Monday, July 21, 2014

Review: NIV God's Word for Gardener's Bible

Review: NIV God's Word for Gardener's Bible
edited by Shelley Cramm, General Editor

And who is Shelley Cramm, you might ask? I don't know who she is. If she is popular in Christian circles, I'm unaware of that. Maybe she's popular in gardening, horticulture, and landscape cultures. Funny thing, though: Although she is a total unknown -- at least to me-- this is one of the best study Bible's I've read. I'm really digging it. (I m so tempted to put in a lot of plant puns in this review.)

I thought this Bible study would be sort of homespun and cutesy. It's not. It has some great devotionals, though. Devotionals that touch the soul but which are also incredibly informative. I probably will not look at figs the same way, after the section on the significance of the fig tree in the garden of Eden.

Gardeners who read their Bible are probably already aware of the significants of pests, droughts, watering, planting, pruning, etc. I'm sure gardeners see the Bible through gardeners' eyes, just as scifi writers see the Bible as a book by a creator about worldbuilding, or lawyers see the Bible in terms of legal documents. But do most gardeners know about the plants in the Gardens in Persia?

There are some wonderful insights in this book and some great devotionals. One of my favorite is the discussion of Xerxes going into the garden after Esther had revealed Haman's plot to him. It hadn't occurred to me to see the situation as symbolic of going into one's place of repose to ponder bad news. Yes, I thought as I read the devotional, this rings spiritually true.

The book contains 260 daily readings and 52 weekend readings all arranged in weekly themes. One cannot go a few pages in this Bible without seeing these devotionals. The weekly themes are divided into sections which include Garden Tour, Garden Work, Garden Stories. These sections are further subdivided. For instance, Garden stories include devotionals on Seasons, Sun and Shade, Weather, Pest and pestlence, Jesus' Parables, Israel's horticultural allegories, Away from the Last Supper, Jesus, the Seed, the Root, Branch, and Firstfruit, Harvest of Righteousness, Intimacy with God in the Garden. All these readings are scattered (sowed) throughout the Bible but there is a guide to all of them collected in the Introduction.

Each devotional contains a verse to meditate on, a passage to read, and other Biblical passages with which to compare to the original verse. The devotional follows, which may or may not include quotes from gardening books, and historical and hortological backgrounds. The devotional ends with a prayer. Then a short sentence directs the reader to other devotions in that particular category.

One of the best parts of this study Bible is how the editor shows the thematic flow of certain plants. The fig leaf in the Garden of Eden pops up in the Genesis section. Later, the cursed fig tree closes the metaphor. The meaning and purpose of the olive leaf in the dove's mouth as a symbolic truth to Noah on through to the Mount of Olives. The lentils Esau ate in exchange for his birthright, through the rape of Tamar to Ezekiel's bread to Daniels pulses. Rahab's use of flax and the Proverb 31 woman's use of flax. And now I certainly understand why the prophetess Deborah would sit under a palm tree.  After reading through this Bible I'm tempted to wade through and meditate on all the floral images and spiritual essences that are hinted at in the Song of Solomon.  

The book is hardcover and feels sturdy. It's thicker and smaller than the other Bible studies I've been reading, which makes it handy for one's church bag. The print is normal-sized. I would've liked a large print but that might be asking too much. The translation is the NIV. I highly recommend this book to all Bible readers but especially to folks who love gardening.

I received this book free in exchange for a fair and honest review

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review: Celebrate Recovery Bible

Okay, I shouldn't feel so angry. After all, the HarperCollins folks didn't exactly say the Celebrate Recovery Bible was a Study Bible. bad for assuming it was...because the Celebrate Recovery Bible is kind of. . .lacking.

It might be me. I've been reading and reviewing a lot of Bibles lately. And when I see the amount of work put into Bibles such as the NIVintegrated Bible or the Spirit Filled Bible or the Modern Life Study just makes the Celebrate Recovery Bible look pale in comparison.

First of all: what it has:

There are some great testimonies from Christians who have had addiction, abuse issues. Those testimonies are pretty brave because we allknow how judgemental some Christians can be. OR how self-reliant. So kudos for these folks who put their stories out there for readers to identify with.

The Celebrate Recovery Bible also has Bible character studies. For instance. I am Eve. And you can imagine what insights can be drawn from the whole Eve, temptation, and forbidden fruit thing. There are also other characters such as Moses, the Demoniac, the Syro-Phonician woman (whose daughter was oppressed by demons...or as some would say addictions. The mother is shown as the archetypal suffering parent of a child who should be in recovery.)

Like all Bibles, it has Book Introductions, Lesson Studies, Recovery-Related Scripture Ties, Topical Index, Daily Devotionals, Subject Index, the Eight Principles and Twelve Christ-Centered Steps of the Celebrate Recovery Program.

The Celebrate Recovery Bible has a foreward by Rick Warren and is a "purpose-driven recovery resource with devotions and articles by John Baker." It is designed for Christians in Recovery. The Twelve Step groups such as AA, Alanon, OA, NA, etc began as Christian organizations. However now they have become places where figuratively one's Higher Power could be a chair or a rock. This book seeks to return the twelve steps to its moorings and to show the Bible verses that are behind those "Christ-centered steps."

A good goal, I think. So I really can't fault the Bible. Except I was kinda expecting more.  The way the Bible uses the Scripture "ties" seems a bit facile and the commentary about some of the Bible characters seems a bit old hat and sometimes forced into the recovery motif. For instance, Martha of Mary/Martha/Lazarus fame is depicted in a way in which the Bible never depicted her. In the Bible we get a snapshot of her reaction on a particular day, a particularly busy day. Jesus says nothing about her recovery "issues" and Martha is shown in the Bible as being very spiritual but somewhat harried about having new guests suddenly show up at her house: cultural hospitality issues and requirements of women etc. But in this the character study says Martha is "spiritually-barren," "a people-pleaser," someone who wanted to "impress people"  whose "self-identity revolved around identity." Really????? Jesus is depicted as "confronting Martha's non-productive habits and emotions." Seriously?

I'm all for folks getting insights that suit and touch their lives but sometimes I had to roll my eyes because of the over-reaching. But there is also a part of me that thinks they could have been more involved in all the Bible verses than they are. They really don't comment on the Bible chapters, books, stories, etc as much as they c ould have. And they hit all the typical Biblical stories, which gives me the feeling that these folks don't read their Bibles themselves. They just work with Bible stories they know.

So a part of me thinks they should've really been more in-depth with the Bible study...and another part of me feels "heck, I'm glad they didn't do to other Biblical passages what they did to the Martha section."

I guess I can recommend this Bible. It will no doubt bless many people. And it does tie-in the Scriptures to the twelve steps. But it wasn't particularly impressive as a study Bible.  

I got this book as part of the Harper Collins booklookblogger review program

Monday, July 07, 2014

Review: A Floating Life

Floating Life
Tad Crawford
ISBN: 978-1611457025

Tad Crawford’s A Floating Life is ostensibly fiction. The nameless narrator is adrift, not knowing where he is, where he will end up, and why he finds himself in disparate places. As fiction, the plot revolves around his confusion about his sudden dislocations, the breakup of his marriage, and his new job as assistant to someone who is trying to harness the energy of the waves.

But that is only important if one accepts the story as fiction. The story, however, is not fiction. It is not even surreal fiction, although the situations that happen to our narrator are all quite dreamlike. Rather, this book is almost like a literary rift on change, fluidity, and confusion. The thematic question is: “What is change? What is energy? How do we drift with life? How do we control our drifting? And will our hero learn to change and to accept change, come what may?”

The book is philosophical, speculative psychology. Therefore those who buy this book expecting anything like a story will be very disappointed. But those who like books that symbolically explore the human psyche will find this book very beautiful, odd, fantastical and profound as it rifts on existence, change, goals, and cosmic and human energy. Those who like Jonathon Livingston Seagull and Carlos Castenada might like this. Some of the images used by Crawford will lodge in and haunt the psyche for a long while.        

Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: New Spirit-Filled Life Bible

The NIV New Spirit-Flled Life Bible is a great Bible for Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians. The Executve Editor is Jack W Hayford, Litt.D. and anyone who has heard Dr Hayford teach will understand how profound his insights are. Other editors are Paul G Chappell, Ph.D., Kenneth C Ulmer, Ph.D, D.Min., Judy Brown, Ed.D., Roy Hayden, Ph.D., Jonathan David Huntzinger, Ph.D., and Gary Matsdorf, M.A.

Other Contributors are people well known in Charismatic circles, including people such as Reinhard Bonnke, D.D., Paul F. Crouch, Billy Joe Daughterty, Marilyn Hickey, Frederick Price, Pat Robertson, James Robison, among many others lesser-known but just as influential.

The Book contains several sections, one of whch covers forty-one themes known as "Kingdom Dynamics." The kingdom dynamics are essential to those who believe in the pentecostal message of the full gospel and the good news of the kingdom. Because this study Bible seeks to highlight the past and present works of God's Holy Spirit, it is quite different from Bibles which may have more preterist leanings.  In order to show the timeless workings of the Holy Spirit, the editors have used a dove symbol whenever a Biblical text connects to the Holy Spirit.

The Kingdom Dynamics themes include Prayer Power Precepts, Spiritual Empowerment Precepts, Personal Growth Precepts, Supernatural Ministry Precepts, Global Outreach Precepts, among others. These precept sections contain essays and sermons on topis and specific Bible verses.

There is also a word wealth section which shows the meanings of certain important words. So if one is lookin gup the meaning of grace or forgveness, one can find them easily.

Then comes the Truth-In-Action sections whch are charts that show what each Bible book teaches. The end sections of the Truth-In Action connects to the Word Wealth found in the books and to Kingdom Dynamics. There are also charts and in-text maps.

Each of the Bible books begins with a description of the Author, the date the book was written, the theme of the book and the key words of the book. Then the Author's history, the Date, the content, the personal Application, Prophesies about Christ,, description of the Holy Spirit, and Outline of each Bible book is given.  There are charts that show a Bridging of the Testaments and which harmonize the gospels. After the book of Jude, there are studies which prepare the reader for the Book of Revelation, showing all the possible views of the Last Days.  (It doesn't take any particular view, leaving the decisions to each individual Christian.) After the Book of Revelation, there are articles on the Holy Spirit Gifts and Power, and The Holy Spirit and Restoration, World Evangelism, Ministering Healing to the Nations, Understanding Messianic Jewish Ministry, How to Lead a Person to the Savior, and a Concordance.

Throughout, there are clickable Bible verses for almost every verse in the Bible which gives geographical, theological, cultural, and other information.

As I said, links are aplenty. I don't know how the printed version of this study Bible would look but I definitely want one.  I generally don't use kindle versions of Bibles because I get lost with all that skipping around then backtracking to get back to the Biblical text.  The way the kindle s set's possibe that one can read all the notes on the Biblical text without reading the texts themselves. And unless you are good at using kindle, I suggest you read the How to Uee This Bible section and links. If you can, I'd suggest getting the printed version.

This is a very good Bible and I highly recommend it.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Review: The Book of Job: A Biography

The University of Princeton Press has a provocative series entitled, Lives of Great Religious Books. This series studies the creation, history, interaction, and influence of revered religious books throughout the ages.

One new entry into the series is Mark Larrimore's The Book of Job. Larrimore's book is not only a history of Job but a study of the history of human philosophy about suffering and God's involvement in human suffering. The problem of  suffering presented in Job, are these: Can the reason behind a particular person's suffering be fully known to any but God? Can it be fully understood by human reasoning? Is one human being's suffering innately incomprehensible to other humans? Is God behind human suffering? Does God have to explain himself to the sufferer (and if He did would the sufferer understand the wisdom of an almighty otherworldy inscrutable (and personal) God? Job is at its essence a book about interpreting pain and about discourses on understanding the mind of God.

Larrimore begins his book with a brief introduction which begins somewhat academically while it quickly traces the problem of Job. The introduction ends surprisingly with a very elegant heartfelt commentary on friendship and on how the book posits its readers. Such an introduction happily prepares the reader for the writer's academic skill as well as the writer's heart.

Larrimore goes on to show how mistranslations, lack of knowledge of Hebrew, lost or wrongly-placed passages, the translator's choice of words, emotional state, ethical temperaent, misconceptions about the idea of "patience," the interpreter's acquaintance (or lack thereof) with grief and suffering, and a saccharine idea of Job have affected the book's history.

He begins this by discussing the apocryphal "Testament of Job," a book which in effect smooths out the rough places and makes all of Job's suffering palatable by explaining everything that could be challenging to the righteous mind's conception of God and God's goodness to His followers. The portions and summary of Testament of Job which Larrimore excerpts sound like a fairytale, which the Book of Job (which the western Bible has) decidely is not.

Larrimore includes rabbinical discourse and --later on-- Christian religious (of the major denominations) about the Book of Job. In addition, he shows how Christian secular (Chaucer) and not-so secular (Voltaire and the enlightenment, Rene Girard, Elie Weisel, and David Rosenberg have attempted to decipher and understand the mind, heart, and artifice behind the book of Job.

In the end, Larrimore states:
"Keeping company with Job, as friend or interpreter, is a worthy activity. Only the one who sees no challenge in Job or the questions his book is thought to raise should be dismissed. Recognizing that Job's questions are not only 'unfinalized' in the book of Job, but 'unfinalizable', we may conclude that our obligation is to keep the retelling going in all its difficulty."
The Book of Job: A Biography is highly recommended.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: NIV Integrated Study Bible

NIV Integrated Study Bible: A New Chronological Approach For Exploring Scripture
John R. Kohlenberger III, editor
ISBN: 978-0-310-41103-1

The NIV Integrated Study Bible -- called NIVISB for the rest of this review-- is a Bible in which all the Bible books are chronologically interwoven (or placed parallel to each other) to form a book that smoothly follows the Bible’s historical timeline. Am loving it and I’ll say that the logistics of organizing this study Bible must’ve required a great deal of planning.

The navigation of the NIVISB starts out fairly easy with the Book of Genesis. At first, it seems like a normal Bible. But then the portions of the genealogies in I Chronicles and of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, (from the gospels) pop up around the Genesis 5 and Genesis 10. Then the reader finally understands how the Bible works.

The learning curve is intuitive. So after a while, the books sudden frequent divisions into one, two, three, or four columns is totally understandable. As the study Bible continues and we encounter other Bible books, more weaving occurs. The Book of Job, for instance, is placed between Genesis and Exodus. When one reaches the historical books --especially I & II Samuel, I & II Kings, and I & II Chronicles-- the prophetical books, the wisdom books, and the book of Psalms are all interwoven throughout. One gets to see how the prophets interlap, what kings they were prophesying to, and where and when they prophesied. In the New Testament, all the epistles are intermixed with the Book of Acts.

I’ve often found Bible studies with a lot of commentary to be very intrusive. And this Bible study is the least intrusive study Bible i've seen in ages. There is very little commentary. A map or chart here or there at the beginning of certain sections, but no theological discussions. I really like this because although commentary helps further understanding sometimes commentary can be confused with real Bible truth simply because it is placed in a study Bible. Commentary can be too influential and often opens the mind as well as closes it. This is not to say that this arrangement of the books doesn’t have subtle influences, but at least the opinions are less in your face and are at a minimum.

The NIVISB is divided into general sections which deal with specific time periods: The Creation Through the Patriarchs, Exodus to the Conquest, Conquest through United Kingdom, Divided Kingdom and Exile, Return to the Land, The Life of Jesus, The Early Church.

The way the Bible books are interwoven in the NIVISB saves a lot of cross-referencing. It definitely places every book in historical context. Of course, all the books of the Bible were written by different individuals --each with their own writing styles and focuses-- so there are moments when there are jumps in writing styles.  But if one accepts that all of Scripture was written primarily by the Holy Spirit, one can accept the apparent discontinuity in human styles. In order to read this Bible, the reader has to make a conscious mental change to allow the book to be what it wishes to be. And the blessing of this Bible is that when folks read it they will understand the history better.

If I have to complain about something, here are a few: The first is that it isn’t in Large Print. The second is that unlike other Study Bibles, the NIVISB is not a standalone Study Bible. You will need a regular standard Bible to use alongside with this one because the Bible books are all cut, copied, and transferred to different positions. This means that because the continuity of each Bible book is broken, the NIVISB  really cannot be used to study any singular Bible book. If one wants to study the book of Judges, one has to find its scattered chapters and put them back in the accustomed chapter order used in regular Bibles. The last complaint is more of a nit. At the bottom of the Bible pages is a timeline from Abraham to Malachi. An indicator shows where the present Bible book fits in. I guess it works, but I keep thinking the timeline could’ve been used in a better way.    

Monday, June 09, 2014

Book Review: Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters by James Stuart Bell

Christian publishing Veteran, James Stuart Bell, has compiled a new book, Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters, about supernatural events that happen in the lives of Christians. These events, which range from healings, to visions, to divine protection, to angelic intervention, might seem extraordinary to many but are quite commonplace among Christians, and Christians -- like Mary-- often treasure these instances when the veil is removed and the numinous and the holy enters their lives with its sweetness, health, and power.

These forty-four first-person stories of the marvelous wonders of God will strengthen the faith of Christians and encourage those who have not seen God or who have not experienced any supernatural events opening their minds to the possibility that the God of Miracles is very much at work in the lives of believers today.

Some of the testimonies, such as "Hear No Evil" concern protection -- even when the person being protected is unaware of it. Some tell of comfort, as in Pam Zollman's "A Secret for Five" in which a woman on the verge of a divorce receives prayer and "a word of knowledge" from a stranger who seemed to know everything about her life. Some, like Kristin H. Carden's "Beyond the Fear of Death" are about near-death or after-death experiences. Some are accounts of miraculous provision, such as Beverly LaHote Schwind's "The Lasagna Multiplication Miracle." Some are of seeing spirits --known or unknown. Whether divinely helped or being the divine helper, as in Suzan Klassen's "A Shield from Danger," these Christians found themselves in a holy connection between heaven and earth.

The book is a quick and easy read and also a good addition to any library. There are a few caveats, however. The first is merely nit-picking, the second is more substantial. First, the nit-picking: Many of these stories are ghostwritten -- in a kind of Christian writing style that Christians are used to-- and it gives the testimonies a bland Christian magazine uniformity. True, most people are not writers and testimonies probably need to be edited as all writings need to be edited, but the sameness and the writerliness of these testimonies make the stories lack distinct personality.

The second caveat, which is vastly more important, is the interpretation often laid upon the spiritual encounter. Most Christian testimonies have a moral at the end, so interpretations of a divine incident is necessary, and for the most part, the "take-away" interpretations of these supernatural events are Christian. But some are not. The interpretations are "spiritualized" but somewhat unBiblical. In the Bible, Christians are warned to judge all supernatural events, to test the spirits whether they are of God or not.  Most Christians, for instance, would be wary of assuming a spirit is a dead relative and would need true discernment to ascertain whether a spirit presenting as "Mom" is really Mom or just a demon posing as Mom. Therefore, even when a book purports to be written about God, a Christian should read the book with discernment.
The first story that was problematical was "Seeing Things in a Different Light" by Tina Samples. In it she relates how her Uncle Kenneth returned from war with blindness. However, after the church prayed, his sight was miraculously restored. . .for one day. Thereafter Uncle Kenneth was blind for the rest of his life.

Samples interprets this as God healing Uncle Kenneth as "a gift -- a celebration of life-- and a reminder that God is still gracious even when we experience devastations." She goes on to write that Uncle Kenneth learned to see all things in a different light-- even God." Perhaps this interpretation is true-- it is certainly beautiful and spiritual sounding-- but it flies in the face of Scriptures that tell believers how to get and retain a healing.

Verses such as:
When the unclean spirit is gone out of a man, he walketh through dry places, seeking rest, and findeth none. Then he saith, I will return into my house from whence I came out; and when he is come, he findeth it empty, swept, and garnished. Then goeth he, and taketh with himself seven other spirits more wicked than himself, and they enter in and dwell there: and the last state of that man is worse than the first.  Matthew 12:43-45
Or Scriptures that speak of how faith and healing can be stolen by the faithlessness of others. Verses such as:
Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. Luke 8:18
Or the healing of the Blind Man near Bethsaida, a city Jesus cursed because of the unbelieving hearts of its inhabitants.
And he (Jesus) cometh to Bethsaida; and they bring a blind man unto him, and besought him to touch him. And he took the blind man by the hand, and led him out of the town; and when he had spit on his eyes, and put his hands upon him, he asked him if he saw ought. And he looked up, and said, I see men as trees, walking. After that he put his hands again upon his eyes, and made him look up: and he was restored, and saw every man clearly. And he sent him away to his house, saying, Neither go into the town, nor tell it to any in the town. Mark 8:22-26
or various admonitions about "holding tightly to what one has", or "resisting the devil."

The testimony and its interpretation might be part of a beloved family tradition but beloved family traditions, however close to the heart, should be challenged sometimes. Although interpretations of personal spiritual encounters are "between a person and his God," it is quite possible that the result of a spiritual encounter is not what God desired at all, and that Uncle Kenneth's family and church created a pretty theology out of a failure because they did not fully understand what had happened. It's possible someone at the family celebration planted a seed of unbelief (a wonderful beautiful theology of unbelief) that affected Uncle Kenneth's healing. It is possible that the church brought about Uncle Kenneth's healing but failed to teach Uncle Kenneth how to hold and retain his healing. The Bible declares the devil comes to steal, to kill, and to destroy and that God is light and God does all things well, but the testimony here challenges that -- in a spiritual way of course.

Another testimony which was problematic was the near death experience related by Ingrid Shelton, "The Tall Visitor."  The author declares a spirit, probably a spirit of death, came to retrieve her for her journey to the author life, but a voice told the spirit to take another boy and to leave Ingrid to live. Toward the end of the testimony, however, the author writes, "Yet from the day the death angel had bent my upper body to the ground, I began to develop scoliosis. Was it to be a reminder of my encounter with spiritual forces? I wondered."

Questionable. True, Jacob had a limp for the rest of his life after his encounter with the angel. But to use this Biblical story to show God as the creator of illness is somewhat akin to the devil using Psalm 91 to tempt Jesus to throw himself off the top of the temple. It is possible the angel of death was not from God. It is also possible the angel of death was from God but the devil used the opportunity to create illness, especially if someone nearby made a "spiritual" comment about the incident. It is possible the medications in the hospital affected an already weakened area of Shelton's body.

The compiler/editor should have added an insightful introduction which explored and discussed the many possible facets of a Christian's encounter with the supernatural. However, it is a common trait among many Christian editors to do simple compilations without adding a theological discussion at the end or beginning of the book.

This book is recommended because it shows the world a living God who still does miracles and it shows the supernatural nature of the world. However, the following advice from Jesus should be heeded because while some of the testimonies in this book will add to one's faith, other testimonies might plant spiritual seeds which depict God as the unpredictable cause of sickness or as a trickster who destroys aspects of a person's health to make them more spiritual.
Take heed therefore how ye hear: for whosoever hath, to him shall be given; and whosoever hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he seemeth to have. Luke 8:18