Monday, October 31, 2011

Are We Haunted?

With Halloween being today and people dressing up as the things we envision haunting large old houses or abandoned factories, it seems like an important question to ask, "Are we haunted? Are hauntings real?"

Hauntings are an interesting concept that humans have come up with. The idea that sometimes when a person dies, though their body is dead, their spirit lives on in our world because they either have some "unfinished business" or they just don't want to leave. These spirits stick around, and sometimes they make their presence known to those of us still living. Some are content to live in our world, while creating very little disturbance. But others, the ones we most hear about, live in our world to torment and induce fear, and sometimes cause death. These are the ones that are angry about something and want to make someone pay for it.

Of course, there are some who find comfort in the idea of ghosts because that means there's a possibility of communicating with the people we care about after they die. The relationship doesn't have to dissolve with death if ghosts are real.

Then there are those who get a thrill out of the idea of encountering a ghost. Countless TV shows are dedicated to showing people hunting ghosts in some of the world's most haunted places. While there's always something clearly weird going on, no one ever seems to catch the tiniest glimpse of a ghost on camera. Yet there have been so many eye witnesses throughout history who claim to have seen a ghost that the evidence would seem to point to something close to what humanity has come up with to describe ghosts.

We're All Haunted, But Not By What You Think

We don't need ghosts to be haunted. People who are very much alive do the things that ghosts are said to do all the time. People that torment you and tear you down. Who needs ghosts when we have real living human beings, some who unmercilessly make the world a miserable place to live in for some people?

Do people really get to stick around to do the things they've always done, including haunting people? Is that really an option?

Jesus tells us a story in Luke 16:19-31 about two men who died-a nameless rich man and a homeless beggar named Lazarus. The interesting thing about the rich man is that he was desperate for the concept of the dead returning to earth to be true. He's tormented in the eternal place where he'll never have God, and he begs Abraham to send Lazarus back to warn his brothers. Abraham doesn't say it's impossible. Anything is possible with God, and there is one isolated instance in the Old Testament in 2 Samuel 23 when God did send the spirit of a dead man back. The result was terrifying to the people who experienced it, which is much what we would expect. But in this instance with the rich man and Lazarus, Abraham seems to say that it would serve no purpose to send a man back, so God isn't going to do it. The rich man doesn't ask for the ability to go back himself, but you have to think that he could only desperately wish that sticking around earth as a spirit after death was an option. But Lazarus' spirit is carried away to heaven after death, and the rich man's spirit was carried to hell immediately upon death. It doesn't say who carried the rich man. He didn't get the option to stick around. Surely he had some unfinished business, but it would remain unfinished.

Another interesting element of the story is that Lazarus, in life, was a beggar outside of the rich man's home, begging for food daily. The rich man could have made Lazarus' life better, but instead he gave him nothing. The rich man was the one haunting Lazarus in life by his neglect. But once death occurred, the haunting stopped.

God holds the power over the human spirit, and he doesn't seem to leave any room for the belief that he allows spirits to stick around after death.

But what about all the evidence? It seems like something's haunting places all over the world. It's not too hard to imagine a race of spirit beings that the Bible talks about impersonating the spirits of human beings. Who knows why they do it, but it seems like the most likely answer for the hauntings that are legitimately real. That's really another post for another time, though.

We're haunted by things that are a little more close to home. For human beings, haunting happens during life, and sometimes we're the ones doing the haunting. Nobody wants to be haunted.

Life is better spent creating hope rather than creating fear. Human beings were never meant to haunt other human beings.

What kind of activities do you have going on for Halloween?

Saturday, October 29, 2011

A Bible Translation for a Story-Driven Culture: A Review of The Voice New Testament

The writers of the New Testament were men who chose carefully the words they wanted to use to convey the story of God that they were caught up in. Their audiences were unique, and each writer would communicate in a way that made the most sense of the message to the people they were talking to. These were men who were carried along by the Holy Spirit in what they wrote, and the preservation of what they wrote was fiercely fought for. These men were writers and storytellers as much as they were anything else, and their giftedness with words bled through every page.

There have been some great English translations that have tried to capture the word-for-word meaning of what these men wrote into our own language (the ESV and the NKJV are two of my personal favorites). Thomas Nelson Publishing and the Ecclesia Bible Society led by innovative pastor Chris Seay teamed up to produce a new type of translation, one that takes a translation approach described as "contextual equivalence."

This new translation is called THE VOICE, and the whole Bible, including the Old Testament, will be released in 2012. THE VOICE translators realized that context determines the meaning of words and that there are many unique nuances to the original text that need to be translated into English in such a way that the force of impact, as well as understanding, is communicated accurately to a modern English audience, especially one that is immersed in a story-driven culture.

THE VOICE seeks to capture not only the original words, but the original meaning and experience as well, with the goal that God's voice would be heard clearly through the reading of his Word.

I love that the translation team of THE VOICE was composed of several well-known biblical scholars and a team of writers and artists who specialize in the communication of important ideas through well-placed words. This approach resonated with me because, in this way, I see THE VOICE as a Bible that will appeal especially to writers, artists, and other creative types. It will also appeal well to a culture stories through a variety of different mediums.

Some of the other great features of THE VOICE NEW TESTAMENT are:

• dialogue attributions in screenplay format for easy recognition of who is speaking

• words in italics indicate words that aren't in the original text, but serve as helpful explanatory notes and transitional phrases that carry the story forward smoothly and clearly

• using the words Eternal One instead of Lord when translating God's name and Anointed One instead of Christ to properly convey what the word Christ means, and the addition of "Liberating King" where the idea is called for

• brief commentary notes throughout the text to aid in understanding

• informative book introductions

With THE VOICE NEW TESTAMENT, people are getting an accurate translation that is both visually and linguistically appealing by a team of people committed to creating a way for people to experience God's voice unhindered.

Look for THE VOICE NEW TESTAMENT available in November and the THE VOICE BIBLE in 2012.

I received this book for free for review from

What features do you love the most about your English translation of choice?

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Redemption Reflected in Harry Potter: A Review of THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HARRY POTTER by Connie Neal

Someone unfamiliar with the Bible's main plot points might read J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series and think it's a really compelling fantasy story with a cast of memorable characters and an unforgettable storyline about an epic battle between good versus evil. And that would be the end of it. But someone with a familiarity with the Bible's main plot points is likely to read through the books and think, "Wow. These stories remind me a lot of the story elements of redemptive history."

It is the second group of people who will appreciate a book by Connie Neal called THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HARRY POTTER. Neal takes us on an in-depth journey and exploration through all seven books in the series, revealing what she calls "glimmers of the gospel" throughout. The result for me was further confirmation of my belief that the story of redemption has been intricately woven into the fabric of our human existence. The greatest stories, the ones that impact us the most profoundly, are always a reflection of the greater story found in redemptive history.

Neal breaks the book up into seven sections, a section focused on each book. Each section has a summary of the book in the series the section is focused on. The summaries are really helpful because it can be hard to remember all the many intricate story threads that J.K. Rowling wove into each book. Neal then takes some of the most pivotal story elements from each book and shows how they compare and illuminate some of the most pivotal story elements in the Bible's redemptive story.

THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HARRY POTTER is first a book exploring one of the most memorable and profound fictional stories of our time, but it also takes readers on a deeper journey into the story God is telling through Scripture. Readers will walk away knowing the Bible more.

This would be a great book for Harry Potter fans, regardless if they're followers of Jesus or not. It's at least a way to introduce someone to God's heart as revealed in Scripture while looking at the story of Harry Potter.

It would also make a great resource to Christians who struggle with the witchcraft story context of Harry Potter, who want to know if there is any redemptive quality to the stories. Neal does a fantastic job of showing us that there is, and that the most profound story elements reflect the sacrificial death and resurrection of Christ for the sake of others in a compelling way.

Having read and loved all the Harry Potter books, THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO HARRY POTTER was a fun read and a profound journey back into both the story of Harry Potter and the story of redemption through Jesus Christ.

I received this book for free for review from Westminster John Knox Press.

How much do you think the Bible had an influence on J.K. Rowling's writing from what you've read in the story?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Weight of Words: Winning the Internal Struggle With Temptation

I think my favorite word in the English language might be "daddy." Not really when just anyone says it. Just when my children say it. Of course, anyone could call me daddy, but I'd be a little worried if just anyone came up to me and called me daddy. It's just simple word, yet in different contexts, it can take on different meanings and bring about different emotional responses in people.

Like Puff Daddy, for example. What kind of an emotional response does hearing the name Puff Daddy bring about in me? Not much of one, really.

But when Lucy or Kalel call me daddy, it's one of the greatest things in the world to hear. I don't think I'll ever get enough of it. When my wife tells me she loves me or that she's proud of something I've done, it means something much different to me than if a complete stranger said it to me.

Words can have a pretty profound impact on people, especially when they're strung together into sentences and paragraphs that communicate something important. They can even have a strong influence on the actions we take.

Several years ago, I saw a horror movie called The Grudge. Words from a script were translated into a terrifying scene where a guy goes up into an attic at night and gets attacked by a ghost girl with a sickly pale complexion. I have an attic. To this day, I hate to go up into my attic at night.

Everyone knows what it's like to be impacted by the words of someone they deeply care about. When someone says something harmful, doesn't it sting just a little bit more when it's from someone you love? When someone you love expresses their love for you, doesn't it somehow make the world stop spinning, as if that moment between the two of you is all that matters?

The Power of Love

On a seemingly unrelated note, we also know what it is to do things we wish we hadn't. Things that may hurt us and others, yet we don't understand why we do them. Things that cause us to wonder if God still listens to us because somehow we know we've betrayed him, so why would he care about anything we ask of him?

It only makes sense that if we're doing things that only harm us and drive a wedge between us and God, then we should just stop. But Scripture tells us about something called temptation. Temptation to do things that betray God and others. Temptation itself is often brought about by the invisible evil presence in our world known as the devil and his demons, and it's personal. Temptations come in different forms for different people. What evil you're prone to commit may be completely different than what your spouse is prone to. But in yesterday's post, we learned that there is someone who wants you to do the things that separate you from God. The devil wants to make sure you're tempted where you are most likely to fail.

In Matthew 4, Jesus walks into temptation much weaker than we ever do, yet he walks out of the desert, having not sinned. How did he do it?

Jesus countered each of the temptations with a commitment to something God had said in Scripture. Jesus let God's words influence him more than the temptations. Because God was so important to him, God's words held a lot of weight in his life. Given who Jesus was and what giving in to the temptations meant for us, the Bible was actually the difference between life and death in temptation. We learn from Jesus to let God's words shape us and influence us to do good instead of evil. That means we have to work on cultivating a profoundly intimate relationship with God for his words to impact us. My wife's words mean so much to me because I love her. My children calling me daddy holds so much weight with me because I love them. If your affections aren't drawn toward God, his words won't mean much. Jesus saw God's words as something he desperately needed and longed for. Giving in to temptation distorts our affections.

There is something else that is crucial to know about temptation: Bad choices often lead to more bad choices, and good choices can lead to more good choices. Our choices shape our character, for good or bad. A person doesn't just wake up one day, deciding to commit the most heinous act of sin if something didn't shape their character to do that up to that point. Someone may start with a few small lies, then move on to bigger ones. This may lead to a simple act of stealing, then maybe violence the next time because someone tried to stop them from stealing, then maybe murder the next time. But it didn't begin at murder. A character was shaped that made murder more likely than it was before the small sins. We can make choices that severely hinder our freedom, and we can undergo a process I call progressive depravity, when our character is shaped by the evil choices we continue to make. How much more likely are you to give in to a temptation a second time of you've already given in to it once?

"For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness,..." (Rom 6:19)

But we can also make choices on a consistent basis that shape good character. This is the part where we're trusting God's words more than the voice of temptation whispering in our minds. We make a choice to trust God once, and we can allow that to build our courage or faith to trust God the next time. Soon, we've built a new habit into our lives that counteracts the sin we may have once given in to.

" now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification." (Rom 6:19)

Jesus faced temptation head-on in the desert to show us the way to defeat sin. It all comes down to making a choice to run as far away from temptation as we can, which is in the presence of Jesus.

What choices have been integral in shaping who you are today?

Photo Credit: Harpagornis ~away~ on Flickr Creative Commons

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Jesus' Showdown in the Desert: Why His Temptations Were Life-Threatening

An obscure man from a small town who's been whispered to be someone very powerful walks into a desert wasteland, completely alone except for one very angry and powerful being who wants to hurt him. The man walks into the desert equivalent of a haunted house to enter a struggle with the most vile and ruthless spiritual being who has ever haunted the world we inhabit.


The man is someone very powerful, but not from a human perspective. In fact, he has been in this desert wasteland for forty days, and he hasn't eaten anything since the day he entered. For forty days his body has been wasting away, and he is the weakest he could be. And this has been his preparation to face the spirit in the desert. The fight won't be won with human ability because human ability has always lost against this spirit.

The spirit is the devil, and he has been tempting humanity to be stripped of what makes them human, created in the image of God, and to surrender to his destructive will for their lives. He's been doing this since the first couple in the Garden of Eden.

The man? His name is Jesus, and he's on a mission to face and defeat temptation on our account, so that we too can walk away from it unscathed. He will do this as a man dependent solely upon the power of God.

People often love scary stories at Halloween, but they probably don't think of Jesus' temptations in the desert as a scary story. But what if Jesus would have said yes to any one of the devil's temptations? What if he had just said yes to the request to bow to the devil just once? He could have avoided the pain of the cross. Power and authority would be his.

Or would it?

If God bows to the devil, then suddenly the devil is God. Do we think for a moment that the devil wouldn't have destroyed Jesus before he even lifted his head again? Imagine a world ruled by the devil. Hard to imagine because it's pretty unlikely that humans would still exist.

Matthew 4 records a pivotal moment in human history. The fate of the universe hangs in the balance as Jesus and the devil have their showdown in the desert. If Jesus had surrendered, all hope would be lost. But Jesus, who walked into this thing so physically weak he was probably nearly dead, walks away the hero. In that moment, he has just rescued the whole universe from a hopeless devil-ruled existence. Because he was the hero in that moment, he could go on to be the hero in the moment of redeeming the world through his death on the cross.

Jesus also showed us the way out of temptation, but more on that tomorrow.

What do you see as some of the most pivital moments in Jesus' life that we often overlook?

Photo Credit: Simon Rooke on Flickr Creative Commons

Monday, October 24, 2011

Writing as Spiritual Discipline


I can't remember the first time I wrote something creative, but I know I've always wanted to write. During my sophomore year of high school, I took my first creative writing class. I was obsessed with horror movies at the time, and I cared nothing for Jesus. Naturally, horror stories were my genre of choice because I loved the darkness more than the light. Then, into the darkness shined a powerful and intoxicating light known as Jesus, and writing took a completely different direction for me. Suddenly, writing became a way to process my thoughts about the world in light of my new faith.

• Journaling as I studied the Bible became integral to my spiritual growth as I worked through what God was trying to communicate to me.

• I began creating stories to make some of the abstract concepts in Scripture more concrete in my mind like Jesus did with the parables.

• When I began teaching the Bible to students in church on a weekly basis, I worked through what I was going to teach from the Bible through writing.

• Throughout the course of our relationship, I've written letters to my wife Lindsey to capture and express exactly how I feel about her.

• Soon, I'll begin writing children's stories for my children just to capture their imagination with who Jesus is and why knowing him should move them to pursue him relentlessly.

Writing gives me hope because it intensively refocuses my attention and, by extension, my heart's affections back on Jesus as he truly is, and I see how his story is written on the hearts of humanity, waiting to be revealed and given the space to transform the hearts of the people who genuinely see it.

Ted Dekker is a New York Times best-selling author and my favorite writer. He has written nearly thirty stories that explore the nature of good and evil, as well as illustrate through creative storytelling the ultimate triumph of Jesus to win over human hearts. In his novel Showdown, Dekker outlines four very profound writing rules:
1. Write to discover
2. There is no greater discovery than love
3. All love comes from the Creator
4. Write what you will

Paul tells believers to be "renewed in the spirit of your minds," (Eph 4:23) and to "present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness" (Rom 6:13).

Paul is describing a general practice that followers of Jesus are to take to keep themselves in a position of continuing to grow closer to the heart of God. People have often prescribed practices known as spiritual disciplines that help an individual to influence their own hearts toward Jesus. It is specific acts in which we present our bodies to God as instruments of righteousness. Examples include meditation on Scripture, prayer, and fasting, among others.

But there's a specific practice that many in the Bible used to both draw closer to the heart of God through intentional thought and emotion processing and to help others to draw close to God's heart as well. David wrote psalms that spanned the emotional spectrum as they sought to express a man's thoughts in light of pursuing God. Solomon wrote thoughts of wisdom to relate to his children on how to live a life that finds its satisfaction in God alone. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John wrote to process who Jesus was and the implications of his life and teachings on the entire world. Paul wrote letters in which he processed what it would mean to live life as a follower of Jesus.

Finally, there's Jesus. He wasn't a writer in the traditional sense of the word, yet he did create stories and the gospel writers wrote down those stories, as well as his teachings. In this way, I think Jesus qualifies as a write. Jesus wrote stories to describe by comparison what living with God in his eternal kingdom would be like.

Writing as spiritual discipline produced the Bible that reveals the heart of God to us. Of course, we can't write anything inspired like the Bible, but we can write to process who Jesus is and the implications of his life and teachings and his death and resurrection have on our lives.

As Ted Dekker outlines, we write to discover, and there is no greater discovery than love, which is bound up in who Jesus. John, who spent three years walking with Jesus, tells us that God is love. This progression should lead us to write freely what is trying to burst out of our hearts because of Jesus.

For me, writing acts as a spiritual discipline that helps me to draw closer to God, but it can only do so if I have some of the most important spiritual disciplines such as Bible study and prayer already part of my day.

Even if you're not a writer, keeping a journal is a great practice to help process what you're studying in Scripture, as well as keep prayer requests and answers recorded for future reference.

How has writing impacted your spiritual journey?

Photo Credit: gregoryhogan at Flickr Creative Commons

Sunday, October 23, 2011

On VCRs and Remembering Smallville

Once upon a time if you wanted to watch a television show later than the time it was scheduled to air, then you would have to inject a thin black box into a really loud machine called a VCR and press record.

Forget trying to have a conversation with someone while the tape is rewinding. You practically have to yell over the loud screeching noise of the VCR trying to find its way to the beginning of the tape.

In the name of efficiency and innovation, the technological world has introduced us to DVR, so that the ancient machine known as the VCR can truly be a thing of the past. Unless, of course, you still have one. And it's still your primary method of recording a TV show. I hate that the VCR is time-consuming, and I hate the lines across the screen when we're watching something on it, but we haven't entered the world of DVR just yet.


Lindsey and I record the shows we want to watch every Thursday and Friday night to watch after our children go to sleep. Every week at about ten minutes until 7:00 is an adventure of trying to figure out where our one-and-a-half-year-old son Kalel has hidden the VCR remote this time. Then comes the rewinding of the one tape we use over and over, week in and week out. The one that has had the series finale episode of Smallville on it for five months because it was so brilliant I can't get myself to record over it. My ritual every week is to rewind the tape to start recording after Smallville, but I always go a little too far. And every week we end up watching the final scene of Smallville when Clark Kent steps out onto the roof of the Daily Planet and opens his button-down shirt to reveal the famous Superman S on his chest.

We watched all ten seasons of Smallville, and along with LOST, it was one of our favorite shows. Some seasons were great. Some were a creative nightmare that caused me to think, "What were the writers thinking?"

It was a very innovative and fresh take on the journey of Clark Kent to Superman, and it was fun to see each week how the creators were going to reframe key elements of the Superman mythology. Most of the time, the way they told the story was compelling and well-executed. But sometimes, with some of the key elements, you wish they would have done things differently. Season four was particularly a disaster with Lana possessed by a witch and the whole search for the stones that could've easily taken one episode, instead of a whole season. Lionel Luthor's journey toward redemption was one of my favorite parts of the story. The death of Jonathan Kent was a heart-breaking, but unfortunately necessary, progression of the story. Ultimately, it was all about the hero's journey, and when Clark Kent finally donned the suit and cape and took flight in the final episode, it was incredible. I didn't think they could pull off a satisfying final episode, but they did it, and it sits on my ancient VCR tape still because of it.

Why did Smallville resonate with so many people? I think it was for a couple reasons. First, the desperate longing for a savior seems to be written into the fabric of our human existence. We're messed up. We're the cause of much of our own problems, and we need somebody clearly not from here, yet somehow one of us, to rescue us out of the darkness.

It's interesting that the Superman mythology is all about a father sending his only son to earth to become one of them to rescue them. Very similar to the story of Jesus. Of course, Clark Kent isn't Jesus, yet the hero he represents can be a reminder of our desperate need for a savior. Jesus is that savior. Yet, just like in Smallville, the savior isn't always loved by everyone. For some, he's seen as a threat, someone who is in the way. Some love the darkness more than the light and run as far away from rescue as they can. But Jesus still pursues the ones who see him as the villain, and some eventually see him as the hero he is.

The second reason I think Smallville resonated with people is because we all long to leave a mark on the world, to make a difference in people's lives. Before the natural corruption settles in from living among so many people already versed in living in darkness, a child would choose to be the hero rather than the villain. Clark Kent, though he was gifted with so many extraordinary abilities that we would all love to have, was a person who genuinely cared about people. Abilities or no abilities, he would always choose to be the hero and help people. Though it was just a story, it was a moving story that once again points us to a man with extraordinary abilities that Paul tells us in Philippians 2 is truly good and will always choose to be the hero and help people.

Jesus invites us to love people, to create courage, to rescue people out of darkness. We can make a difference in our world, but just like with Clark Kent and with Jesus, it won't always be appreciated. People won't always understand it. Some people will even hate us for it. Yet if we're truly good, truly moved by the hero Jesus who has rescued us, then we'll always choose to be the hero, loved or hated, because the story isn't primarily about us. It's about the hero, and the hero is about rescuing people in darkness. Jesus invites us to be heroes, but not for fame or recognition, but because we genuinely care for the people we're trying to rescue by drawing their hearts to Jesus.

Smallville was a brilliantly told story. Its popularity tells me that people hunger for the story of Jesus to invade their lives, even if they don't recognize it. From a creative standpoint, it tells me that we need to do a great job of creatively and compellingly contextualizing and telling the story of Jesus so that people are inspired by the story of our hero and moved to be rescued by him and to rescue with him.

"Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men." - Jesus in Matthew 4:19

What do you have sitting on your DVR or an ancient VHS tape that you can't seem to get rid of?

Photo Credit: Anderson Mendes on Flickr Creative Commons

Saturday, October 22, 2011

The Day After the End of the World

I'm writing this on October 20, 2011, and Harold Camping says that the rapture is supposed to happen tomorrow, so if you're reading this, you either got left behind and should be looking out for a guy named Nicolai Carpathia who is about to take over the world, or the rapture didn't happen. Maybe we're about to hear that the world is actually going to end in 2012 like the Mayans predicted. In that case, we have a little time left.


With all the people who have falsely predicted the end of the world throughout history, it's interesting that people even still believe the world is going to end. No one has been able to guess it, and everyone who has tried has been wrong. If I believed that I knew when the world was going to end, the last thing I would do is tell anyone about it. In fact, given the pattern of all those guys throughout history, I'd probably just assume I was wrong. That's probably good advice for everyone from this point forward who suddenly believes they know when the world is going to end.

The belief that this world is someday going to come to an end seems to be instinctive. So how do we survive the end of the world? Surely, we can survive it, right? All the movies seem to center around a group of people who somehow figure out how to survive the end of the world. Think 2012 and the massive ships carrying the world's elite. I'm thinking, though, that if we could survive the end of the world, then it wasn't really the end of the world.

Revelation 21 tells us a different story about the end of the world. After all the wreckage of an apocalypse that no one could survive, the world doesn't end. It's restored. Stripped of all that caused pain and destruction and injected with all the pulsating creativity of a perfect and loving God, forever.

The world as we know it will end. No one knows when, but it's coming. So what do we do in the meantime?

Love relentlessly until the end of the world. Love your wife. Love your husband. Love your children. Love your parents. Love your neighbor. Love your enemies. Love, because it's the only thing that will lead people close to the heart of God, which is the only way to survive the end of the world.

What is the most interesting way you can think of for the world to end?

Photo Credit: Michael Lehenbauer on Flickr Creative Commons

A Prequel to the End of the World: A Review of THE KEEPER by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee

In honor of the post-apocalyptic world that many people should have woken up to if Harold Camping had been right, I thought it would be a great time to look at a post-apocalyptic story.

Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee have teamed up and written the first in a trilogy about a post-apocalyptic world  where humanity has been stripped of every emotion except fear. FORBIDDEN released in September, and you can check out my review of it here.

Before the release of FORBIDDEN, Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee introduced us to a short story prequel called THE KEEPER, which plunges us into the story world of FORBIDDEN.

Two brothers have taken refuge in a Russian desert wasteland, and THE KEEPER begins when a mysterious man named Talus walks into the desert, claiming to be alive while they are dead. Who is this man? Is he a threat, or can he be trusted?

Talus holds secrets that few people are aware of, secrets that could get him killed. In fact, these are secrets for which he's willing to die, because the future of humanity depends upon the secrets being carried on for a people of the future. Talus is a Keeper, but he knows his time will end. If the secrets, along with a special vial of blood, are to continue until the time they are needed, then Talus can no longer be the only keeper.

THE KEEPER does a great job of introducing us to the complex story world Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee have created with FORBIDDEN, and it should cause anyone who reads it to want to dive deep into FORBIDDEN immediately. Fans of Ted Dekker's CIRCLE SERIES will enjoy the tiniest thread of connection between the two stories, as revealed in THE KEEPER.

The story is very short, but it's a great example of the storytelling genius of Dekker and Lee. I hope they'll provide more short stories like this one in the future. If you want to read THE KEEPER, it's available for free as an eBook on Amazon.

What are some of your favorite post-apocalyptic stories?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Drawing Closer to the Heart of God: A Review of the ESV Student Study Bible from Crossway

The problem with reading the Bible for a lot of people is that it needs a lot of explanation. It can be difficult to dive into any given location in the Bible and automatically know what's going on, what's being communicated, who's saying it, who it's being said to, and what the implications of it is. The Bible was written over several hundred years by forty different authors, and it wasn't written in English. Yet God desires to communicate to each of us through it. So what we need is a Bible that is accurately translated into English from Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic, but we also need tools to help us with what's going on in the passage we're reading.

That's where the ESV Student Study Bible comes in to give us a faithful translation, as well as some really helpful tools to help us understand what God is trying to communicate to us. The ESV, or English Standard Version, is a very readable word-for-word translation that I've been using for years. Though no translation is perfect, I know that the faithful scholars and translators behind the ESV have worked diligently to provide us with a close rendering of what God was communicating to the Bible's original audience.

The ESV Bible alone is a great Bible, but the ESV Student Study Bible is an incredible resource for anyone who is committed to studying the Bible and drawing closer to the heart of God. The ESV Student Study Bible is a condensed version of the ESV Study Bible, with a few added features to make the Bible easier to understand, and therefore easier to live in light of.

The primary features of the ESV Student Study Bible are:
* 12,000 study notes
* Introductions an timelines for each Bible book
* More than 80 full-color map and illustrations throughout
* 15 new topical articles not included in the ESV Study Bible
* Nearly 900 new "Did You Know" facts
* 120 new Bible character profiles

The introductions do an amazing job of putting the reader into the context of the Book they are studying. THe study notes help with parts of the Bible that are hard to understand. The topical articles include topics ranging from informational to practical. For example, the Bible includes articles on how to study the Bible and how to apply the Bible, which are both foundational to growing spiritually through interaction with God through the Scriptures. The Bible gives students a convenient opportunity to learn theology and to dive into the characters of the Bible like never before.

The ESV Student Study Bible was designed with high school students and college students in mind, but it's a great Bible for students of the Bible, no matter what age. Still, this Bible would make a great gift for high school and college students.

I received this book for free for review from Crossway.

What features do you love the most about the ESV Student Study BIble?

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Halloween: The Best Time to Scare People With the Thought of Going to Hell?

For some reason, a lot of Christians find Halloween to be the best time to scare people with the thought of going to hell. For some people, it's an all year thing. Imagine a scorching hot summer day and someone joking about God saying, "If you think it's hot here, wait until you see hell!" But Halloween is the time to pull out all the stops.


It's understandable. While the rest of the world is celebrating "fun hell" by dressing up as things that look like they might have come from hell, a lot of churches want to make sure to deemphasize "fun hell" by reminding people of "not-so-fun hell." The way they do it is to create the Christian version of a haunted house. Don't get me wrong, I like the idea. It's a fun and creative way to show people a very sobering truth, though I think it does a better job at convincing people that they don't want hell than that they want Jesus, but it could work with some people. And it does attract a lot of people.

I've had the chance to go to a few of these, and they all follow the same basic storyline. A high school student struggles with a partying lifestyle and cares nothing about God, while a Christian friend tries to convince them of their need for Jesus before their life spirals out of control. As fate would have it, the two students die in a car accident. The partying student immediately faces the judgment of a very stern, terrifying God. Of course, they try to convince God to give them a second chance, but it's too late. Some people dressed as demons drag the student away to the next room--the hell room. Hell is supposed to be terrifying, so churches feature the devil there, taunting the new arrival to the group. Truly, the thought of it is terrifying and tragic.

Then we're taken to the next room, where the Christian friend has gone to heaven to be with Jesus. I hate to say it, but I hate the heaven room. Churches don't have a lot of money to put into these haunted house events, but if you really want to spend some money somewhere, it seems like heaven should be it. But instead, you're walked into a room that has the distinct feeling of being in a funeral home. White and gold decorate the room, as if that's the only colors God decides to keep for heaven. There are other people in heaven, but I can't say they appear even remotely excited to be there. The room is quiet except for the light playing of MercyMe's unmercifully played I Can Only Imagine playing in the background.

Then the actor who plays Jesus shows up. He's a very calm, grandfatherly type. Not that that's a bad thing. But imagine that you gave your life to rescue someone so that you could be with them for all eternity. When you finally saw them face-to-face, would you calmly say, "I'm so glad you're here"? The Scriptures describe heaven like an extravagant celebration where everyone lives in bliss at all times. I think Jesus is going to sweep us off our feet and scream to the skies over the uncontrollable joy he feels. And I think we're going to feel the same. Every time I get to the heaven room, part of me wants to go back to the hell room. It was so much more lively there.

The Christian imagination often struggles with picturing heaven accurately, and Christian haunted houses (at least the ones I've seen) are the perfect example. Instead of trying to scare people with the thought of going to hell, it might be a better strategy to create a picture in the minds of people of exactly what God invites us to in eternal life. We do that by developing an imagination that creates far better than it does now. We do that by interacting with God's imagination in Scripture and picturing the blissful eternal realities he's described for us.

Hell was never meant to be the motivator for us to turn to Jesus.

What are some other examples you can think of where the Christian imagination often struggles to represent the things of God accurately?

Photo Credit: frazerweb on Flickr Creative Commons

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Killing the Art of Procrastination

I've always loved to read, but I can think of one instance when I hated reading. I think I was in second or third grade, and I had to do a book report on a Hardy Boys book. On the day before it was due, my parents discovered that I hadn't read a single page of the book I was supposed to review. I'm not real sure what my plan was. Maybe I was going to just make up what the story was about. What were the chances that the teacher had read that same story, after all? Plus, making up my own stories has always been more fun anyway. But my parents decided that if I had to review this book, then I needed to actually read it.

So they made me read it...

...all evening long...

...until I finished.


Every word began to feel like acid splashed on my eyes. Instead of playing Nintendo or rearranging my baseball cards for the one hundredth time, I had to read what was going on in the Hardy Boys' world. Who are the Hardy Boys anyway? To this day, I have no idea what I read or what my book report was about.

I wish I could say this was the last time I've ever put something off until the last minute. Many people struggle with what author Steven Pressfield calls resistance. Resistance is a force that automatically starts pressing in on us the moment we know that we have to do something important that requires any sort of creative thought, or that might require any degree of risk of criticism.

It's the voice that whispers, "You can always wait to do it later," when you know you have homework to do, when you want to write a novel, when you want to start a business, when you need to fix the dishwasher (speakiing of, I need to fix our dishwasher, but maybe I can do it later), when you want to become a better parent or spouse, when you need to pray or read the Bible, when you need to change something critical in your life, and any other project you can imagine either wanting to do or feeling responsible to do.

Last week, I wrote about creating courage in other people. Resistance is the enemy of courage. Though there's so much we need to do to live life to the fullest, we often lack the courage to silence the voice of resistance.

In Romans 7, though Paul is talking specifically about our ability to live rightly, what he describes is exactly where resistance comes from. We're truly our own worst enemies, and it is us, our fears, and our bad habits that stop us from doing what we need and want to do. Paul says, "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate...For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out...I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members" (Rom. 7:15, 18, 23).

However irrational it is, the feeling of resistance often gives us the sense that what we're about to tackle is impossible. So we have to do what is impossible before we have time to realize it's impossible. We have to silence the resistance early on, before it has a chance to talk us out of doing what needs to be done. Jon Acuff talks about this in his book QUITTER in relation to chasing our dreams. We can't give our resistance the time to get into our heads and give us all the reasons why we shouldn't do what we're about to do.

We have to act.

We can't procrastinate.

We have to be proactive.

We have to be diligent.

We have to put our resistance to death.

"A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich" (Prov. 10:4)

What are some methods you use to avoid procrastination?

Photo Credit: alancleaver_2000 / Alan Cleaver on Creative Commons

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Desperate and Never Satisfied

We’re never truly satisfied, but we’re so easily distracted. And sometimes being distracted feels just a little bit like what we think being satisfied would feel like. And so we go on believing that maybe what we’re trying to be satisfied by will actually satisfy us, if not today, then someday. So we keep praying that the job, the marriage, the kids, the house, the approval, the addictions will satisfy us. But it never happens. We still feel desperate.

Here’s why—God will not allow us to be satisfied by the things we think we want most. Everything leaves us empty and desperate for only One who can satisfy. It's like our hearts are pulled from birth toward God, but the world and the supernatural and even the ugliness inside of us throw all these things in the way and say, "Here's what you really want. This is what you’re looking for.” And we have this tendency to believe it every time.

We’re never satisfied, and that’s exactly how God wants it. And that challenges certain things we often believe about God. We often come to God looking for what he can do for us. And sometimes we develop this idea that God will never give us more than we can handle. We tend to believe that when we follow God, there’s nothing we can’t handle because God will never give us more than we can handle.

But think about that for a second. If we never faced anything that was more than we could handle, then we would never even need God. The Bible never tells us that God won’t allow us to go through more than we can handle. In fact the Scriptures tell us over and over again that God will allow us to go through things that reveal to us that we are desperate for God. When God allows us to face things that we can’t handle, it should cause us to cry out to God because he is our only hope.

Our desires leave us desperate. Everything we have leaves us desperate. Everything we don’t have leaves us desperate. And everything we go through leaves us desperate.

So we have to realize what it really is we’re longing for because it will never be satisfied by anything but by Jesus Christ.

What has God used in your life to reveal your desperation for him?

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Rescuing the Innocent: A Review of INNOCENT BLOOD by John Ensor

What are Christians called to do about abortion? Is proclaiming it as murder really helping? Is being silent about it an option?

John Ensor’s book INNOCENT BLOOD dives deep into the issue of abortion, but not in a way that condemns those who’ve been involved in it in the typical Christian judgmental fashion. Though any talk about abortion in relation to God’s thoughts about it is assured to make many people uncomfortable and many people offended. In fact, Ensor implicates all of us in the bloodguilt of abortion. The book looks at the issue from God’s perspective, and explores several key Old Testament texts to reveal God’s heart toward not only the unborn, but all people. Human life is precious to God, therefore human beings have a responsibility to defend human life against anything and anyone that threatens it. Ensor makes the case that if we claim to be pro-life, yet do nothing to help protect the unborn, we may be pro-life in our declaration, but we’re pro-choice in practice. Suddenly the condemnation isn’t just on those who take part in abortion, but on Christ followers as well. Yet the greatest beauty is found in the cross where Jesus took on the bloodguilt of abortion and the killing of the innocent in our world.

I can’t cover all the insights of INNOCENT BLOOD here, but I would recommend all Christ followers to read the book. Ensor’s book is a call to love human life as God loves it, and love requires the defending of human life where possible. He also connects abortion as an attempt for the devil to stop the spread of God’s love to the world. After all, think what the world would have been like if the apostle Paul would have never been born.

I came away from reading INNOCENT BLOOD with a greater appreciation for God’s love of human beings, and it causes me to wrestle with what exactly I’m supposed to do about defending the innocent. Yet I know that I must if I am to help fulfill God’s hopes and dreams for the world. In light of what Ensor has revealed from the Scriptures, each time an abortion happens, God’s hopes and dreams for that person are snuffed out. If we understand God as the Creator of each human life, then when a child is conceived, it is not just the joining of a man and woman that initiates a human life; God is the determiner of a life beginning. God condemns the taking of human life in Exodus 20:13. In light of all this, abortion is a tragedy because it is the abortion of a life for which God initiated and had great intention for.

Read INNOCENT BLOOD, and love human life like you’ve never imagined.

I received this book for free for review from Cruciform Press.

What are some ways that Christians can morally stand up for innocent blood?

Friday, October 14, 2011

Fear Tactics: Scaring People Toward Jesus

Several years ago I went to the Christian equivalent of a haunted house. The tagline was that they would “scare the hell out of you.” Literally, or at least they hoped. My wife and I were dating at the time, and we went together. The goal is to haunt you with the real life horrors that can happen to teens in the hopes that you’ll see that you need Jesus. Suicide. Drunk driving. Gang shootouts. Drugs. Domestic violence. And even a journey through the torture chambers of hell itself. One time I was nearly run over by the Grim Reaper (he’s in the Bible, right?), a fake gang member was yelling obscenities in Lindsey’s ears, and another time some creepy rat man (another famous Bible character) tries to put a rat on her shoulder, causing her to freak out. It was all truly disgusting. Finally, they would show you Jesus and everything he did for you.


Then the scariest part of the haunted house came. The time when you walk out of the haunted house into a sea of people, armed with their best, most pushy evangelistic strategy. The courtesy of personal space has been sucked out of the world, and your eternal soul is now the object of a bidding war. No one gets out of there without praying the sinner’s prayer at least three times, whether you want to or not. We put all this over-the-top work into convincing you that you need Jesus, and you’re not leaving until we close the deal.

Lindsey and I were probably holding hands on the way out, but suddenly a group of people grabs Lindsey and pulls her one way while another group pulls me another way. As I watch her get swallowed up by the sea of soul-hungry people, somebody starts asking me a lot of intrusive questions about where I stood with God. I remember telling one guy my whole story of coming to faith, and he’s breathing down my neck as he says, “Well, are you sure that you meant it?” Well, thank you for invalidating me and my relationship with Jesus, Mr. Pushy Evangelistic Guy. I should have turned it around and asked him if he was sure he mPeant it.

It was a fun experience if you loved the thrill of getting scared. The haunted house gets an A plus for creativity, but I know I walked away from that thing my first time (before I had come to faith), having prayed a prayer that I didn’t understand or take seriously. I just wanted out. Sure, I was scared to end up like one of the tragic stories I’d just witnessed, but what sticks out in my mind is that we were given a story of several different people for whom Jesus didn’t save the day. The darkness won. Sure, Jesus shows up in the end, but it’s too late for all the people we just saw. Where’s the hope in that?

I realize the story doesn’t always end well for everyone. Human freedom means that Jesus doesn’t rescue those who refuse to be rescued. But I want to create stories where Jesus does save the day, both on paper and in real life. If Jesus is the rescuer, then people need to encounter stories that clearly reveal Jesus rescuing. So if you’re a storyteller, it’s about creating believable and moving stories of Jesus rescuing people out of darkness. For everyone, it’s about living a life that fully reveals Jesus as the rescuer of your life and getting involved in the lives of people to draw them to the heart of Jesus. This is how we create stories that display a Jesus who saves the day, and people are drawn to him, not based on fear, but love.

What fear tactics have you seen employed to try to convince someone they need Jesus?

Photo Credit: aerodyneebay on Flickr Creative Commons

Thursday, October 13, 2011

The Power of Creating Courage

Have you ever had someone encourage you to do something really stupid and you did it? When I was in high school, there was a guy who was saying things about me that I didn’t like, and a mutual friend said, “Hey, you two should fight.” Alright. Now that we’ve discovered a mature way to settle this, just give me a date, time, and location. So we met up at the mutual friend’s house one day after school, and the plan was to fist fight in the front yard.

The problem is that I’m really nervous because I’ve never fought anyone before and I weigh maybe 130 pounds. The other guy was bigger than me, and as we danced around each other with our fists up, he had this crazy look in his eye that I would’ve never seen coming. Though I knew in that moment that this guy wanted to hurt me, I was committed. I could do this, I kept telling myself.

We must’ve danced around in circles for five minutes before I finally decided to take the first swing. I missed. As I’m regrouping, I feel the other guy’s fist hit me in the face, which throws me back.
The dance is, of course, over, and I suddenly come to my senses. “This is stupid,” I say. “Why are we doing this?” So says the guy who’s trying not to cry because his face hurts so bad. So we decided to end the fight. Mutually, of course. Nobody won. But I walked away with a black eye, and he didn’t.

It really was stupid, but did I really need to be encouraged to do something like that? Did it really take courage? Not at all. It would’ve been more courageous not to fight about something stupid just because I didn’t want to look like a wimp.

I love the word encourage because it means to create courage in another person. There are so many things that we want to do, even feel a deep longing to do, but we lack the courage to do them. We’re paralyzed by fear and often take the road with the least amount of risk. So if it’s writing a novel, asking someone to marry you, being a great father or mother, loving your spouse relentlessly, or starting a business that impacts the world, without courage, some of the most important and positively life-altering events in our lives may never happen. That’s where the people who care most about us come in and say the things that create courage in us. Several years ago when my wife and I were dating, she once told me that she wouldn’t be surprised if she would be buying my books in a bookstore someday. I live off the courage of those words when it comes to writing to this day. You probably can think of a similar time in your own life.

But it’s also important for us to be the ones to create courage in others. Having courage created in you is incredible, but creating it in others is truly life-giving. It gets us out of what we want most and into the hopes and dreams of the people we care about. Some of the people you know want to do something so much, yet lack of courage stops them. And it could be the difference between a life that changes the world and a life that just settles on just surviving each day.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Focusing Your Creative Process: A Review of THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIVE by Todd Henry

For years I’ve wanted to write, which means that a significant part of my life is dependent upon generating new and important ideas on a consistent basis.  But anyone who is a creative knows how difficult it is sometimes to come up with good ideas at a moment’s notice.  And for many, the ability to come up with ideas at a moment’s notice is vitally important to the success of their professional work.

Into the midst of this tension comes a phenomenal new book about the creative process by Todd Henry—THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIVE.  The book focuses on developing a creative rhythm, centered around the following five practices and represented by the acronym FRESH:
  • Focus
  • Relationships
  • Energy
  • Stimuli
  • Hours
There is a lot to love about this book and a lot of helpful insights to put into practice.  In the chapter on Focus, Henry recommends that creatives work through challenges, or “positioning project objectives in the form of questions designed to surround the problem.”  These help you to be “focused on specifics rather than generalities.”  I love this approach.  It’s exactly the approach I took last summer when I began writing my first novel.  I approached the story problems by asking and answering focused questions.  To consistently generate the most relevant ideas for the project we’re working on, we need the kind of focus this practice provides.

Another thing I loved about the book was that each of the practices are really about focusing our creative process and eliminating the things that keep us from being the most creative on a consistent basis.  Creatives don’t often consider how their energy level affects their ability to generate ideas.  Henry points out that without monitoring our energy, we’re eventually going to hit a wall that will force us to stop our creative rhythm.  This can be very costly when your energy level is depleted at the moment when you need to generate ideas the most.

The chapter on stimuli may be the most important for developing a rhythm that generates the kind of ideas we really want.  We want to control the kind of stimuli we’re exposed to and focus in on the stimuli that are most helpful to producing the kind of results we’re looking for.  Henry’s advice on how to keep a notebook to take notes and record ideas in was something I put into practice immediately after I read the book, and it has been immediately helpful to my creative rhythm.

There are books that promise to be helpful, and then there are books that are so insightful that you can’t wait to start putting the book’s ideas into practice.  THE ACCIDENTAL CREATIVE is an immediately helpful book for developing a healthy, results-oriented rhythm to creativity.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Role of Steve Jobs in Redemptive History

Like many people, this past Sunday morning in church I read the Bible on my iPhone.  It’s convenient because I have three small children, and carrying a Bible in addition to diaper bags and my children can be unnecessarily life-altering, though there is the temptation to check Facebook, Twitter, or email in between Scripture readings.  But the Bible is there, and it’s compact enough to put in my pocket.  I can read it anytime I want.  And that is thanks to Steve Jobs, a remarkable innovator who passed away last week. 

Veggie Tales creator Phil Vischer, an innovator himself, made an interesting observation about Jobs’ impact on the world.  Humanity once lived in a world where access to the Bible was scarce.  Now, people all over the world who own iPhones or iPads have access to the Bible completely free at any given moment.  All you have to do is click on the app store, select the Bible you want, and you’re free to totally immerse yourself in God’s Word.  Not only that, but Bible study resources are just a click away as well.  Not to mention the ability to listen to the podcasts of some of the greatest Bible teachers in the world. 

Steve Jobs himself wasn’t a follower of Jesus, yet he completely changed the world in a way that has allowed the message of Jesus to be spread broader than ever before.  None of us will know if Jobs himself came to understand who Jesus was in the moments before he died.  I tend to think that the imminent presence of a person’s death would cause them to seriously evaluate what’s on the other side, and it may be that Jesus shines brighter than ever before in those moments, but I could be totally wrong.  Nevertheless, we’ll probably never really grasp the crucial role that Steve Jobs played in redemptive history. 

But we also have a crucial role to play, one that we may not fully understand until all is said and done.  God is working in the world to establish his kingdom in the hearts of humanity, and it’s always great to see him doing it through brilliant human innovation.  With prayerful intentionality, we have to keep developing new and deeply effective ways to spread the message of Jesus, so that people that need it may grasp it and experience firsthand God’s innovation on their hearts.

What are some innovative ways you can think of that God’s redemptive message may spread in the future?

Intense Story From the Editor of Ted Dekker: A Review of THE BAKER'S WIFE by Erin Healy

I was a little nervous about picking up a book called THE BAKER’S WIFE.  As a guy, the title held very little appeal for me.  However, given that the book was written by an author named Erin Healy, I decided to pick it up.  Erin Healy, after all, has been the editor for Ted Dekker’s books for years and even co-wrote two books with Dekker. 

THE BAKER’S WIFE is a story about Audrey Bofinger, the wife of a man who was once a pastor of a church, but now runs a bakery after being fired from the church under false accusations.  One morning, as Audrey is on her way to the bakery, she hits the moped of Julie Mansfield, the wife of the man who caused her husband’s downfall.  There’s blood everywhere, but there’s no body.  An extensive search leads to no conclusions.  Julie is simply missing, and her husband is getting more and more obsessed with making the Bofingers pay for what has happened to his wife.

The book is suspenseful from the beginning, and it kept me wanting to read more.  The reveals are shocking, and the exploration of forgiveness is inspiring.  The only drawback for me was the title.  It seems to limit the readership of the book to women, which may be the point anyway.  At any rate, I enjoy Erin Healy’s storytelling and will continue to follow her work.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

How Could a Loving God Command the Destruction of the Canaanites? - AReview of Paul Copan's IS GOD A MORAL MONSTER?

One of the struggles I've always had with the Bible is the seemingly stark difference in the character of God in the Old Testament and God in the New Testament. Specifically, I've struggled with how a loving God could command Israel to completely annihilate the Canaanites so that Israel could inhabit the land of Canaan. Additionally, the Old Testament features God's command to Abraham to sacrifice Isaac among other difficult ethical issues. Many people have come away from reading the Bible believing that the God of the Old Testament is enraged, violent, and loving only toward a select few, while the God of the New Testament is universally loving, peaceful, and forgiving. How do we reconcile the two without coming to the conclusion that we're speaking about two different divine beings?

Paul Copan addresses this question in his book IS GOD A MORAL MONSTER? I wish this book would have been available several years ago because it would have saved me a lot of difficulty.

Copan takes a closer look at the Old Testament texts to show that what they reveal is a God who enters a fallen dysfunctional human culture and calls people into a relationship with him. This calling involves a gradual heart transformation, which accounts for many of the strange laws in the Old Testament that don't seem like the epitome of God's expectation for human beings. In fact, God's expectations are far bigger, and the Law for ancient Israel was a beginning step in that direction. Copan paints us a picture of the context of the ancient Near East in which the Law was given. We see that God was inviting Israel to a new ethical standard that would separate them from the sinful practices of the Canaanites whom they would soon encounter. But the Law was never meant to be the end of the matter, as if all of God's expectations for human behavior were laid out in the writings of Moses. In fact, many of the laws were given simply for Israel alone in the context that they were in.

The Law was the beginning, but the New Testament will reveal that conforming to the character of Christ is the real goal. This discussion made sense of why God gave laws that didn't outlaw slavery outright or give women a clear set of equal rights. The Law was actually a beginning step in the direction of the ending of slavery and the equal standing of women, especially in a culture where slavery was a humanly degrading practice and women were treated terribly. A closer reading of the Old Testament shows God laying out his vision for the end of slavery and ethical treatment of women, the actual laws being the first step in that direction. The people of God who genuinely follow God's heart will treat all human beings with the utmost love and respect.

As for the slaughter of the Canaanites, the most disturbing issue of the Bible I've come across, Copan shows how the ancient Near Eastern culture, of which Israel was a part, would use exaggeratory language to describe certain actions, such as what took place during warfare. When the Bible tells us that Joshua destroyed all the Canaanites just as God commanded, yet we see that many Canaanites were still alive and inviting the Israelites to observe their religious practices, we're faced with the obvious point that either Joshua was lying, or he was using the common form of writing of the day and using exaggeratory language. Joshua didn't mean that he literally annihilated the Canaanites. Copan points out that the goal of the Canaanite conquest was not to destroy people, but to destroy Canaanite religion and culture by driving out the Canaanite peoples and fighting to the death the ones who refused to leave. The incredible thing is that the story of Rahab shows that any Canaanite had the freedom to surrender and become a part of the community of God, and that was the ideal. God has always been about the redemption of people, and he actually loved the Canaanite people and desired their salvation, but many of their hearts were hardened against God. Those who were responsive to God were absorbed into the community of Israel.

Copan also notes that women and children were very unlikely to have been present for any actual battle. The battles were against hard-hearted combatant Canaanite men who refused to give up their false gods to enjoy the one true God. Canaanite religion had to be sufficiently destroyed so that Israel could become the community that would produce Jesus, the savior of all the nations of the world.

The Old Testament reveals a God who is loving and has a redemptive plan for the people he loves. This God has chosen to work through human systems to bring about his will, even if it's a messy process. It made me feel much better to see that God loved the Canaanites and redemption was offered to them and that some received it. The rest were either driven out of the land or killed of they chose to fight against Israel.

This book probably won't convince everyone of the love of God revealed in the Old Testament because there are still difficulties. The idea of the Law being merely a first step in the direction of an ideal morality may be hard to swallow for some. To me, it made the most sense within the biblical context. Everyone who struggles with how God is often presented in the Old Testament should read this book with a pen and highlighter in hand. Even those who haven't struggled should read it so that they can answer those who do.

I received this book for free for review from Baker Books.

Friday, October 7, 2011

A Review of One Step Away by Eric Wilson

Bret and Sara Vreeland are struggling. With two kids and bills to pay, the Vreelands work relentlessly each day for a payday that never seems to arrive. Being surrounded by friends whom God has seemed to bless financially is starting to take its toll when the Vreelands work so hard and serve so faithfully. Everything changes the day Sara becomes the beneficiary of a large inheritance from a very enigmatic man. Suddenly the Vreelands are living the good life. A mansion. High end sports cars. Promotions at work. Even the pastor of their church can't seem to deny that God has finally rewarded all their good work.

But what if their blessing isn't from God? What if someone sinister is trying to undo the good in them by exploiting their desire to be financially secure?

The stage is set for a battle over the Vreelands' hearts. A plan has been forming in the darkest recesses of their family's past that threatens to tear their marriage apart and destroy the faith they've fought so hard to hold onto.

Eric Wilson is a captivating storyteller, and his latest novel ONE STEP AWAY is one of those stories that keeps you reading because you have to know what's going to happen to this imperfect yet loving family. It's a suspenseful story, which I didn't quite expect because it was about a suburban church-going family. But Wilson proves that his new brand of suburban suspense has what it takes to carry readers on a thrilling journey from beginning to end.

The main characters are easy to identify with for anyone who has ever struggled to make ends meet. The villain of the story, Magnus Maggart, is a character who is clearly evil, yet Wilson presents him in such a way that you sympathize with what has made him who he is. The book's backstory unfolds throughout the course of the novel, and though a bit predictable, the progressive revelations consistently kept me wanting to know more. The novel also features an interesting exploration of America's prosperity gospel. Ultimately, Wilson's story points to the desperate need we have for Jesus over anything else.

This was the first Eric Wilson novel I've read, and I can't wait to dive into everything else he's written. This is a great novel from a great writer.

I received this book for free for review from Bay Forest Books.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Review: The Indispensable Youth Pastor by Mark DeVries & JeffDunn-Rankin

THE INDISPENSABLE YOUTH PASTOR by Mark DeVries and Jeff Dunn-Rankin is a vital book for anyone involved in youth ministry. I wish it had been written years ago, but now it can be a life-changing and trajectory-setting book for youth ministry veterans and those looking for a new position in youth ministry.

The book is divided into three sections: Looking for, Landing, and Locking In a youth ministry job. The first section, surely a first of its kind, walks through exactly how to search for a youth ministry position. This will be the most vital part of the book for many because there are so many youth pastors looking for jobs. The second section is about developing a healthy start in a new youth ministry position. Finally, the third section is about learning to love the job you're currently in.

The authors provide us with incredibly practical wisdom based on their years of experience in both youth ministry and helping others in youth ministry. They challenge many of the assumptions that exist in many new youth pastors.

This book needs to be in the hands of every youth pastor.

I received this book for free for review from Group.

Review: Life in Student Ministry by Tim Schmoyer

LIFE IN STUDENT MINISTRY by Tim Schmoyer is a great book for anyone starting out in working in youth ministry. He covers many foundational and practical topics such as what to do in your first youth meeting, determining if you're called to youth ministry, how to recruit volunteers effectively, and how to handle youth ministry finances, among many others.

Schmoyer has been writing a blog on youth ministry for many years that has been a very helpful resource for those who work in youth ministry. The book is a compilation of his most important pieces of youth ministry advice. He writes in a very conversational style, which has the blog entry feel.

Another unique feature of the book is the inclusion of comments by other youth ministry workers after each section. While I liked the idea of this, many of the comments gave me the feeling of being at a youth pastors' conference. Specifically, I've found that many times as I'm sitting in a youth ministry conference led by a credible voice in youth ministry, many of the youth pastors in the room seem to feel the need to interrupt the speaker and inject their thoughts into the time allotted to the speaker. It has always struck me as arrogant, and the comments in the book gave me that same feel. Of course, I realize that these were genuine comments to posts on the blog, but I think the book would have been helped without many of them. For example, in a section about parents grounding their teens from youth ministry, one commenter mentioned that parents grounding their teens from church because it's fun for them was one of the lamest excuses he's ever heard. I can understand his frustration, but without understanding what the parent goes through, having that mindset is a complete invalidation of what the parent is going through, and it's not very helpful.

Other than the comments throughout the book, I thought LIFE IN STUDENT MINISTRY was a great resource for youth ministry workers.

I received this book for free for review from Zondervan.