Friday, July 31, 2015

Book review: Speak, Lord

To begin with, I am now not a big fan of devotional books, especially those that have a mixture of anecdotal accounts with theological accounts. But the strength of this book by Vic Black is that there are a lot of interactive features that invite the readers to experience the Psalms themselves. It is a 'to-do' book vs a 'to-read' book. As the author says:
"I would encourage you to live in one psalm for a period of time. The objective is not speed. I would not encourage you to try to do one psalm a day. Take a slower approach and stay in a psalm for a week or two...."

Each chapter of this book is divided into a few sections:
1) The psalm itself and a commentary by the author
2) The re-writing of the psalm based on the author's personal experience
3) A reflection section by the author
4) The Practice section broken into Writing Prompts and Devotional Thoughts for you to consider. This is the part where the readers are given various hints, tips and prompts to interact with the psalms.

(Disclosure of Material Connection: I was given access for a limited time to this e-book free from Tyndale House Publishers  as part of their book review program called Tyndale Blog Network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”)

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Book review: The Ancient Path: Old Lessons from the Church Fathers for a New Life Today

This book is a semi-autobiography of John Michael Talbot relating his spiritual experiences how the early church fathers deeply influenced his spiritual, professional and personal life.

Talbot was born into a Methodist family with a musical background and at age 15 he dropped out of school and was performing as a guitarist for Mason Proffit, a country folk-rock band formed with his older brother Terry. Talbot embarked on a spiritual journey that led him through Native American religion and Buddhism to Christianity. At this point he and his brother, Terry, joined the Jesus Movement. Reading the life of Saint Francis of Assisi, he was inspired to begin studying at a Franciscan center in Indianapolis. He became a Roman Catholic and joined the Secular Franciscan Order in 1978. He started a house of prayer, The Little Portion. This book basically describes some of his experiences.

However, I find this book to be quite difficult to read. Talbot started by emphasizing that the early church preferred nothing  - not even life itself - to Christ. If Christians were willing to die as martyrs, it was because they wished to imitate Christ and reach Christ.

Ignatius of Antioch in AD 107 for example said: "I am the wheat of God. Let me be ground by the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found the pure bread of Christ." Or as St. Cyprian said: "Prefer nothing to Christ because he preferred nothing to us, and on our account preferred hard things to ease, poverty to riches, servitude to rule, death to immortality."

Theologically too as an evangelical Christian, I find certain segments of the book hard to accept. For example, in chapter 3, Talbot said that the Eastern Fathers spoke of the graced exchange in Greek terms that are startling to Western ears. They called it theopoiesis - literally "god-making". They called it theosis - which can be translated, roughly, as godding. In saving us, God has "godded" us by making us partakers of his divine nature (2 Peter 1:4).
......St. Athanasius of Alexandria, in the fourth century, said it most concisely: "He was made man that we might be made God." This does not mean we're given permission to walk around acting like we're God Almighty. No, it is a divine gift that makes us even more perfectly human." 

Although the qualifier is made, I still find this process of deification,  quite difficult for me to accept.

But the subsequent segment on prayers is great. As Talbot said:
The goal was to make Jesus the single focal point of life, and to make our prayer to him as constant as breath. Breathe in: Lord. Breathe out: Jesus.... It's not mechanical. It's not magical. It's love. 

The Eastern Fathers tell us to invoke the name and person of Jesus with every breath we take. Think about it: breathing is the only analogue we have as we become as we begin to consider the scriptural command. It is the one thing we do without ceasing. If we're living, we're breathing. When we stop breathing, we're dead.

In short, it might be a nice work, but still certain theological issues I find them hard to accept.

(Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this e-book free from Blogger for books as part of their book review program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”)

Book review: Praying Upside Down

In this book Praying Upside Down, Kelly O'Dell Stanley uses imagery, simple techniques, and artwork to help the readers to creatively connect with God like never before and to move their prayer life away from the preconceived and expected to a new level of intimacy.  God, as the author calls it, " the Master of Creativity, the original Artist, and He rarely responds in the ways we expect"

Kelly is a graphic designer and writer - which explains the contents of this book: the product out of the junction of all of her passions - faith, art and writing. 

Praying Upside Down basically offers a fresh chance to learn something new, hear an answer we may not anticipate, and experience God in a more real, tangible way.

As she explained in the introduction section of this book, praying upside means to allow God to let us see - truly see Him at work, see Him in action, letting go of our own expectations. To pray upside down means to allow Him to throw our world out of orbit, turn our thoughts topsy-turvy and changing us from the inside out. Praying upside down will definitely mean that our perspective will never be the same again. Similarly, in chapter 3, the author defines praying upside down in this way:
Praying upside down is a way to move your prayers away from the expected so that you can learn something new, hear an answer you didn't anticipate, or see God in a unique way.
And again, in chapter 4, the author says that
Praying upside down is any way that God shakes you out of your comfort zone. It's a new perspective, an altitude of exploration, the wonder and marvel of sacred revelation.
As she says, before we can pray upside down, we have to learn to see upside down - or sideways, backwards, from other angles and vantage points. This disciplines trains our minds to examine things from a new perspective, much like an artist does. Preconceived ideas are discarded allowing our brains to see the actual shapes that we might have missed when the image was right side up. To pray upside down means we must be prepared to embrace  - and expect, the unexpected.

As she said:
Whatever we are viewing, once it's inverted, we become more aware of its nuances - the shapes of the dark shadows, the space between the edge of the object and the side of the page. We see it for what it is. The goal of reproducing the image hasn't changed, but the end result of the upside-down drawing is more accurate.

To introduce the core content of the book, she first picked up the brush and sketched out the background in the form of her own testimony when she and her husband were contemplating of buying a house. They were praying for someone to buy over her old house, when God prompted her to pray for the woman who was her potential buyer instead of about her own house.

As she wrote in the next chapter:
To make art, we have to be able to enter a complicated dance between knowing and not knowing, between what's clear and what's chaotic
To me, that can be scary especially if you are someone who is a control-freak or constantly worry or been disappointed before. As the author says in chapter 3,
God's answers to our prayers may seem upside down. He may ask you to forgive, even if you are the one who is wronged. He may ask you to become the wife your husband needs, rather than turning your husband into the man you always dreamed of. He may not save your job, but He might give you the time you've always needed to learn more about Him., or free your schedule to finish he renovations on your kitchen. He might not deliver you from poverty but instead teach you how to budget, balance, and take care of what He's provided. Or He may show you that even if you have very little, when you can find ways to give what you do have, you will feel wealthy.
For these groups of people, the author has this to encourage:
Maybe you are feeling stuck. Worried that God doesn't hear you. Convinced that you don't deserve to have your prayers answered. Wondering how, when, or even if God will answer you. Your need may be huge....You might have been hurt by "religion" or had someone twist the words of the Bible against you. You may have seen the way God answered one of your prayers and didn't like it, so you're afraid to try praying again.

We are face hurdles. Our issues, personalities, and abilities color our faith and guide our behavior. Whether you want to overcome issues from the past or you're taking your first tentative steps of faith - wherever you fall on the continuum of human experience - this is your chance to give prayer another chance, or to deepen your existing practice of prayer. To ask and to watch for answers. To try to see God in a new way.

Jesus Himself turned the world upside down because the world by itself is already upside-downed. To quote Billy Sunday:
  • The world is wrong side up. It needs to be turned upside down in order to be right side up.

Other notable quotes by Kelly O'Dell Stanley in this book:
  • God wasn't late. He was right on time. He saw the big picture, knew what was at stake, and steadily put things in motion. 
  • Praise your child only for what he has actually done. Don't exaggerate. When you set unrealistic goals for your children, you're setting them up for feelings of failure and inadequacy.
  • Even in the lowest times, God's still there showing me truths, He never condemns, He doesn't want my disappointment in myself to keep me away.
  • In matters of spiritual growth, as in art, one of the best ways to learn is by observing someone who has been doing it for a while. It's one thing to bow your head, maybe even raise your hands in the middle of a church service during the swelling chorus of your favorite song, alongside a hundred of other people. But it's another to do it when you're on your own, alone in a quiet room.
In generally, I love this book. This book is not just for read, but for action. It's an invitation. It's an encouragement for us to chew of the goodness of God, to savor the aroma of His love.

(Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this e-book free from Tyndale House Publishers  as part of their book review program called Tyndale Blog Network. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: Trying Not To Try by Edward Slingerland

This book attempts to blend the Chinese philosophy of wu-wei with some recent researches from cognitive sciences. Wu-wei or “non-action” implies that our action is done without our doing. We are the object through which the natural forces work.

As much as the author tries to explain how wu-wei can be achieved in our daily lives, he alludes to the elusiveness of this task or as he quoted from Shunryu Suzuki in chapter 8: “You cannot try, but you also cannot not try; trying is wrong, but not trying is also wrong.”

I do quite like some of the things he said, many of which I find to be very meaningful and consistent with my own Christian beliefs. For example in Chapter 4, he wrote: “Knowing the contentment of contentment” requires resisting the siren call of consumer culture and instead holding fast to primitive and simple pleasures.” The Bible too has much to say about contentment: “Now godliness with contentment is great gain.  (1Ti 6:6 NKJV)” and  “Not that I speak in regard to need, for I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content (Php 4:11 NKJV)”.

Slingerland further wrote: “The desires of the eye form, of course, the entire basis of modern advertising industry, which has turned the continuous ramping up of our desire for “goods hard to come by” into a refined science. The minute the latest iPhone is released, our current iPhone suddenly seems less attractive. And as author puts it “Our belly may be perfectly comfortable in our current car, but our eye can see the nicer, newer car in the driveway next door (or in the magazine ad or billboard), and this perception immediately decreases our satisfaction with what we’re currently driving. The car itself has not changed the slightest bit, but our benchmarking mind has demoted it anyway.”

The Bible says: “For all that is in the world—the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life—is not of the Father but is of the world. (1Jn 2:16 NKJV)”

This is called the hedonic treadmill, where positive or negative events result in only temporary increases in happiness or unhappiness ( Or to state it in another way, human beings have the tendency to quickly return to a relatively stable level of happiness despite major positive or negative events or life changes. This term was first coined by two psychologists, Brickman and Campbell, in 1971.

One of classic experiment on the concept of hedonic treadmill is a study by Brickman, Coates, & Janoff-Bulman in 1987 titled “Lottery winners and accident victims: is happiness relative?” (Download full text in pdf: In that study, the authors found that, although there were strong initial emotional reactions of happiness and sadness respectively, but in the long term, neither group appeared to be happier than the other. 

The basic mechanism for hedonic treadmill is adaptation. It is a phenomenon where after perceiving something for a certain period of time, your sensory system “adapts” to it, causing it to recede into the background. Adaptation can be good as it helps to cope with our tragedies. But adaptation can also be bad when we begin to covet what others have that we do not. And this never-ending cycle of initial euphoria, adaptation and covetousness results in a rat race.

As Slingerland says, again in chapter 4: “Another source of dissatisfaction is our incessant need to measure our achievements against those of our peers…once a certain minimum threshold of material well-being is reached, our objective level of wealth seems to be much less important than our relative wealth – that is how we stack up against our neighbors or colleagues. Once you have enough money to buy the basics and indulge in some pleasures, like eating out or buying new clothes, ranked status comes to matter much mire than wealth per se.  Status, in turn, is inherently unstable because it is by its very nature relative – the benchmark is always moving as others around us rise or fall. Moreover, we seem designed to focus more on what we don't have than what we do; we are much more irked about those two people ahead of us than pleased about twenty behind.”

The Bible has much to say about the deceitfulness of our heart that can never be truly satisfied with the material things. "The heart is deceitful above all things, And desperately wicked; Who can know it? (Jer 17:9 NKJV)”

The Bible also has much to say about covetousness: “Therefore put to death your members which are on the earth: fornication, uncleanness, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. (Col 3:5 NKJV)”

There are also a number of Christian paradoxes that have similarities with the wu-wei concept. For it is in surrendering our lives that we can find true meaning of life (Matt 10:39).  For it is humbling ourselves that we find ourselves exalted (Matt 23:12).  For it is in giving that we receive (Luke 6:38). For it is in our weaknesses that we become strong (2 Cor  12:9,10). 

I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review.

Sunday, October 26, 2014

Defending Propositional Divine Revelation: Why the “I proposition” is the best rebuttal against the critics’ “E proposition”

Defending Propositional Divine Revelation: Why the “I proposition” is the best rebuttal against the critics’ “E proposition”

In his book, The Word of God and the Mind of Man, Ron Nash talked about propositional knowledge. What exactly is propositional knowledge? Propositional knowledge is the declarative knowledge that can be reasoned or justified.

Prophecy is a great illustration of whether the revelation is propositional or not. Prophecy cannot be said to be propositional (which means, cannot be proven whether it is true or false) until it has come to pass.

That's exactly what it is said in Deuteronomy 18:22 (also Jeremiah 28:15-17; 29:30-32):

..when a prophet speaks in the name of the LORD, if the thing does not happen or come to pass, that is the thing which the LORD has not spoken; the prophet has spoken it presumptuously; you shall not be afraid of him.
(Deu 18:22 NKJV)

That's why God, the Ultimate Logos, is so brilliant and beautiful, because essentially God has categorized prophecy into a propositional knowledge. It is verifiable. Otherwise, how do we know whether someone is true prophet or not?  On the other hand, historical events like the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the Exodus of Moses, as pointed out by Nash on page 45, technically are non-propositional because we cannot travel back in time to verify them. Only the traces or evidences of the events can be verified to a large degree so as to allow us to give the best explanation for the conclusion.

In chapter 4 of this book, Nash goes into great length to dispel the myth by the critics that the only contradiction to the E proposition (no S is P) is all S is P (the A proposition). If we buy into the all-or-none myth that ONLY the A proposition (All S is P) contradicts the E proposition (as argued by the critics) then we will be trouble because we will soon realize that some divine revelations are non-propositional (some S is not P, the O proposition), for example, the historical event of Jesus' resurrection or a believer's experience with the Holy Spirit's guidance.

After all, the E proposition (no S is P) can be rewritten as “All S is not-P” which means this premise is very tightly knitted as BOTH the subject (“ALL of S”, no exception at all!), and the predicate (“ALL are NOT P”, no exception at all!) are distributed.

In other words, as long as we can show that either the subject (S) is not distributed (i.e., some S, not ALL S) OR the predicate (i.e., some are P, not ALL are NOT P) is not distributed, that would be sufficient to contradict the E proposition (no S is P , or rewritten as, All S is not P). After all, there is no degree of contradiction. It is either "contradicts" or "not contradicts".

Which means BOTH I proposition and A proposition can contradict E proposition:

Some S is P (I  proposition) can contradict All S is not P (E proposition)


All S is P (A proposition) can contradict All S is not P (E proposition)

because it both cases, the P is no longer distributed (of course in the I proposition, the S is also not distributed).
(** Note: in the A proposition, the S is distributed but in the opposite direction)

But, if we take the A proposition (All S is P) as a rebuttal to the critics' E proposition (All S is not P), then we are not honest to ourselves because we know that there are some S which is not propositional (Some S is NOT P, the 'O proposition').

Therefore, the preferred/honest contradiction to rebut the E proposition, (as rightly pointed out by Nash) is the I proposition, not the A proposition.

In other words, the validity of the O proposition (in the case of divine revelation) invalids the A proposition.

Nonetheless, as our God is a relational God, not only propositional knowledge is necessary (the assignment question of the week), non-propositional knowledge is also necessary. He relates to us, he guides us through the Holy Spirit. But these experiential knowledge, by and large, are non-propositional.

Nash, Ronald H. The Word of God and the Mind of Man. Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Pub., 1992.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

How anti-intellectualism may impact church's evangelistic effort

In 1 Peter 3:15, we are exhorted to “always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have” (1Pe 3:15 NIV). Although apologetics should never be the main focus in evangelism, nonetheless, anti-intellectualism has adversely impacted the church’s evangelistic effort in a number of ways:

Anti-intellectualism results in a compromised evangelism
When the church is unable to an intelligent response to doubts raised by unbelievers, the church may compromise by substituting it with personal testimony sharing as a way to evade intellectual questions. While personal testimonies may be a great addition to gospel sharing (an example of a great testimony would be in John 9:25), it should never be a standalone strategy in evangelism because it is not the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, not every Christian would have a great testimony to tell but that does not excuse anyone from playing a role in evangelism.

Mark Dever, in his article What Evangelism Isn't (Christianity Today, Dec 2007) says:
“An account of a changed life is wonderful and inspiring thing, but it's the gospel of Jesus Christ that explains what it's all about and how it happened.”

Anti-intellectualism results in a canned evangelism

Lack of intellectual preparation in evangelism may also lead to the church to resort to a canned strategy, i.e. a “memorized steps” approach to evangelism.  Unfortunately, such approach is impersonal, mechanical and even foolish.

To quote Jonathan Dodson:
“These approaches are foolish because they treat people like projects to be completed, not persons to be loved…Paul says “know how you ought to answer each person.” (1 Pe 3:15). This means that most of your gospel explanations will be different, not canned. It also implies a listening evangelism. How can we know how to respond to each person if we don’t know each person…Rehearsing a memorized fact, “Jesus died on the cross for your sins,” isn’t walking in wisdom. Many people don’t know what we mean when we say “Jesus,” “sin” or “cross.

Anti-intellectualism results in a “can’t” evangelism

The worst-case scenario is a complete paralysis of any evangelistic effort. The fear of sharing and the fear of not knowing what to say may overwhelm a Christian brought in an anti-intellectual church environment. This phobia may be especially strong for a Christian who believes in the misconception that the success of evangelism is dependent on the number of soul conversions, forgetting that while it is our job to bring Christ to the lost, it is only God’s job to the lost to Christ.

To quote Mark Dever again:
“The Christian call to evangelism is a call not simply to persuade people to make decisions but rather to proclaim to them the good news of salvation in Christ, to call them to repentance, and to give God the glory for regeneration and conversion. We don't fail in our evangelism if we faithfully tell the gospel to someone who is not converted; we fail only if we don't faithfully tell the gospel at all. Evangelism itself isn't converting people; it's telling them that they need to be converted and telling them how they can be.”

1.     Dever, Mark. What Evangelism Isn't. Christianity Today, Dec 2007.
2.     Dodson, Jonathan. Two Big Reasons Evangelism Isn't Working. In Available at URL: Accessed 26 Oct 2014

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Is Hierarchical Pastoral Leadership Biblical?

J.P. Moreland in one of his lectures on why our cultures has become secular said that he believed the notion of the senior pastor is an unbiblical notion. Moreland said:
“I do not be such thing called senior pastor… [The] single thing that has damaged the church is the idea that we ought to have a person called the minister.”

But how does this concept of hierarchical leadership in the church come about?
After all, there is only one scriptural reference where the word “pastors” is mentioned and it is in Ephesians 4:11 and even then it is stated in its plural form. The Bible makes no mention of hierarchical pastoral structure. Ephesians 4:11 merely mention pastors as a function in the church, just as some are to function as apostles, prophets, evangelists and teachers. It does not describe who these pastors are.

In chapter 5 of their book Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices, Frank Viola and George Barna documented from various sources a number of factors of how the plurality of pastoral leadership evolve into a hierarchical one with the senior pastor. These include:

1. Ignatius of Antioch (35 – 107 A.D.)
Although Ignatius of Antioch may have the good intention of combating false doctrines and preserving church unity through a rigid power structure patterned after the centralized political structure of Rome, but this has inadvertently he was the first one to have set the ball rolling down a slippery slope towards hierarchical pastoral leadership.

Ignatius of Antioch in his series of letter elevated one of the elders above the others. The elevated elder was called the bishop.  Ignatius of Antioch said:
“Plainly therefore, we ought to regard the bishop as the Lord Himself…All of you follow the bishop as Jesus Christ follows the Father….He that honors the bishop is honored of God.

2. Clement of Rome and Tertullian
Clement and Tertullian were among the first writers to have distinguished the clergy from the laity. The word laity is derived from the Greek word laos, which means “the people” and the term clergy is derived from the Greek word klēroō which means “a lot, a share, an inheritance”. But the New Testament never uses the word klēroō for any particular leader or groups of leaders. Rather, it uses the word for the whole people of God (see Eph 1:11, Gal 3:29, Col 1:12, 1 Pet 5:3).

3. Hippolytus
The writings of Hippolytus further gave power to the bishops to even forgive sins! 

4. Cyprian of Carthage
Cyprian of Carthage reintroduced a number of OT concepts such as the need for priests, temples, altars. The bishops began to be called priests. Cyprian also introduced the doctrine of spiritual covering because he believed that the bishops have no other superior other than God. Cyprian also taught the notion that when the priest offered the Eucharist, he was actually offering the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. By the fifth century, the concept of the priesthood of all believers had completely disappeared from the Christian practice.

5. Constantine and the influence of Greco-Roman culture
Under Constantine, Christianity was both recognized and honored by the state. But this has blurred the demarcation between the church and the state. Bishops were given tremendous privileges by Constantine and they began to became involved in politics. Secular-spiritual, laity-clergy and profane-sacred gaps widened.

6. The reformation.
Although the reformation brought about many good things, it failed to address the issue of hierarchical leadership structure. Although the office of the bishop was rejected, but the underlying concept of hierarchical leadership in the church was maintained albeit a different name, i.e. pastors.

In my analysis, I agree and disagree with J.P. Moreland. I would agree with him that hierarchical pastoral structure with the senior pastor at the top is not found in the Bible. The only verse regarding pastors is in Eph 4:11 and that is expressed in its plural form to describe the shepherding function for some in the church. Nowhere did it mention the senior pastor as compared to lower ranked pastors.

I agree that the notion of senior pastors can sometimes create codependency between the senior pastor and his members as long as both of them continue to depend on each other to meet each other's psychological and spiritual fulfillment. For the members in need of counseling, they will look up to their senior pastor for answers. For the senior pastor, the danger occurs when he feeds on the admiration and praise of his members for affirmations and identity. Furthermore, this sort of hierarchical pastoral structure can create a lot of loneliness for the people on top.

However, for J.P Moreland to say that this is the single thing that has damaged the church, I think this is an overgeneralization. A lot of good things can come out from the senior pastor leadership when the senior pastor is one who is humble and sensitive to the leading of God. Paul, although is not officially declared a senior pastor, is often looked up to and probably has played the role of the senior pastor.

Viola, Frank, and Barna, George. Pagan Christianity?: Exploring the Roots of Our Church Practices. Carol Stream, IL: Barna, 2008.

Phrase Search/Concordance

Phrase Search / Concordance
Words/Phrase To Search For
(e.g. Jesus faith love, or God of my salvation, or believ* ever*)

The Christian Post RSS Feed - most popular