Perfect Love Casts Out Phobias: a book review

Recently I was in a gathering of Evangelical pastors. The man sitting next to me  made some comment about ‘homosexuality’ in our culture and asserted that he ‘didn’t consider homophobia a bad thing.’  I made no response. The comment stunned me. I understood what he meant. These days any sort of traditional, religious stance is labeled as homophobic by our increasingly affirming culture. He was asserting his right to have conviction and to stand up for the clear teaching of scripture. But ‘homophobia’? Really? Is this really how we want to approach the LGBT community? Doesn’t perfect love cast out phobias?

In No Fear in Love Braner exhorts us to share the good news of the gospel in ways that listen, respect, and love. Compassion not motivated by phobias. As Braner says, “It’s fear inside that tells us, I don’t want to allow anyone to think differently than I do because that may mean I need to change the way I think, or, If I validate some point they have that is contrary to my own worldview, I might have to rethink my position.” (19). This hunker-down fearful apologetic causes us to speak louder and prevents us from listening to others and responding with compassion.  Braner wants us to face up to our fears, hold on to our convictions, but to approach dialogue with non-Christians from a different space. Reflecting on John 10:10 (The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy; I have come that you may have life and have it to the full) Braner asks, “Why do we always focus on the theif instead of taking ample time to focus on the full life? What if we started to see the world through a lens of abundance rather than remaining paralyzed by the things we’re most afraid of? What would it look like?” (43).

And so this book shares Braner’s journey from worldview warrior to someone who has sought to reach out to people different from him by seeking to embody the love of Jesus. The three parts of the book. The first section looks at fear: where Braner has experienced fear and his journey from fear to triumph. Part two examines where Braner has been able to minister beyond fear when his worldview clashed with others. There is a chapter about his learned hospitality to Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses and several chapters on his friendships with Muslims. Part three articulates ‘beyond fear’ responses to issues that often paralyze our Christian witness, issues like abortion, homosexuality and immigration.

I really appreciated the tone and the storybook feel that Braner has. Despite talking about the move from fear to love, Braner has a sense of adventure and the conversations he finds himself in and the relationships he forges, are beyond what most of us can relate to. Braner tours a Mosque in the middle east and even joins a Muslim for prayer there. His love and respectful tone strike a different note than the arrogance his interlocutors were used to, but I can’t imagine many of us finding ourselves in similar circumstances. I think I would have be served by a few more mundane examples of Christian witness. Still I liked that Braner tackled hot button issues like Christian-Muslim relations, sensitivity to women considering abortion, gracious witness to the LGBT community and a thoughtful look at immigration.

I like what this book signifies and happily recommend it. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection: I received this book from Baker books in exchange for my honest review.

Evangelism is Hard: a book review

I have friends that came to faith through Christianity Explored, the evangelistic DVD course produced by All Souls Langham Place, London, staring Rico Tice. I even had the opportunity to review that course for another context, so I am aware of Tice’s ministry. So that piqued my interest in his new book, Honest Evangelism: How to Talk About Jesus Even When it’s Tough (Good Book Company, 2015).

Tice begins where most evangelism books do not. The opening sentence of his introduction  says, “I find evangelism hard” (11). Coming from one of the most visible and effective evangelists, it is refreshing to find that he too finds evangelism difficult. His first chapter he discusses the difficulty that awaits the would-be-evangelist. He says first that hostility, persecution, hardship, rejection will be our experience. But the other half of the story is that in addition to hostility, you will see hunger for good news. Tice writes, “The same rising tide of secularism and materialism that rejects truth claims and is offended by absolute moral standards is proving to be an empty and hollow way to live” (20). While Tice offers no guarantees on the results of our efforts, he writes, “Hostility and hunger, that is what you will find as you tell others about Jesus. And of course, at the moment you open your mouth, you don’t know which you are going to be met with; and you don’t know what your words may do to people years later. You have to risk the hostility to discover the hunger”(23).

In chapter two, Tice explores how ‘evangelism is worth it.’  He roots evangelism in three motivators: the glory of Christ, the guarantee of new creation, and the grim reality of death and hell (25).  Certainly he sees the reality of hell as a significant piece of evangelism (loving people means warning them), but I think his order is significant. Tice begins with the glory of God, then the promise of new life in Christ, before addressing hell and death. This is not scare tactic evangelism, but he doesn’t ignore hard subjects. In Chapter three Tice talks about why we (still) don’t evangelize. His conclusion is that it is because we harbor idols in our hearts which keep us from participating in God’s mission. Chapter four, gives three truths to remember as we share our faith: God’s sovereignty, God’s grace and God’s power (48).

Chapter five begins the practical section of the book. Tice lays out his approach to the gospel and frames the gospel in terms of Jesus’ Identity, Mission and Call (62) which is the same approach he takes in Christianity ExploredIn chapter six he encourages us to bear witness in our own style. Peter was confrontational, Paul was intellectual, the ex-blind man was testimonal and the woman-at-the-well was invitational (76-79). Tice encourages us to bear witness in whatever style is most like us. In chapter seven, he explores how to evangelize in a culture of increasing tolerance and permissiveness. In his final chapter he exhorts us to pray and proclaim.

Some questions I have whenever I read an evangelism book is, “Is this the full gospel ?” ” Does the author rely too much on ‘technique’?” “Is the story they are telling compelling?” I think Tice does a good job of letting the gospel sing, placing evangelism in the wider context of God’s purpose and plan. But he does focus his presentation on Jesus’ mission, on dealing with the problem of guilt and death. I think more could be said here about freedom, participation in God, restoration, but I didn’t feel like Tice’s presentation was reductionist or transactional. He is also organic in his advice on how to share your faith, prioritizing it without prescribed methods. I felt called by Tice to more purposeful witness, but I didn’t feel guilt-tripped by him. In the end, this is a helpful book for anyone seeking to share their faith. I give it four stars.

Notice of material connection:
I received this book from The Good Book Company via Cross Focused Reviews. I was asked to write an honest review.

It is the Bible, So Take Notes: a Bible review

I am not a fan of Study Bibles. This is because I have participated in far too many Bible studies where a thoughtful engaging question is answered with, “The notes say. . . .”  This shortcut to engaging the text often keeps people from actually engaging my text. What I have learned as a leader is most significant insights people come to are their own (if you can get them to read it for themselves). So I was pretty pleased with the NASB Note-Taker’s Bible. Here is a Bible with no book introductions, or marginal notes. There is the bundled NASB concordance at the back of the Bible, and lists of verses (Bible promises, Bible perspectives, Jesus’ miracles Jesus’ parables), but the text itself is unadorned.

In the place of marginal notes, the NASB Note-Taker’s Bible includes one very special feature: margins. A full 1.3″ of blank space on the outer edge of each page, and about 1.67″ along the base. This makes the text look beautiful and gives ample room for personal notes on each page of the Bible. It is basically the space which would be used up by study notes and information boxes, only you get to write and draw your own!

I  really like the NASB. It is one of the translations I’ve read from cover-to-cover so it is special to me, because I think of passages in its cadence.  I grew up in a church where it was referenced often for its literal rendering and faithfulness to the original languages. I used to tell people “It’s closest to the original Greek and Hebrew,” but I knew neither language and was only parroting what other people were saying. If I have drifted from the NASB to translations which subscribe to more of a dynamic-equivalence (thought-for-thought rather than word-for-word) and translations more sensitive to gender inclusion, my appreciation for the NASB is not diminished. It is still a go-to-text for me when I am studying or translating a passage. Because of this, ‘room on the page for notes’ is important to me.

There is one design flaw from a ‘note-taker’s perspective.’ The text is set with the traditional ‘double column’ for greater readability. All well and good until you wish to make notes on the inside column. I think for note-takers. the full words across the the page would have been more helpful.

All and all a useful Bible for personal study. I give this Bible four stars: ★★★★☆

Thank you to Zondervan for providing me a copy of this Bible in exchange for my honest review.

Preaching for Listeners Instead of Readers: a book review

Preaching is an oral act. It involves climbing into a pulpit (or at least standing before a congregation) and declaring God’s Word. Strangely though, sermon preparation has become increasingly a literary act. Since the dawn of the printing press and proliferation of print media, our reading of texts (and the Bible) have become increasingly private and individualized. This has had an effect on how sermons are crafted and delivered. In many churches, sermons are read and performed and do not deviate one iota from the script. Sermons are theologically precise, but often stilted in their delivery.

Dave McCellan urges the recovery of ancient homiletic practices. This would mean preparing sermons with the oral patterns of listeners in mind (rather than a literary outline which appeals to readers). In Preaching By Ear:  Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out, McCellan draws on the insights of ancient authors like Augustine,  Aristotle and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus and the contemporary historian, theologian and cultural critic Walter Ong (1912-2003). It is McCellan’s conviction that recovering oral patterns for preaching will transform us as preaches, and as churches and that preaching in this way is more responsive to the Word–reading it and proclaiming it in the way it was intended to be read and proclaimed.

In part one, McClellan begins with a focus on preparing the preacher. Chapter one relates an anecdote about McClellan preaching a manuscripted sermon in the ‘Big Church’ (he was a youth pastor speaking to the main congregation).  His friend’s feedback to him was that his sermon was good but didn’t ring authentic. It sounded stilted. He concludes that extemporaneous sermons allow for the greatest amount of authenticity and vulnerability in the speaker. He then grounds his argument for extemporaneous preaching in ancient writings. From Augustine (chapter two), McClellan argues that we should be ‘theologians’ who sit under the Word. He encourages us to deepen our understanding of passages and how they relate to others and what they say to us. McClellan uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explore the proper ethos in communication–speaking with personal character in an authentic voice (chapter three). In chapter four, Quintillian provides the most profound lessons about oral communication and preaching. McClellan says that this ancient rhetorician calls us preachers to moral character formation. He also has a method for improving our rhetoric (ccuriosity constant oral reading and writing, and casual debates with fellow preachers and small groups.

In part two, McClellan makes the theological case for the primacy of the spoken word in proclamation and walks us through how to prepare and deliver an extemporaneous sermon. It is in this section that McClellan delves into the work of Walter Ong, Ong’s thesis in his classic Orality and Literacy was that with the dawn of the printing press, fruitful practices of oral culture fell by the wayside. He identified nine characteristics of oral speech: imprecise, redundant, tradition driven, quotidian, acquainted with suffering. participatory, united in purpose, and comfortable with stories (91-96).  In contrast, literary approaches are precise, follow a logical sequence but are not reliant on the same devices for capturing and communicating shared memory. McClellan than delineates the implications for preparing an extemporaneous preaching.  One of the most profound insights on how oral preparation, invites communal preparation and allows for conversation which feed into and reinforce discipleship (129).

My push back would be that my preaching teacher manuscripted everything in his preaching preparation but in the preaching act was as free to move off script and take a new direction, often depart from his page to connect with the congregation or respond to the winds of the Spirit. He also wrote his manuscript with the spoken word in mind (short phrases, redundancy, internal summary). I think many preachers are sensitive to the dynamics that McClellan describes, even if their approach is more literary than what he commends.

McClellan’s approach is most fruitful for practitioners of expository sermons. He advocates listening to the text, learning to place it, inhabiting it and preparing a storied outline to share its truths. Topical preachers will find this sort of preparation difficult. I personally lean in a more expository and extemporaneous direction (though I still preach topically and from a manuscript when I feel it’s warranted). I am still processing how to best use McClellan’s insights in my own preaching but he does validate some of my own homiletic practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Thank you to Weaver Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Thirty-Minute-Life-Change: a book review

If we dedicated some time–even thirty minute increments, towards impacting our lives–clarifying our purpose, strengthening our faith, building our character, advancing our dreams, improving our relationships, or changing our world–we would be completely different. We would have a significant impact on those around us and live significant lives before God and others. We would live our dreams and do the sorts of things we wish we were doing now.

Tommy Barnett is the senior pastor of Phoenix Assembly of God.  As a pastor, he has ‘devoted his entire adult life to helping people connect with God and find better ways to live’ (vii). What is Barnett’s method for helping people achieve their full, God-given potential. It is two things: time and intentionality. In The Power of a Half HourBarnett advocates carving out 30 minute time frames for: personal development (part one and two), cultivating spiritual health (part three), moral formation (part four),  achieving success (part five), attending to our relationships (part six) and changing the world (part seven).  Each section of his book is made up of pithy chapters meant to inspire you to invest your time and intention in growing in that area. The end of the book contains thirty, thirty-minute action plans which help readers put the book’s message into practice. There are also questions for group discussion corresponding to each section.

Barnett offers some good advice: if you want to make, real lasting change to your life, grow spiritually and impact those around you, it will require time and intention.  Carving thirty minute increments devoted to personal growth seems like great advice. Barnett also illustrates this with countless stories of lives he impacted through consistently investing thirty minutes (for prayer, for reflection, for relational encounters, etc).  Half an hour is a magically time frame because it is short enough to not feel burdensome, and long enough for something substantial to happen.  I found lots of practical insights in this book.

However I did find Barnett’s recipe for personal success  overly simple. Many of the stories he shared recount thirty minute personal encounters and prayer times. Yet these are only part of the picture. The effect of his thirty minute plan is cumulative. People change because of their continuing commitment to a set of principles, practices, and persons.  Barnett understands this (as many of his examples attest) but the thirty minute rhetoric does not bear the freight of his message. I found myself agreeing with much of Barnett’s advice while feeling like his account of personal transformation was somewhat  truncated by the temporal constraints he puts on each growth opportunity. Perhaps he just finds it easier to think in half hour chunks, but I don’t.

I think there is some helpful insights in here and I found myself touched my several of Barnett’s stories, but I did not resonate with the overall tenor of the book but think that his action plan will be helpful for those seeking to make significant change to their lives. I give it three stars.

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





Coming Features

So January was a big month for book reviews here at Thoughts, Prayers & Songs. I reviewed twenty books and I’m all caught up on my reading for the moment.  I plan to slow my pace a little on the review postings and include some actual blog content. My prayer posts have become sporadic and I have spent less and less time reflecting on culture, the church and offering my own theological musings. And you have not heard much of my self-absorbed existential angst as of late. I promise in the month ahead you into my head a little more. Expect to see:

  • More prayers posts
  • More personal reflections (not just reviews).
  • I am in the process of re-engaging the hunt for a pastoral ministry position, so I will share what that looks like for me.
  • Lent is just around the corner and I will share my Lenten journey with you all.

And of course I will still be doing book reviews, though not at such a frenetic pace! Reviews slated (so far) for February include:

The Next Generation Leader by Andy Stanley (Waterbrook Multnomah)

Jesus the Messiah by Herbert Bateman IV, Darrell Bock & Gordon Johnston (Kregel Academic)

The Intentional Christian Community Handbook by David Janzen (Paraclete Press)

Drawn In: A Creative Process for Artists, Activists and Jesus Followers by Troy Bronsink (Paraclete Press)

American Civil Religion by Gary Laderman (Fortress Press)

Parenting in the Pew by Robbie Castleman (InterVarsity Press)

Good Mood, Bad Mood: Help and Hope For Depression and Bipolar Disorder by Charles Hodges, M.D. (Shepherd Press)

The Language of Blessing by Joseph Cavanaugh III (Tyndale Momentum)

Prayers of a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Mark S. Burrows (Paraclete Press)

Reading Between the Lines by Gene Edward Veith  (Crossway)

Soul Unfinished: Finding Happiness, Taking Risks & Trusting God as We Grow Older by Robert Atwell (Paraclete Press)

Jesus Is_____ by Judah Smith (Thomas Nelson)


If any of these books looks particularly interesting, comment below and I’ll be sure to message you when I post my review. As always I welcome comments and interaction. If there is any topic related to faith, theology and practice you’d like me to opine on, drop me a line. Happy reading!




The Voice Bible Book Review

This month The Voice unveils their Bible version for the whole Bible, Old and New Testament. Recently Thomas Nelson sent me the New Testament and I ‘m impressed by it (I used it on my blog for my ‘Seven Words of Jesus on the Cross’ series). The Voice is the brainchild of Chris Seay and the Ecclesia Bible Society. I have followed the project and even have some of the earlier volumes on my shelf ( The Voice of Matthew, The Voice of Acts, The Last Eye Witness: The Final Week). It is nice to see the whole project finally come together.

Why Another Translation?

Seriously, why another translation? With the NIV perpetually updating itself, the Reformed crowd all reading the ESV and other translations popping up, seemingly every few months, do we need a Bible like this? I would say that this project is sufficiently unique and I have found that it does a good job of illuminating the Biblical text for a contemporary context.

There are two main approaches that translators take when approaching the Bible. One translation theory is Formal Equivalence which are very literal translations like the NASB or KJV. These translate Hebrew and Greek Idiom, essentially as is (there are mistakes and the KJV wasn’t working with earlier manuscripts but the translators worked on a very literal rendering). On the other side you have translations which aim at Functional Equivalence (NIV is a major example of this). The Voice is closer to the functional equivalence side and dynamic in its approach. The translators and writers producing a text that is at times literal and at other times explicated and amplified. The Ecclesia Bible Society brought together Bible and language scholars with authors, songwriters, poets and pastors in order to produce a text that is beautiful in its expression but accurate in translation.

I think it succeeds rather well. Some of the things I like include:

  • Dialogue is written like a screenplay. This gives the interactions a dynamic and immediate feel. It is very effective.
  • In italics are words and phrases, which are not from the original text but explicate its meaning.
  • Peppered through the Bible are notes that either explain the original meaning or its contemporary implications. What I like about this is that the notes are often meatier than your typical devotional Bible, but leaner than a lot of Study Bibles which (in my opinion) over inform.
  • The Translation itself is highly readable, and accessible. This would be a good Bible to share with Non-Christians, Youth and Seekers. My wife is using it as she prepares children’s curriculum for church. If this translation helps people get the story a little more, I’m in favor.
  • If I could quibble with the marketing of this Bible, the back cover promotional blurbs are from Donald Miller and Darrell Bock. Darrell Bock is a good New Testament scholar and Donald Miller is a justly popular author. Both guys are not impartial because they worked on The Voice. This is like an author saying, “Buy my book I really like it.”

    But I liked it too and recommend it if you are shopping for a dynamic rendering of the Bible or looking for a good Bible to share with friends.

    I received this Bible from the Thomas Nelson Blog Bunch with the understanding that I would share my thoughts on it on my Blog. If you are interested in exploring this translation further, go to HeartheVoice{dot}com.