God Wants to Talk to You: a ★★★★★ book review.

His sheep know his voice. John 10:4 tells us that; yet many of us struggle to discern God’s voice in the midst of daily life. Samuel Williamson, founding director of Beliefs of the Heart, has written a helpful guide to hearing God’s voice everywhere.Hearing God in Conversation: How to Recognize His Voice Everywhere helps us cultivate our curiosity and attention to the ways in which God speaks to us.
Williamson begins with a story of hearing God’s voice when he was just a 9780825444241ten-year-old, newly minted atheist. When God didn’t strike down his girlfriend Diane for cussing, Williamson lost  his faith. So he started his own experiment with profanity and living like God wasn’t there. God simply said, “Sam, I’m real, and you don’t understand” (24). Williamson was brought back to faith.  While this experience is unique to him, Williamson believes we all have a capacity to hear God’s voice. He relates the various ways people hear God. In his second chapter Williamson argues that the point of God speaking is less about directions from on high (though He is still God) and more about conversation. God wants to connect and commune with us. Williamson uses the analogy of learning sailing from his dad and the casual conversations that would spring up organically as a result (35-36).

But Williamson is also an evangelical. He gives pride of place to the Bible. Williamson wants us to read our Bibles, but not as a maintenance manual or a rule book but as an opportunity to encounter the living God. We read to commune with the living God. So he offers scriptural meditation (focusing on the one book where God clearly spoke) as a way to train ourselves to hear God’s voice, “The best way to  become familar with God’s voice is to meditate on his Word, just as the best way to spot a counterfeit is to spend lots of time with the real thing” (61).

Along the way Williamson has lots of practical advice for listening prayer: how to recognize God, how to hear God’s voice for others,  hearing God’s voice in the silence, and detours of life, the place of emotions, etc. Williamson opens up about his own journey of God. He shares childhood stories of learning to hear God’s voice,  awkward words that God gave him for others (or about others),  and his process of discerning God’s call to leave a stable career with a software company to pursue full time ministry. He suggests brainstorming with God (journaling) and listening to ‘God’s questions’ in the Bible as ways to press into a deeper relationship with God.

What distinguishes Williamson’s book from some treatments of listening prayer is how down-to-earth he is. He shares stories and anecdotes with good humor (occasionally this is a bit distracting).  Two appendixes address the arguments against listening prayer by some conservative evangelicals and those ‘questionable and excessive practices.’ There are other good books on this theme (notably, Joyce Huggett’s Listening to God and Brad Jersak’s Can You Hear Me?, Dallas Willard’s Hearing God). Williamson own influences in writing include Oswald Chambers, C.S. Lewis, Dallas Willard and Tim Keller (22). He makes a strong and helpful contribution to the topic of hearing God. The best thing I can say about a book on prayer is that it makes me want to pray. This book certainly makes want to do that.

Five stars. ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

Note: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review

An Amusing Apologetics Book? a book review

I like Christian apologetics book as much as the next guy which means not a whole lot. I do like the idea of them. A reasoned, rational defense of Christian truth is a great idea–something that answers questions and addresses difficulties can be very helpful. But let’s be honest, most apologetic works suffer from  some serious defects. A few are overly simple and don’t really offer more than trite answers to tough questions. Some books are just dry and boring. Rare is an apologetics book that answers questions well while remaining entertaining.

The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist or: the Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments by Andy Bannister is both highly entertaining and thoughtful. Bannister is the Canadian Director for RZIM.  Hailing from the UK, his prose is full of  British wit, humorous asides and puns. It is rare to read a book where the footnotes are this funny. Bannister takes on the rhetoric of the so-called New Atheists, exposing  bad argumentation, false claims, overstatements made by these antagonistic unbelievers. Richard Dawkins, the late Christopher Hitchens, Daniel Dennett and the Derek Zoolander of New Atheists, Sam Harris, are all skewered by Bannister’s masterful wit. He also endeared himself to me by taking several cheap shots at the Toronto Maple Leafs (the NHL team in his adopted city). I haven’t read an apologetic book this entertaining since Randal Rauser’s The Swedish Atheist, the Scuba Diver and Other Apologetics Rabbit Trails. 

Each chapter begins with a humorous story (most often a bit fiction) which highlights significant issues with these Atheist’s arguments. Bannister then goes on to make some serious points about :what constitutes a good argument, the saneness of Christian belief, the reason why not all gods are the same, the problem with psychological arguments against God, why religion doesn’t poison everything, the limits of science’s explanatory power, the necessity of God to underscore morality and meaning, why everyone has faith and our reliable knowledge of Jesus. I doubt seriously he would win many converts from died-in-the-wool-atheists, but Bannister certainly demonstrates the warrant for Christian belief.

Bannister focuses on the New Atheists, though some of what he writes applies to ‘Old Atheism’ as well (he peppers his prose with occasional references to Bertrand Russel and others).  What sets the New Atheists apart from the old, is the vitriol they direct at religion and faith. They don’t describe religious people as wrong or misguided. They see us as evil. While their arguments against God are not always the most philosophically sophisticated, I’ve spent enough time on college campuses to hear Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris described as intellectual heroes from bright young people. Bannister does a good job of showing some of the places where their arguments are more flash than substance.

However this book doesn’t tackle every issue. One of the stickier points for some unbelievers is God’s track record. Atheists like Dawkins and Hitchens point to the Canaanite Conquest and some troublesome stories in the Bible and posit that the God of the Bible is a ‘moral monster.’  Bannister doesn’t explore this issue or theodicy (the problem of evil) in any great depth and yet I think that this is the major issue for many people today.  This signals the limits of this volume. A skeptic may follow and appreciate Bannister’s points and still come away with their principle objections untouched.

But for an entertaining and thoughtful romp and critique of New Atheism this is well worth reading. I give it four stars.

Notice of Material Connection: I received this book from Monarch Books and Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review.

Maccabean Revolt: a book review

Though I am fairly Protestant, I have read Maccabees several times (part of the Catholic Deutro-canonical books). Several parts of the Maccabean story sit behind the events of the New Testament (such as Jesus’ triumphal entry and the cleansing of the temple). David deSliva is a New Testament scholar who I have read some and have appreciated his insights (actually the first thing I read from deSilva was a response to a negative review on one of Gordon Fee’s books on Amazon).

In The Day of Atonement : A Novel of the Maccabean RevoltDesilva presents a novelization of the Maccabean revolt which is meticulously researched and reflects a deSilva’s scholarly understanding of the Maccabean revolt. As someone who has read Maccabees and has often lost the plot, I appreciate the clarity of deSilva’s prose. I learned stuff.

That being said, I didn’t find this to be compelling literature. If you enjoy historical novels you will likely appreciate the care that DeSilva takes in presenting these events. This is didactic fiction–teaching history through story. For what it is, it is pretty good. I give it three stars.

Notcie of material connection: I received this book from Kregel Publications in exchange for my honest review.

Personally Risky Faith: a book review

Rick Lawrence recounts Warren Buffet’s sixties-era investment when he invested $105,000 from of eleven doctors and put in $100 of his own money (11).  Buffet’s investment success is well documented, but it took this seed money to allow him to develop  and grow his own portfolio. Lawrence sees an analogous risk for would-be-disciples of Jesus. Like Buffet with his investors, we have a partner with significant resources for us to invest (namely Jesus); however in order for us to get the most benefit out of our investment, it will cost something from us. We also have to put our life on the line, and be willing to take part of the risks of faith.

Skin in the Game is a short book which explores the places that Jesus asks us to share in his reward by putting ourselves on the line–putting skin in the game. He invites us to face our shame (with the Samaritan Woman in John 4), He challenges us to move beyond a karma life where we get exactly what we deserve, and to throw our lot in with Jesus who lavishes grace on the undeserving. With the Canaanite Woman (Matt 15), Lawrence calls us to look beyond our destructive narratives and to see our true-identity. With the lame man at the pool of Bethesda (John 5) he asks us to ‘own what we want’ God to do for us. Lawrence points to Jesus walking on the waves in the storm and the terrified disciples and exhorts us to face our fears. Finally he summons us to wait on the Lord and to ‘make Jesus our first and last.’

Lawrence spends about 137 pages, calling us in different ways to press deeper into Jesus in ways that are personally risky. There are lots of good stories and pop-cultural references (Lawrence blogs at youthministry.com and is the executive editor for GROUP publishing). He is a good communicator and his message is on point in a lot of respects. This is the second book of Lawrence’s I’ve read and I much prefer this one to his earlier effort. The prose is winsome and I feel the call to a more compelling personal faith.

There in lies the rub. This is a book about personal faith and the risks that Lawrence calls us to,  addresses us as individuals. This of course is appropriate on many levels. We must own our own faith. We have to face our shame, take hold of grace, discover our true identity, own what we want from God, face our fears, wait on God and prioritize Christ in all things. As a Christian and as a pastor I add my voice to Lawrence’s. But as I read this book I wished that the communal aspects of the risk of faith were explored more in depth. I mean reconciliation, justice, care for the vulnerable requires risk. If we want transformation to come to our churches, our communities and neighborhoods it requires skin in the game–personal risk. It is costly and there are no guarantees on the actions of others. But transformation and the epic Jesus-centered life can’t be fully experienced without giving our lives away to others.

Lawrence didn’t write that book, but he did write a good book. I recommend this for anyone wishing to deepen their faith in Jesus. My first thought while reading this was that it would make a good graduation gift (high school or college) because it is pithy and helps you focus your life on things that matter. But of course we all need to hear Jesus’ call to greater trust and risky faith. Put your skin in the game. I give this four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book free from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

Candle Bible Handbook: a kids book review.

Passing on biblical literacy to kids is important. The Candle Bible’s have been helpful and entertaining ways to do that with my kids. But the new Candle Bible Handbook is not a Children’s Bible. It is a resource designed to give children ages seven and up an overview of the message of each of the Bible’s sixty-six books. Short age-appropriate summaries, each two to four pages long,tell children what each of the books are about. This is a bird’s eye view look at the Bible but it helps kids grab a hold of God’s story.

This book is chock-full of illustrations,maps and pictures of ancient artifacts. The illustrations are ethnically appropriate (i.e. Mediterranean complexions and not blue-eyed-Jesus). So I appreciate that. My daughter (seven in a few days) appreciates a resource which tells her about the whole Bible. While I wish for more detail in places, I am also not the intended audience of this Handbook.  This book doesn’t delve into difficult passages but stays focused on the broad trajectory of the biblical story. Certainly this is appropriate for younger audiences, but kids should grow into something meatier, which engages the biblical material more substantially. I give this book four stars.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for sharing a copy of this book with me in exchange for my honest review.

Highway to Hell: a book review

Ten years ago UK journalist Matt Roper published an exposé on the trafficking of children in Brazil. That book (Remember Me, Rescue Me) found its way into the hands of Canadian Country Star, Dean Brody. Wanting to make a difference in the lives of those stuck in prostitution, Roper and Brody travel to Brazil and make the 1,500 mile journey along BR-116–Brazil’s exploitation highway. What they find there is heart-rending.

Highway to Hell: the Road Where Childhoods are Stolen tells of their trips down BR-116 and what they found there. Along that dusty highway whole communities exploit their children. Girls routinely are forced into prostitution by abductors, gangs and even  their parents. Roper tells the horrors these girls face: violence, injustice, sexual slavery, addiction, murder. Some of the girls that he and Brody encounter are as young as ten or eleven years old when they are forced into prostitution.

In a conversation with a woman named Rita Marques, a woman working with the children’s council, they hear just how widespread and culturally permissible child prostitution is in the towns along the highway: “‘Everyone’s happy when a baby girl is born,’ she said not because of the prospect of their daughter playing with dolls or dressing up, but ‘because in abouta decade, they’ll have a valuable source of income'”(24).  Later, Roper observes that along the entire 1,500 mile stretch of highway, he doesn’t know of a single case where ;a girl’s abuser, pimp, brothel owner, trafficker, or even murderer, had been tried and jailed” (216). This is a place where injustice reigns and girls are victimized. As a father of girls, these stories make me sad and angry.

Roper isn’t content to just describe the horrors of BR-116. He shares personal stories of the girls that he and Brody meet along the way. Some of these he has been able to help through Meninadança, a non-profit he started which works with at-risk girls along the BR-116 corridor. They provide residence for girls leaving prostitution and dance-therapy as a way of building self esteem into girls who are used to being devalued, used and abused.  Brody also starts his own foundation to help raise awareness and support for the girls of these communities.

So Highway to Hell provides a ray of hope and a means for connecting tangibly with the work that Roper and others are doing to end child sex trafficking in Brazil. through his organization. I highly recommend this book. It will open your eyes to injustice and break your heart. But it also tells the story of two men who were moved to do something about the suffering and injustice they saw. five stars:★★★★★!

Thank you to Kregel Publications and Monarch Books for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review

True Reason and the New Atheist: a book review

The New Atheists declaim God and religion as outmoded and evil. To them, faith is not reasonable but an irrational hypothesis with dire consequences for the human race. Belief in God has underwrote henious crimes against humanity: the fall of the two towers, the crusades, etc. And so the New Atheists describe themselves as the ‘party of reason’ chooses to ground their convictions in empirical, material evidence. But is the New Atheism a reasonable alternative to Christian truth?  Which is reasonable alternative?

In True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheism, Tom Gilson and Carson Weitnauer have gathered together over a dozen Christian apologists in order to answer two questions: (1) Do the New Atheists reason well? (2) Do Christians fare any better. Contributors include John Snowstreet, Tom Gilson, Carson Weitnauer, William Lane Craig, Chuck Edwards, David Marshall, Lenny Esposito, David Wood, Peter Grice, Timothy McGrew, Samuel Youngs, Sean McDowell, John DePoe, Randall Hardman, Matthew Flannagan, and Glenn Sunshine.

Of the so-called ‘four horsemen of the New Atheism,’ True Reason interacts most with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. The late Christopher Hitchens is referenced but his arguments are not focused on in a substantial way (though the God question is now more firmly settled for him). Daniel Dennett is barely mentioned (except in the notes) but several New Atheist lesser lights are referenced (i.e. Loftus, RIchard Carrier, etc.).  Dawkins and Harris remain highly visible and influential figures who tout atheism’s rationality and the unreasonableness of faith. It makes sense for these authors to focus here.

The multi-author approach allows for an interdisciplinary answer to New Atheist claims. Logic, cosmology, ethics, and history are drawn on by various authors to show that the New Atheist answers arevastly overly simple. A close analysis of Dawkins and Harris’s arguments show how much of their rhetoric rests on rhetoric rather than reason and they are guilty of fuzzy logic in a number of respects (Chapters by Chuck Edwards and Tom Gilson are particularly good on this score).

I think that these apologists (as a group) make a good case for the reasonableness of Christian belief and point out flaws in  the New Atheist perspective. I am a Christian, so perhaps biased in my assessment here, but I do think that this book illustrates well that some of what New Atheists call ‘reason’ is not reason, and some aspects of Christian belief that they dismiss as unreasonable, has a rational basis. This doesn’t mean that all Christians are reasonable and all New Atheists are not. What they do show, is that the religion criticized by Harris and Dawkins is a bit of a strawman.

Having done college ministry at a secular university, I knew several students who were enamored with the likes of Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris. I think this is an important contribution to dismantling the foundations of the New Atheism. Christians who are unsure of the reasonableness of their faith, will be encouraged and strengthened by these arguments and will find a quick reference to some of the thorny apologetic questions from their secular, non-Christian friends. This is a great resource.

While this book answers difficult questions, I wish that there was more pastoral sensitivity in places. I don’t mean that the authors are insensitive and uncaring, but this volume stays focused on the topic of reason where a more holistic approach may get at the heart of some the New Atheist issues. If we acknowledge that many of the New Atheist claims aren’t ‘reasonable’ but represent an emotional appeal, we begin to see these arguments for what they are. When Hitchens or Harris talk about the evil of 9-11 and blame religious belief, they speak out of a profound sense of woundedness, anger and bitterness for the injustice of it.  I applaud the focus on thinking well and understanding the reason for our faith–there is far too much flabby thinking about God; however a holistic response to the new atheists needs to deal directly with this anger and bitterness (not just show that blaming God is false causation). I think this is what is missing in some of the essays.

But there are essays in here that deal with some of the thorny issues: the existence of evil, Christian historic response to slavery, the ‘Canaanite genocide,’ etc. I think being able to answer these questions as they come up is important, and so I think this book is a great resource to have on hand.  I give True Reason four stars for presenting well the reasonableness of Christian truth with philosophical acumen.

Thank you to Kregel Publications for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.