point on will reflect that priority.”

“Mary has often been criticized by women whose sympathies lie with Martha, and what women doesn’t identify with Martha?”

“In direct contrast to Martha, Mary says nothing.”

“The second time we see the sisters, Martha is still pouring forth words to the Lord, while Mary sits quietly, peacefully waiting for the Master’s call. When she receives that call, she rushes to him, falls at his feet and utters the only thing Scripture records her as saying, an affirmation of his deity. The third time we see them, Martha and Mary are both silent. Martha is still serving, but this time with a peaceful spirit, and Mary worships in faith, humility, and peaceful silence. Martha’s is the ultimate makeover, made new by the ‘peace of God that passes all understanding.’ (Philippians 4:7)”  (Chapter 2)

… And there are eight more chapters full of quotable phrases and wisdom to ponder!

I recommend this book to any woman who wants a Bible study that digs into the text of the Bible, applying it to our everyday lives as 21st century Christ-followers. May we all develop a Mary-heart.

(4 out of 5 stars)

 

This book was provided to me by Cross Focused Reviews in exchange for my honest review.

{Review} Gospel Assurance and Warnings by Paul Washer

When the opportunity came to review a recent release by Paul Washer, my first reaction was to say ‘Sign me up!’ I was curious to see what he had to say on the topic of the assurance of salvation. The fact that there were two positive reviews on the back cover by Joel Beeke and J.D. Greear didn’t hurt either, as these are two men whose opinions I respect.

Gospel Assurances and Warnings is actually the third book in a series titled ‘Recovering the Gospel’, and I have not read the first two books in the series. This third one seems to be aimed at three groups of people: 1) pastors and other leaders; people who have responsibility to teach the Gospel and may have people coming to them for advice. 2) Laymen who are worried about their salvation. 3) People who are not living out the faith they profess with their mouths and are NOT worried about their salvation, resting in a false sense of security.

I greatly enjoyed two things about this book:
1) The outline of working through 1 John, and the copious footnotes to Scripture references throughout (it was great to have the footnotes right there on the same page where they were referenced instead of having to flip to the back constantly)
2) Paul Washer’s passion for preaching that a saving faith in Christ, in the gospel of grace through faith, leads to transformed (not perfect) lives. Another way to say that is that he preaches the complete gospel, not one watered down to make repentance meaningless, and not one that is mired in legalism.

A couple of points of interest were his take on the Lordship salvation controversy, something that I’ve never paid much attention to. It seemed pretty obvious to me that if you acknowledged Jesus as Savior, you would also give Him control of Your life. Apparently my opinion is much too simplistic, and since I know very little about this little quagmire in modern evangelistic circles, I’ll say no more about it here.

There were also many little gems to quote, some from Paul Washer himself, other ones that he was quoting to bring more emphasis to one of his points. This one by Craig Blomberg is something I’ve wondered about from time to time: “The percentage of true believers in places and times in which being ‘Christian’ is popular is perhaps not that different from the percentage of Christians in times of persecution, when few dare to profess who are not deeply committed.”

Those points of praise being said, after reading through a few chapters, I began to have some concerns about this book. Not with his analysis and biblical reasoning, nor with his main arguments about the modern church having essentially created a cheap grace theology. My problem is more with the groups of people that this book is written for. I would hesitate to hand this book to someone who, from everything anyone else can know, is a true believer struggling with assurance of salvation. Even as in many places Pastor Washer speaks clearly about grace, words like this one in his chapter on Imitating Christ may add a false sense of worry to the heart of an already sensitive and anxious Christian (especially one young in the faith who is not anticipating true struggles with the old sin nature):

“If after we examine ourselves we find we are wanting, we should neither be apathetic or give way to paralyzing despair, but seek a resolution with the greatest urgency. However, we must recognize that the Scriptures offer no formula or step-be-step program to mend our crippled assurance; rather they admonish us to seek the Lord in His Word and in prayer until He gives us peace.” (pg. 56-57)

Honestly, that gives me pause. I think that most of the chapters in this book would be a profitable study for Christians in a healthy place in their walk with the Lord to examine themselves, or for those complacent ones who need to be shaken up to read and realize that they need to turn to God and not just give lip service to Him but also surrender every aspect of their lives into His hands.
But.

For that one who is going through a season of doubt (and that is every Christian from time to time) or for the one who struggles with having an anxious heart and resting in God’s promises, those words can be paralyzing, as much as that is not Paul Washer’s intention.

Here is what I imagine the reaction to be for that person: ‘I’m still not doing enough. I’m not praying enough, I’m not trusting God enough, I don’t have His peace, what’s wrong with me?’ For a person who has had just enough Reformed theology teaching to be dangerous, but not yet enough to embrace the love and grace of God, that line of thought can even go to ‘Maybe God doesn’t want me to be His. Maybe I’m not chosen, because I don’t have His peace and my life hasn’t changed enough.’

I want to emphasize here that there are also reminders that the Christian life is not perfect (though there will be visible growth) and failures will happen, and that God will complete the good work He began within us. Still, the tone of the book, and the way that it is set up as a checklist of sorts, makes it seem possible that some may be left more confused and dejected as they think ‘Maybe God hasn’t begun that work in me’, or worse, they may turn it into a checklist of achievements. Paul Washer specifically writes against the heresy of believing that works are the means of salvation rather than the result of salvation (page 133). The way the book is set up though makes it seem to me like the audience for this book is mainly pastors, and those whose faith is secure (either in genuine believers, or those lip-service professors only)

For pastors, I imagine that this book would be an invaluable resource for study.
For laymen, I belive that this could be a very helpful Bible/small group study to work through and discuss. Examining our lives and hearts in light of God’s Word is ALWAYS a good thing, and this book also challenges us to examine the ways we think of and present the gospel. Personally, I am looking forward to going through this book in a more slow and thoughtful process.

With the caveat of this not being the best book for an anxious heart, I do recommend this book. (For the one with the anxious heart, I would recommend going to a pastor who is committed to the authority of God’s word and giving wise counsel, a man who can help you prayerfully discern where your anxiety is stemming from)

I will leave you with this quote: “At any time, a Christian may be running, walking, crawling, sliding, or even falling. Nevertheless, over the full course of his life, he will grow and bear good fruit: “some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty” (Matt. 13:23)”

4 out of 5 stars.

{Review} A Draw of Kings

Spoiler alert: I highly recommend this book. Those of you who have read my earlier reviews of A Cast of Stones and The Hero’s Lot know that I (much to my astonishment) greatly enjoyed the first two installments of The Staff and the Sword medieval fantasy trilogy. It was with a mixture of excitement and reluctance that I opened the final book when it arrived. Excitement, because I was anticipating a dramatic ending. Reluctance, because it was the ending, and I didn’t want to say goodbye to Errol, Adora, Liam, Rokha, Martin, Luis, Merodach, Cruk, Karele, and the rest of the citizens of Illustra. The reluctance didn’t last long.

The whole trilogy was about the journey that each person took – growing, changing, learning, becoming. There are external evil forces at work threatening to destroy the kingdom, but also internal forces and battles. In this final installment, the climax is reached.

The losses are many.

It seems impossibly hard.

The malus seem innumerable.

And still the battle must be fought.

I honestly didn’t know quite how the story would end. Who would become king, Liam or Errol? Who would still be alive when good finally prevailed? I would think I knew the answers, and then something would happen to make me second guess my assessment of the story. Without giving anything away, the ending of the trilogy was fully satisfying and consistent (although more abrupt than I cared for).

This was certainly a plot driven series, and it is the questions and tension that keep readers turning the pages. Even so, there were some sentence gems tucked within the action sequences. For instance, I just randomly opened the book to approximately the middle and read this:

“They will break,” he said to Ablajin. He tried to speak without attracting attention. “The longer they stare at the cave, the more fear it grows upon them.”  

  “You are right, holy Martin,” Ablajin murmured in return, “but they must conquer it themselves. Any strength I give them through my words will not last long enough to bring them through to the other side.”   (emphasis added)

This trilogy is one that I will keep on my favorites shelf  to re-read. It’s not a complex narrative like the Lord of the Rings, but as with the Lord of the Rings, there are layers to this story, layers that are only discovered with more than one reading. And these books are good enough to merit more than one reading.

5 out of 5 stars

*This book was given to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.*

7 Ways to Have An Amazing 2014

Do you have any dreams for 2014? What are they? Have you prayed about them? Talked them over with others? Put them in the form of goals with a timeline and action steps?

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I don’t know about you, but I often get stuck on the dreams that truly do require others. A single girl can’t snap her fingers and be married. A couple can’t always just say ‘We want a baby’ and have one appear.  An author who thought he did all the hard work of completing a manuscript now faces the even harder task of finding a publisher. The college graduates with the magical pieces of paper can’t always find the jobs that they are qualified for. The reconciliation of a soured marriage or friendship ultimately relies on two people softening, not merely the desires of one person. And on it goes.

It’s easy to get discouraged and give up when the final results are outside of yourself.

    But isn’t that always the case?

 With the constant positive talk of our culture about how we can reach our dreams and do everything we set our minds to doing, we can forget that we’re not the ultimate authority on our own lives. For a Christian, such thoughts are unbiblical (see Proverbs 19:21, among others); for anyone, it is a dangerous thing to rely on your own strength and power. The fall back to reality can be a painful one. Do people need to hear that they can do more than they think they can do and be encouraged to get outside of their comfort zones? Yes. Absolutely, yes!

However, we also need to hear truths about our limitations, and how to work with them.

Here are seven things to consider as you look ahead to the rest of the year:

   1.     Not everything you want to do will fit in the category of a goal, but that isn’t a reason to give up. Instead, make some goals that fit your dreams.  

 The college graduate doesn’t have the final say in whether he gets the job at his dream company. He does, however, have a say in many of the factors that will influence those with the power to hire him on. Instead of giving up on the objective of working for a particular company, he can write down that his desire is to have a job with that company. Underneath his dream, he can write down specific goals: carefully read the company website and learn about the people who work there, practice interview skills with a friend, update his resume, and so on.

 2.       Write down your goals.

A goal unwritten is a wish unfulfilled. There is something powerful in writing down your dreams.  It helps you take ownership and responsibility for your plans, giving you a framework for living your days. It can be scary sometimes to admit to what you want and commit it to paper, but your dreams will remain perpetual wishes if you don’t take that first step towards getting them out of your brain and making them happen.

 3.       People: you can’t keep your goals without them.

You will need other people as you set out to achieve your dreams. Telling others your goals is the next step after writing them down. Others will hold you accountable (“Hey, what are you doing with that cupcake? Aren’t you on a sugar detox?”), cheer you on (“You’re doing great! I don’t even have to put in my earplugs when you practice your violin now!”), help you out (“Hear, I’ll proof-read you’re pepar fore yew”), and sometimes partner with you (“That’s awesome that you want to memorize Psalm 119 this year! Let’s do it together!”)

Your friends can help keep you grounded in enjoying the everyday even as you look ahead to the future. They may also provide the needed voice of reality that you don’t want to hear: “Hey, you told me that you wanted to prioritize your marriage, but you keep taking on more work projects instead of spending time with your wife, and then you unwind by turning on the TV. How can you bring some balance here?”

4.       Your goals may need to be revised. And again.

There are times that I find myself not wanting to make goals because my dreams will change, and it’s downright embarrassing to admit that that goal you were so excited about a month ago has altered. Here’s a truth to embrace: sometimes, we need to persevere and keep going when our feelings don’t match our commitment. And sometimes, we need to accept that changes come and let go of what doesn’t fit in our life for this particular season. (This is another good reason to surround yourself with people you trust as you work towards your goals: discerning the difference between the time to persevere and the time to move on sometimes requires outside perspective)

 5.       Don’t try to do it all.

Contrary to popular opinion, busyness is not next to godliness. It is not a virtue to respond to ‘How are you?’ with ‘I am SO busy…’  Since when is doing a hundred things in a mediocre fashion preferable to doing ten things well?

If you struggle with priorities and scheduling, the best thing I can tell you to do is read Kevin DeYoung’s book ‘Crazy Busy’. It’s a little book that communicates some big truths, and is one that most of us would do well to read and apply.

  6.       When it’s hard, take small steps.

This year, I’m excited about the months to come. I have more ideas than I know what to do with, and need to spend some time settling down the possibilities in my mind, prioritizing, and praying.

The beginning of 2013 was rather different. The direction that I thought my life was going did a 180, and what was solid and sure turned out to not be quite as solid as I thought it was. Maybe you’re going through a time of change this year, the sort of change that was forced on you and not chosen. Now is the time to give yourself some grace. Try some new things. But take it slowly. Don’t jump into a  million things at once. Embrace the positive growth that comes with the challenges, even when the process hurts.

 7. You can do more than you think you can.

‘You can do more than you think you can’ is not a negation of ‘Don’t try to do it all’. Take a risk with two big ideas, projects, or dreams instead of doing twenty small things that you know you can easily accomplish. My challenge to you is to consider this question: ‘how many things in my life have I  given up on before I started because I wasn’t sure I could accomplish them?’ Or, ‘how many things have I given up on because they would take a long time to finish?’ Remember the saying ‘the time passes anyway.’ Pray until you feel confident in your direction. Then get a group of people around you who believe both in your ‘Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal’ (thank you Jim Collins for that term). But most importantly, get people around you who believe in YOU. These people will be the ones to cheer you on and say with all sincerity that you can do this. They’re the ones who will pray for you, come alongside you to help where they can, and give you the hard truths. They will build you up in love and encouragement. At the end, they will be the ones there with you to celebrate your achievement.

Do you have any special dreams for 2014? If so, I’d love to hear about them! Please feel free to comment here or send me a message.

{Review} Pilgrimage by Lynn Austin

Some books have beautiful covers and terrible contents. Other books present the ugliest face possible to the world and yet hold beautiful treasure within. Then there are books like Pilgrimage, where the beautiful cover complements the gentle yet pointed words inside.

Journey with Lynn Austin to Israel as she faces her spiritual dryness with honesty and conviction, and fills up with the living water of Christ. I smiled when I read these lines in the very first chapter: “My imagination is the problem, you see, especially when it collides with God’s plan for my life and the lives of my children.” Isn’t that the truth for all of us? That we experience discontent when we start dictating to God what our lives should look like, instead of letting Him speak to us and guide our every day?

Lynn’s background as a bestselling author of historical fiction, including some novels set in Old Testament Israel, shines clearly through the pages of this book. Every page brought either new concepts or fresh perspectives on things I already knew, as she expertly wove the story of her journey through Israel into the larger story of each one of us, on our own pilgrimages with the Lord.

 

No, I have not been to Israel. But I have journeyed there with Ms. Austin, and thrilled to every new mental ‘aha!’ as I made new connections about Jewish culture and Christ (The excellent book Jesus on Every Page is a great prelude to Pilgrimage.) I pulled out my Bible and followed along, picturing the scene, imagining anew. I whispered the beautiful prayers at the end of each chapter, and praised God as I thought about His faithfulness through my whole journey with Him, in all of its twists and turns.

There is no trip more wonderful than knowing we’re walking with God, wherever on the earth we may be. These earthly trips though can lead to a deeper understanding of Who God is, and who we are.  I certainly plan on tucking this beautiful little paperback onto my shelf so that, sometime in the future, I can review this particular journey to Israel, and be refreshed on my own pilgrimage.

5 out of 5 stars

This book was provided to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my honest review. The opinions are entirely my own.

{Review} The Secret Keeper by Beverly Lewis

There is a cat perched on my lap who is making typing a challenge, to say the least. He apparently wants to put his opinion down as well (and isn’t it just perfectly stereotypical for a female wordsmith to be sitting at a computer with a cat for company?)

But on to the book. The Secret Keeper by Beverly Lewis is yet another novel in a long string of the fairly new genre of Amish fiction, sometimes humorously referred to as ‘bonnet rippers’. Mrs. Lewis was one of the pioneers of this genre; I counted 32 Amish-themed books listed to her credit. I must admit that I enjoyed the first several of these books that I read, but the enjoyment progressively faded as the formulaic story became all too predictable. Here is a point in favor of this book: it is not predictable. Amish fiction has a habit of dealing with an Amish young person caught in dilemma between following the heart (leading towards either romance or the ‘English’ world, or both) and following the rule of the Amish church or the family (or both). In this case the story follows an unusual arc. The heroine of the story is a young – by the non-Amish standards at least- woman who desires to become a part of the Amish world, to the point of being baptized into the church. That caught my attention. After all, why are the Amish fiction books so popular? Clearly it’s because those outside of the Plain community have a fascination with the faith and principles of the Amish; even, dare I say especially, their simplicity.

The good points of The Secret Keeper are not hard to find. The storyline itself is intriguing, the characters flawed and lovable. In fact, you will recognize some of them if you have read other Beverly Lewis novels. The good news though is that it’s entirely your choice whether you want to jump into the other 30 some books by this author. The Secret Keeper stands well on its own. I greatly enjoyed immersing myself in Jenny’s journey as she learns the Amish ways, is relieved of some of her idealistic views of what the Amish community is like, and struggles to discern God’s voice in her life.  The interwoven themes, both explicit and implicit, were thought-provoking.

Nevertheless, there were some points that I didn’t care for. In some ways, the story felt simplistic. I wanted to know more about some of the details about the Amish beliefs and how Jenny decided that they squared up with the Bible and how she was willing to live her life. The ending felt rushed, even as the first half seemed to move along rather slowly. The writing was more telling  rather than showing – thinking of the famous ‘moonlight on the glass’ example by Chekhov. Still, those are small things, and mostly due to style preference. The story itself is a worthy one.

All in all it is a good, light read, with the sort of plot twists that could make confirmed Amish fiction fans look at their own lives in new ways. This Englisher girl enjoyed her sojourn with the Amish, if even for a few short hours.

4 out of 5 stars.

This book was given to me by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for an honest review. The opinions are entirely my own.

{Reviews} 101 Secrets for Your Twenties + Wrecked

Being twenty and being ‘wrecked’ aren’t linked. Much.

Well, aside from the fact that both books were written for my generation, which is obvious both by the style and content of the writing. Which is to say, I just recently spent a chunk of my reading time immersed in two very contemporary works, neither of which are likely to become classics of any sort. It’s about enough to make me want to go refresh my brain with some Tozer or Spurgeon or Calvin or Lewis.  But I digress- and in the interests of fairness and honesty, I have to admit that I found things to like in both of these books.

101 Secrets for Your Twenties by Paul Angone

This is the book that I picked up and swore I wouldn’t like, because it looked so gimmicky. It’s also the book that saw me laughing all the way through, accompanied by occasional sighs and rueful nods of acknowledgement.  I sent it to a friend this past week- not my copy but a new one, because my copy was one that I wanted to have handy for a pick-me-up on days where I’m feeling stuck or depressed about work, writing, dreams, the future, or just life in general.

As the title says, this book is made up of 101 ‘secrets’. Some are wise and practical (#19: Our plans aren’t the problem. Our timeline is.) Others are laugh-out-loud funny even without Angone’s commentary (#5: Don’t ever, ever check Facebook when you’re A. Depressed. B. Drinking. C. Depressed and drinking. D. Unemployed. E. Struggling with being blessed with singleness while some of your friends seem to be blessed with a Brad Pitt lookalike and that blazing white picket fence shining with the glory of the American Dream on steroids. OR – F. Anytime after 9:17 p.m.)  Others share gems of spiritual wisdom (#50: God in HIs infinite mercy saves us from syllabus syndrome.)

The overall picture of this book is one of hope. It combines truth and motivation for keeping on keeping on, humor, and insights into improving your situation- or, perhaps, seeing your situation in a different light.  Who among us doesn’t need smiles along the path of life? If you’re twenty-something, do yourself a favor and pick up this book. If you’re not, do a friend/family member a favor and give it to them as a gift. We’re probably low on free cash and would greatly appreciate it. (Secret #8: Those friends who are uber-successful in their 20s are the outlier- not the norm)

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Wrecked by Jeff Goins

From the back cover: “Perhaps never being the same again isn’t such a bad thing.” That’s the core message of Wrecked, and Jeff Goins is a capable and earnest author, making it an enjoyable read.

Very little in the beginning of the book was new (though I was about brought to tears in the story about Wosne in Michael Hyatt’s introduction- don’t skip it) It’s the usual things you would expect: stepping outside of your comfort zone, awakening to a world outside of yourself, giving, sacrifice. He talks about moving forward past the experience instead of just seeking more emotional highs. He speaks of the fact that, despite the sterotype, giving doesn’t make you feel good. The more you give, the more hurt you will feel with the injustice, pain, and just plain sin of this world. Your heart will break, and it will be the most beautiful kind of broken you can imagine.

It’s all written well, but it’s similar to messages you will hear and see in other places. Then you will reach the mid-way point of the book.  Jeff begins talking about seasons, about commitments, about the needs you can’t meet. He speaks of jobs that you don’t want, of restlessness, of bringing your stories and passion to those in your everyday life. And here you will find most of the gold in this book. It’s worth a read- for anyone, young or old(er).

4 out of 5 stars.

{Review} The Journal

When your father has a resemblance to Abraham Lincoln and makes some of his living by doing presentations as the aforementioned president, you pick up some knowledge about the Civil War. (You also get some interesting questions like ‘I didn’t know Abe had a daughter’, or ‘What’s it like living with the President?’ … but I digress)

So, when I saw ‘The Journal’  by Beth Harlow listed as an available book to review, I was curious and requested it. Written as a journal – hence the title- this little book is a piece of historical fiction based on the years of the Civil War. From time to time the journal crosses back and forth between Confederate and Union lines as it gets lost in battle or other things occur (I won’t spoil the story!)

It’s a short read, coming in at 64 pages, but something about that makes it feel more authentic, as if it really could have been written by some men struggling through the war. Historically, it seems to be right on, but the strength of the book mostly lies in briefly getting to know the men whose hands it passes through. It one way, they are one-dimensional characters: it is impossible to have a 64 page book written from multiple perspectives, and journal style no less, that is anything other than surface level deep into the lives of the characters. On the other hand, each character was distinctly different, and as in any good novel, I found myself caring about these men as I read through their stories. There were good and bad mingled, on both sides, and watching their faith story or lack thereof throughout seemed very true to what I’ve read of the spiritual lives of men on the battlefield.

I honestly think one of the best uses for this book would be as a supplement to homeschooling studies or a read-aloud family book. So often, books on the Civil War are very one sided, whether they be novels or non-fiction. Note that I said ‘Civil War’ and not ‘War of Northern Agression’- just one example of how word choice betrays bias and belief and, typically, what part of America you are from. What is useful about this book is that it is historical fiction that is true to history, covers the whole war, and reasonably presents how men on both sides were feeling. It makes them human instead of abstract ideologies and ‘all [Confederates/Union] were horrible people’. Read alongside a textbook and/or a non-fiction book on the Civil War (or two).

4 out of 5 stars.

I received this book free from the publisher through the BookCrash.com book review program, which requires an honest, though not necessarily positive, review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

{Reviews} Bringing the Biblical World to Life

Sunday seems an appropriate day to post reviews of the following three books: ‘I am Ruth’ (a full-color look at the Old Testament book of Ruth, published by New Leaf Press),  ‘Thirty Days in the Land with Jesus: A Holy Land Devotional’ (published by Moody Publishers) and ‘The World of Jesus: Making Sense of the People and Places of Jesus’ Day (published by Bethany House Publishers)

 I Am Ruth: A Story of Loss, Love & Redemption

The biblical story of Ruth has always held a fascination for me. As one of two books of the Bible named for a woman (Esther being the other) Ruth has the distinction and honor of being one of five women named in the lineage of Christ. The story is fascinating on many levels: Ruth is a story of redemption, of beauty from ashes, of deep and abiding friendship, of a foreigner being brought into the family of God, of sorrow, of love, of the sovereignty of God over all.

But, after all, we have the book of the Bible. What makes this book something helpful and useful when we can just open our Bibles and find out everything we need to know? I asked myself this question as I read through the book this afternoon. And, I reached the conclusion that it is indeed a helpful book to read alongside the Bible text (or, if you prefer, you can read the story chapter by chapter in the book: Pages 34-35, 48-49, 64-65, and 80-81, provided in the NKJV)

The full color photography is absolutely stunning. It is truly a beautiful book, and photographer Kenneth Berg did an excellent job of making the text come alive. Sometimes, I have trouble visualizing the events of the Bible, with a people and culture and land and time far removed from my own. I’m ‘seeing’ the story of Ruth in a new light now after viewing the on-location photography that graces every page. That being said, I’m certain that it is not always historically accurate in clothing/etc. and if you’re a stickler for detail over the feeling and sense of place that a picture can provide, then that will probably bother you.

The text of the book is just as beautifully presented as the photography; kudos to author Brenda Duff. Foreward author Bodie Thoene opens the book powerfully by taking a look at why a 3000 year old story still has the power to move and transform us.  She looks at David, a descendent of Ruth, and made a connection I had not seen before between the powerful friendship and loyalty of Ruth to Naomi to, years later, the tie of friendship between her great-grandson David and King Saul’s son Jonathan. Ultimately, this is a multi-layered story that points to God’s love and care for us in every circumstance, as well as the power and beauty of human relationships. What ‘I am Ruth’ does well is dig deeply into the story, providing biblical context and helping the reader draw conclusions about personal application.

This is certainly a worthy coffee-table book or personal reflection/Bible study jump-starter. Check it out at the New Leaf Press website or on Amazon.

4 out of 5 stars.

Thirty Days in the Land with Jesus: A Holy Land Devotional 

 I must admit that I had really high expectations for this book after seeing some glowing high profile recommendations of it. Jerry B. Jenkins, though not a man I always agree with in theology, is an outstanding author. For him to say that it was one of his favorite books and would stay within reach on his bedside table? Wow. That sounded like a must-read book.  Unfortunately, Thirty Days in the Land with Jesus ended up being a disappointment in some ways. For what it is, (a devotional book most enjoyed by new Christians or those reminescing on a trip to the Holy Land) it’s decent: for what I was expecting to find, a disappointment.

I really enjoyed some aspects of it, and did experience some ‘Aha!’ moments in the reading. But honestly, it seemed very light in both the daily devotional aspects and the depth of information about the locations. This is not a book for someone who has used a decent study Bible in even a very casual sense, as I have.

Also, I couldn’t make sense of the ‘altar calls’ that were scattered throughout- ‘do you know Jesus as your Savior? Here, pray this prayer.’ One, perhaps, could have been appropriate (though I often cringe at how they’re worded) But several was overkill. Who is the intended audience of this book? I was getting mixed messages on that front throughout. Was it for a new Christian? The unconverted? The mature believer looking to deepen his knowledge? And honestly, it seemed odd to me to find so many quotes from Mark Twain. Yes, I appreciate him as an author- but he’s hardly one to tacitly hold up as a Christian pilgrim!

I believe Professor Dyer upheld his stated goal of helping his readers ‘fall more in love with the God of the Word’. His passion for what he was writing about came through clearly in this book, and I believe it would be a helpful resource for new Christians, and those just beginning to learn about the land of the Bible. I found several things interesting and useful in his explanations, but perhaps my expectations were raised above what they should have been. I also didn’t appreciate the almost flippant chapter titles and a few of the introductions to each day- but that is merely a personal style preference. It’s a mixed bag for me. I’ll probably keep this book around, because I did learn some new things (the first chapter I truly enjoyed was Day Five, Jesus in the Wilderness) At the same time, I don’t feel comfortable recommending it as an in-depth study of the Holy Land.

In one sentence- it’s decent, but lacks the depth I was hoping for.

3 out of 5 stars.

The World of Jesus: Making Sense of the People and Places of Jesus’ Day 

This book had the depth that I was hoping for in the 30 day devotional.  If you’re not interested in history, you will probably find this a dull book: however, if you are looking to ‘make sense’ of the time of Christ and have a very rudimentary knowledge of what happened to Israel between the book of Malachi and the book of Matthew, [that would be me] it’s a must read. Written by Dr. William H. Marty, ‘The World of Jesus’ gives a wealth of background and context for the gospels. It’s written in a scholarly style, but is engaging and clear for those encountering the information for the first time. Personally, I found it easy to read and quite enjoyable, but I’ve also been told that I’m far from normal when it comes to the books I love to read and the way I am fascinated by history and theology!

The lay-out of the book is very logical, as is to be expected from a professor. (Smiles) The order of chapter subjects is as follows:  The Persian Period, The Greek Period, The Maccabean Revolt, The Hasmonean Period, The Roman Period, and the Early Church and the Herodians. There is a final chapter called ‘When Religion Gets Sick’, which looks at the Jewish responses to Hellenism. Each chapter closes with discussion questions, a feature that I greatly enjoy in a book if they’re not overdone or have simplistically obvious answers. These questions are great, as they take the historic facts that could easily become dry and academic and ask the reader to apply them to some current situations.  For instance, one of the questions from the first chapter: “Regarding Philip’s work in Samaria, why was there an ethnic and cultural barrier to ministry there? Discuss one more situation that relates to the contemporary church’s difficulty in ministering to the various ethnic groups.”

This book challenged me to dig further and find out more about the history and cultural backdrop of the world that Christ entered. 5 out of 5 stars.

Thanks to New Leaf Press, Moody Publishers, and Bethany House Publishers for providing these books to me in exchange for my honest review.

{Review} Unseduced and Unshaken

     Unseduced and Unshaken is a beautiful and timely book focusing on the choices that young women make. The subtitle says it directly: ‘The place of dignity in a young woman’s choices’. The basic premise is a call for women to make healthy choices, choices that are focused God-ward and are thoughtful, instead of selfish and impulsive.

I both enjoyed and was somewhat dismayed by how the subject of dignity was treated. First, the good: Rosalie de Rosset [an English professor] wrote one of the best introductions I have seen, and that introduction explained how and why she wrote this book. Read carefully, it precludes any thoughts of ‘oh no, yet another book written about biblical femininity and the quiet, submissive woman.’ She writes, “I began to see how central dignity, at first a formal-sounding word, was to Christian personhood, in this case womanhood…”  She focuses the book towards women, but her resulting work is not focused on presenting another light read for the women’s inspirational interest section at the local bookstore. That would, in fact, be an antithesis to her aim. This is unlike most books I’ve read that are aimed at Christian women, and I say that with gratitude and respect!

The part I was uncertain of (at first) was how the topic of ‘dignity’, which was the central theme of the book, was presented. I followed the logic, the great use of classic literature (my copy of Jane Eyre is sitting on my shelf, calling out for me to read it again…!) and was enjoying the way the chapters were laid out as I skimmed through the book (my usual first step with a non-fiction book, as it helps me get a sense of the overall arc of the book) My skepticism was rising, however, as I looked for the Scripture references for her claims and wondered if this was going to be a rather legalistic look at ‘what women should be.’ I can see people saying that who did not stop and read the book carefully. My first impressions were fortunately and wonderfully wrong. When I came back to the beginning and read through slowly, I found that Unseduced and Unshaken is far from didactic. In the first chapter that defines dignity, she writes, “The truth of the matter is that most of us are in process, no matter what our age. It is easier for some of us to look dignified than others, but to truly be dignified is something different…” She says that dignity is not merely outward, but is rather defined by an inner character. She calls women to holiness, but not to another stressful list. The last sentence of the book sums it up: “With Christ as our dignity our desire is met.”

Far from a list of how to live the Christian life as a woman, Rosalie de Rosset goes to the heart- the reasoning behind our choices, how we make choices, and Who we are making the choices for. I should say here that there are several guest-written chapters and appendixes, but the majority of the book is de Rosset’s. I thought of the first several chapters of Proverbs as I read- wisdom crying out in the streets. This is what the book reminded me of- wisdom calling out against the loud and cloying folly. I did not agree with every statement that was made in every chapter, but that isn’t the point. The point is to get women talking and thinking deeply and biblically about choices in every area of life, and in that way, she succeeded with me!

And, naturally, I loved her use of good literature throughout…  Each chapter closes with probing ‘discussion questions’ and also suggested reading.

The chapters are organized as follows:

Minding Your Dignity (basically, an introduction to the philosophy of the book) “… it takes spiritedness and conviction and even telling a hard truth to be truly virtuous and dignified, a virtue and dignity that involves purposeful attention to one’s mind, one’s soul and its longings, and one’s spirit, all of which affect one’s physical life.” … ” “It is a difference between the status quo as spiritual death, and the transcendent adventure which is life. It’s a choice each one of you is being called to make.”

Finding Your Voice –  Discussing the conflicts women face as we consider Scripture passages that encourage silence within the church (and the way those verses have been abused), the example we find in Abigail, and the struggles of expressing ourselves honestly and openly in a Christian community. A quote I’ve been pondering: “… part of the of problem for Christian women today is that the  world expects way too much from women, and the church expects way too little.”  And  a Dorothy Sayers quote: “Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man- there never has been such another.”

Longing: From Disparity to Desire  - The divided self, sweet sorrow, and fulfilling the God-sized hole in our hearts with ‘less-wild lovers’. Good stuff.

Everything is Theological – encouraging women to turn away from the ‘fluff’ of a lot of women’s ministry and dig deep into the Word, into theology, to be careful and biblical thinkers. YES!!

Distracted or Dignified? – The temptation of images, ghostly people, the seduction of the trivial.

Mindful or Mindless – Keeping a whole worldview, including a biblical look at leisure. How much thought have you put into what you do for fun? How much time do you spend away from technology, in solitude or soul renewing silence? This chapter includes a great look at the differences between popular versus classic. The suggestion list at the end of the chapter is excellent, and I’m looking forward to trying several of the ideas.

Reading as a Spiritual Exercise.  - Written by an English teacher, and naturally this is a subject that I am in full agreement with.  I loved this chapter, though there was little new here. She takes a good look at the dangers of a steady diet of mediocre books and the importance of reading some of the books that have stood the test of time. Closes with an Ann Bradstreet quote: ‘the certainty of knowing eternity lies ahead of us “should make us so number our dies as to apply our hearts to wisdom, that when we are put out of these houses of clay we may be sure of an everlasting habitation that fades not away.”‘

Sexual Dignity- An honest and hard-hitting yet grace filled chapter; one of the best I’ve seen on the topics covered.

A Theology of Modesty- I was a little bit reluctant to read this chapter. I’ve read *SO MUCH* on the subject of modesty, so many nasty debates and condemnations of others based on what they do or don’t wear, and one can only read so much of that before wanting to bash together the heads of the people writing the opposing articles and shout ‘Enough already!’ This chapter, however, was nicely handled. No ‘rules list’ was given; instead, a biblical philosophy is laid out, we’re pointed back to Christ by way of Genesis (those few pages were amazing, summed up in this: “Through bearing nakedness and shame, Christ becomes our righteous clothing.”), a helpful look is taken at the difference between lust and longing (“[Lust] has no place in the Christian’s life. Lust diminishes.”) and finally, she writes, “But we don’t need this power the world seduces us with. We don’t need any other power but what is found in Jesus Christ. We are now in Christ, and we put Him on. We are not clothed with the “treasures” that this world affords…”

Is it Worth It? Is He Worthy? – Is the price one you’re willing to pay? Are you willing to sit at the feet of the Savior and become a woman who is saturated in the Word, passionate for Him, loving life and living in a way that brings Him glory? Is it worth it? Yes. A thousand times yes. Includes the reminder that we cannot and should not do the Christian life alone  and recommends Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book ‘Life Together’. (Naturally!)

 “Christ so loves us that He wants our entire selves (body, soul, and spirit) to be His dwelling place, setting us free not to sin, setting us free from the enslavement of cultural pressures and the lies we are told and which we tell ourselves. Freed, we can as Luther once said, dance with God, expressing our longings in ways that will not injure us, and living whole, undivided lives, as, yes, His temple. ‘Be Thou my dignity, Though my delight’ reads a line from an ancient Irish hymn. The connection couldn’t be more powerfully expressed. With Christ as our dignity, our desire is met.” 

Finally, there are two appendixes of reactions to Wendy Shalit’s book on modesty.

5 out of 5 stars.

 

Unseduced and Unshaken was given to me by Moody Publishers in exchange for my honest review.