Monday, February 24, 2020

With These Words

With These Words, Rob Flood

Marriage books abound, indeed our own shelves are loaded with them. Yet, Rob Flood has made a valuable addition to the collection, with this focussed look at communication. He opens with an honest account of the hard early years of his own marriage, that started with a dreadful fight on their honeymoon. It took a concerted effort and lots of time, but he now reports 20 years later:
“Let me be clear: God saved our marriage; we did not. God grew our communication; the tools did not. We are very much still in process...We still have struggles with communication and find ourselves still stinging every now and then from past hurts. The difference is this: There is grace now. There is charity toward one another. There is the benefit of the doubt. There are follow-up questions before there are conclusions. There is not perfection, but there is health. This is all because of God’s grace working through our devotion to the Lordship of Christ and the application of basic communication tools.”
As he started, I appreciated the wise qualifying statement that more marriage books should probably have:
“The principles and truths contained in this book are useful for most couples. However, they are not intended to be a substitute for pastoral care, for the fellowship of the saints, nor for civil authorities when that is appropriate”
He has broken the book into three section, the first Truth for Communication, covers the biblical foundation over three shortish chapters. He outlines four principles for communication:

  1. We should speak so people encounter God.
  2. We should build up with our words not tears down
  3. We should speak in a way that fits the occasion.
  4. We should give grace to others through our words

“For example, there is no room in Christianity, let alone in marriage, for venting. Venting is for the benefit of the speaker. It spews without concern for how the words land or what impact the words have.”
He examines what it means to be a fool in this area, noting that any step away from God is the step of a fool.

  1. Fools do not seek understanding
  2. Fools rush to judgement
  3. Fools look for a fight
  4. Fools sow discord

I appreciated his observation that we can be fools with our tongues while still following God in our bible reading plan. Our wisdom in some areas can blind us to our foolishness in others.

Section 2: Tools for Communication is where it starts to get more practical. Flood introduces 5 tools, and fleshes them out in practical ways.

1. The tool of first response

He notes that “the course of a conflict is determined by the person who responds, not the one who initiates.” He also notes that rarely do we want to respond well, but we need to acknowledge that offences will happen, but escalating never helps and God is greater that the degree of offence..
“An eternal focus empowers you to respond to your husband or wife with mercy, kindness, humility, understanding, compassion, and patience. It acknowledges that the world neither rises nor falls on how each specific issue gets played out.” 
“Purposeful marital communication plays the long game. You’re going to be spending the rest of your lives together. A time will come when emotions are not quite as charged, when the stakes are not quite as high. As husbands or wives, our focus is on the long haul. As Christians, our focus is eternal. We willingly embrace the reality that we all are being sanctified and will be ever changing, as we are ever in need of change.”
2. The tool of prayer. He recommends prayer before an important conversation, but even more so, to stop and pray when things starts to get heated. I suspect this is one that will be the most challenging for many couples, especially those who do not pray regularly together. In order to combat that, he says: “The beginning of successful marital prayer is this: pray as a married couple. Just start praying.”

3. The tool of physical touch. The idea here is that you start a conversation actually touching. This will also be a challenging idea for some couples. It’s true that if you physically start to pull away from each, that is a sign that conversation is not going well. Indeed, many couples probably know that a disagreement is dealt with when you can touch:
“How will you know you’ve been reconciled and the unity of your relationship has been restored? It is often not in the moment one spouse extends forgiveness. That may be the most important part, but it is not the clearest way to know. You’ll know when you can affectionately touch again.
4. The tool of mirroring. This is the idea of reflective listening. I’ll be honest, I’m not a big fan of this (and neither is Gottman), but I know it can work well for some people.

5. The tool of proper timing. Flood notes that we usually manage this well at work, or in a delicate situation with a friend, or a neighbour, but we often do it poorly in marriage. We need to learn to negotiate the times of chaos, fatigue, charged emotion, vulnerability, and be purposeful in finding times for communication.
“The principle here is simple: words are intended for moments, and the skillful communicator learns how to bring words and moments together.”
Section 3: Working It Out puts it all together- so that couples can “learn how to move forward safely, successfully, and soundly in the will of God.” As he notes:
“Solutions in marriage are not “one size fits all.” While biblical instruction and biblical wisdom are intended for all people, what that looks like in the nitty-gritty of life will vary widely from one couple to another, from one home to another, from one church to another, from one culture to another, and from one era to another.”
He essentially returns to the truths of the gospel, and how we are called to live in light of that, challenging spouses to be forgiving and compassionate and have that define their marriage, despite the realities of sin that we each face:
“Your sinful motivations will creep through and corrupt your implementation of these communication tools. Your patience will run out, and you will strike back rather than forgive. Your weaknesses will be revealed as you feel strained by your efforts. This is true regardless of the way your spouse participates in this book or in your marriage.” 
“Your spouse has weaknesses. Your spouse has besetting sins. Those weaknesses and sins are going to overflow onto and into your life. You will respond; that much is certain. The question is how? Will you respond as someone who has never been reconciled to God, or will you respond as one who is chosen and dearly loved by God? Will we love as the rest of the world loves, or will we choose to love as Christ loves?”

There are insightful questions to work through at the end of each chapter, which will really help couples apply it and consider their own strengths and weaknesses. Couples who read it together will benefit greatly. Even one spouse who reads it and tries to apply it will find positive change can be enacted.

Overall, this is an excellent book, strongly grounding marriage communication in the truths of the gospel and how we are called to use our speech in ways that honour Christ.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, February 17, 2020

Metanoia

Metanoia, Anna McGahan

I find it very hard to know how to review this book. On one hand, it’s a beautifully written, creative, honest account of a young woman’s artistic life from her teenage years to age 30. It tells of her coming to faith in Christ and how that changes all aspects of her life. At the same time, I found she expressed that faith in language and with concepts so different from my own that I struggled to connect with it.

Anna McGahan is a well known Australian actor and writer who many will recognise from shows like House Husbands and ANZAC Girls. She begins with a story of her at age 8 writing a letter to God, asking him to prove his existence to her. The next account is at age 14, which starts 10 years of eating disorders. She develops an acting career and fully submerges herself into an artistic lifestyle, which includes pursuing Buddhism, sexual expression with most both men and women, and drugtaking. The book is structured around six different sections noting different aspects of the body. This first section is called “The body is a marketplace”. It’s searingly honest but by no means salacious.

She tells how she started going to church, read the Bible in detail, and eventually came to faith. It’s an experiential and charismatic conversion as she identifies the Holy Spirit speaking to her, she speaks in tongues, and she is instantly healed from 10 years of eating disorder and body image issues. One thing that she finds particularly freeing is the realisation that she does not need to have sex any more.

It is not an easy road over the next few years, she develops a relationship with a man but is distraught to discover he lives out same-sex attraction. She continues to wonder at her own attraction to women. She explores what it means to have platonic loving friendships with women. The considerations as she works through Christian views on homosexuality are kindly measured,
“The way I had shamed and decried any religious view point on queerness as automatic hate speech felt unsubstantiated and crude. I knew now, first hand, that most Christians were gently working out how to reconcile their faith with the complexities of sexual expression, not spitting homophobia. People I had previously considered ‘bigots’ were now my friends. They had conservative views on sex, yes, but they were generous and open. They listened. They were not disgusted by gayness, and they did not mock or belittle it. They wrestled with the topic on my behalf. They make choices about their own bodies and did not impose these choices on me.”
When given money for an acting scholarship in LA, God tells her who to give it away to, how much, and when. It’s remarkably specific. She joins faith based artistic communities in Los Angeles, experiencing great joy at living with others, worshipping God and together trying to reach out to the artistic professions. It’s seems to be quite spirit-led, with prophecy and interpretive expressions of faith.

Coming back to Australia was a rude shock, as she comes to realise the disparity between the church and the artistic communities,
“The Australian church didn’t seem to want artists. It didn’t understand them, didn’t really try to. And secular Australia certainly didn’t want Jesus. Christian artists were stuck on the bridge connecting the church and the secular, their commission to tell the truth designed to not the two worlds but instead locking them out of both. They were captives of the in-between.”
So she starts The Fireplace, a group of Australian artists on journeys of faith. Later chapters explore her marriage and birth of her first child. I found these final accounts quite arresting.

This is a book that shares experience. It tells the story of how God has been at work Anna’s life and in the lives of those around her. And it’s a powerful story. Yet at the same time, as I said, I found it tricky reading. If one was looking for the gospel explained, it is not there. If you gave it to someone who had questions about faith or was exploring Christianity, there is very little to hang on to. There is almost no bible content, beyond a few quotes and very little thought out theology. In fact, the only times she adds interpretive theological comments, it’s more in the vein of perhaps the Holy Spirit is feminine, or “God is gender neutral to me”.

It did widen my view of Christian expression and see how God can indeed work in varied and remarkable ways, sometimes expressly directly and moving his people to action. I suspect some (maybe including some in the creative arts industries) will find something here to put some words to their faith. Yet, others may find themselves wondering at the spiritual experiences she has been given, and find disparity with their own more cerebral connections to faith, God, Jesus, and scripture. That was probably my own reaction.

I read this book in response to a review on TGCA. It’s worth reading for an additional perspective.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Emma.

This new movie adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma has big shoes to fill. For those that remember it, the 1996 version starred Gwyneth Paltrow, Toni Colette, Jeremy Northam and Ewan McGregor. The year before, Clueless was released starring Alicia Silverstone and Paul Rudd, resetting the story in modern times in Beverly Hills. Both were hits, or at least were hits with me.

Part of me was surprised to see another adaptation so soon. Then I did the calculation and realised it’s been 25 years. So, yes, perhaps it is time for another one!

For those that know the storyline, it is a mostly familiar script, staying quite true to the original book (with a few odd exceptions toward the end). My guess, though, is that those who are completely unfamiliar with Austen’s storyline (or previous movie versions) will struggle a little with the large cast list and keeping track of names, especially as numerous people who are mentioned are never actually on screen.

Emma Woodhouse (Anya Taylor-Joy) is 21, beloved by her father (Bill Nighy) and rules the roost of her little town of Highbury. Her great delight is matchmaking. Her brother-in-law’s brother, Mr Knightley (Johnny Flynn) is one of the few people of situation and closeness to ever correct Emma or challenge her. Every one else marches to the beat of Emma’s drum, including her new friend of unknown parents, Harriet Smith. Humour is used cleverly throughout as characters interact with each other.

The settings, as one would expect from a quality period production, are beautiful. England’s rural elite are creatively and lavishly dressed, with some ridiculously large collars from both men and women. Sets are pastel, clear and look like structured perfection. Even farm life looks idyllic. Did life in England ever actually look this good? I particularly liked the creative soundtrack, which contained numerous, familiar hymns.

While it was a solid cast, I felt the way the characters were played was a bit lacking. Emma wasn’t quite as appealing as she could have been, although perhaps truer to Austen’s creation. Miss Bates (Miranda Hart) wasn’t quite lovely and empty enough. Both Jane Fairfax and Harriet Smith were a bit too insipid. Mr Knightley didn’t really seem to have the strength of character expected. Almost everyone could have have been a bit ‘more’ something.

So, I liked it, but I didn’t love it. Perhaps I still remember previous versions too fondly. For me, this didn’t top them - but rather reminded me why I liked them.


I was a guest of Universal Pictures

Monday, February 10, 2020

Promises in the Dark

Promises in the Dark, Eric McLaughlin

This book is for anyone working through what it means to cling to God’s promises while facing hard times, both your own and that of others.

Eric and his wife serve as medical missionaries in Africa, first Kenya, and now Burundi. He has written this book as a reflection on what it means to walk with those in need without losing heart.
“I want to tell stories from my life and work these last several years. Stories of joy and pain, beauty and tragedy, redemption and lament. In the end, they are mostly stories of trying to find God’s light in dark places, both in the world and in my own heart. They are stories of struggling to understand and remember the promises God has given. The storytelling is very intentional because while both theoretical discussions and practical advice have important roles to play, my hope is that the narratives add something else. I hope you can feel the tension and identify with it.”
And this is exactly what he has done. Each chapter starts with a story that introduces the point, and then he leads the reader to God’s word and God’s character, fleshing out the implications, both in his own situation but also further afield. Each chapter finishes with some questions for reflection, which bring the reader very closely to the issue, considering their own response to God, who he is and and how he acts.

Chapters address topics such as: promise, despair, hope, time, ordinary, prayer, suffering, mystery, consolation, resurrection and redemption.

I appreciated his observations on the ordinariness of life and sometimes how we just keep going. He openly acknowledged the reality that we know there is always more to do, more that could be done, but sometimes a line has to be drawn. I valued the comments about coming to peace with boundaries and that a tender heart shows that you aware of the tension.

His comments on prayer remind that we come to God in our insufficiencies, and turn to him more when we truly know we are incapable. And, yet, we do still live with the pain of unanswered prayer.

I really liked his question when considering evil. So many people ask, “If there is a God, why is there evil?” McLaughlin says:
“Yes, there is great evil in the world, but there is also all this goodness in the world. It’s everywhere, and it’s palpably real. If God isn’t there or he isn’t good, then where did all the goodness come from? Its presence also cries out for explanation. If we would speak of the “problem of evil,” could we also speak of a philosophical “problem of good”?”
I copied numerous quotes as I read, and I include a few here to give you a taste:

Considering his calling to serve his neighbour:
“What does the reaction of my heart reveal? Well, it seems I like this calling more in theory than in practice. I like serving, but not serving this guy. I want to love, but when it comes to loving someone right in front of me, I so often come up short. I know my calling, but I don’t want to do it. Thus, this realization is also a calling to repentance.”
The reality of our insufficiency for our task:
“We can dress up our skills. We can train for decades. We can try and style the circumstances to capitalize on our strengths. Those aren’t bad things, but they don’t erase the inescapable truth that we are and will always be insufficient to the task in front of us. The needs around us will always outstrip us. We will always be utterly reliant on the action of God in our relationships, in our work, and in the world. In this we follow the way of Jesus.”
Considering lament:
“Lament is a means of grace to us in some of our most desperate times. Lament offers the freedom to come as we are and bare our hearts. Lament offers the comfort that our crushed hearts do not repel God, but rather that “the Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit” We can even pray “The Lord has become like an enemy” or “O Lord, why do you cast my soul away?” or “Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?” Whatever the state of our hearts, the Bible has been there before us. These are the words of Scripture in the mouth of one who is brokenhearted. The Lord is near to such as these.”
On suffering:
“Since moving to Africa, there’s probably no single theme that has felt so urgent to me. No other problem has felt so pressing: if I can’t find some way to at least think about all the suffering around me, then I won’t last long here... Hunger, pain, disability, and death are everywhere. How can we go forward with all this suffering? I knew it could be bad, but feeling how pervasive and destructive suffering really is has challenged me on a whole new level. Where is God in all this suffering? Is there any promise that can sustain us?” 
“If we want to be present when we can help, then we must also be present when we can’t. We can’t know ahead of time whom we can help. Sometimes, we can make a great impact. Other times, we can’t. The two are inextricably linked, and situations don’t sort themselves out ahead of time into categories of “able to help” and “unable to help.” We follow Jesus into the darkness, and it is here that the light can shine the brightest.”

I didn’t feel I got the full value from this book at the time that I read it, and so I plan to return to it again later. I do believe it would be excellent reading for anyone on the mission field (whether doctors in Africa or in other roles), but also anyone who wonders what it means to continue to cling to the promises and character of God when life is challenging.

I’ll leave McLaughlin with the final comforting words:
“The promises of God are given to sustain us on this road. They are not ethereal abstractions, but rather promises as real and everyday as the dust of the path we walk. Though it’s never easy, we find, along the way, the reminders and the whispers that the promises are true and that the one who promises is faithful. He has placed these promises in the dark, precisely where he knows we need them.”

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, February 3, 2020

Unwind Series

Unwind, Neal Shusterman

We have appreciated Neal Shusterman’s writing before with Scythe, Thunderhead and Dry.

Having discovered just how well Shusterman can see the ways that humanity could behave under certain circumstances, I turned with some trepidation to his Unwind series, knowing it would be challenging reading. It certainly doesn’t disappoint, and kept me absolutely captivated.

It is years since the Unwind accord, an agreement that was reached after the Heartland Wars, fought between ProChoice and ProLife sides of the US. In order to keep both sides happy, all pregnancies and babies must be brought to full term and no terminations may occur. But between ages 13-18 teens can be retroactively terminated and unwound, with all body parts used in organ donation and medical restoration. Many people now have replacement parts from unwinds, supporting a massive healthcare and cosmetic industry.

Connor at age 16 discovers he is to be unwound, by order of his parents, so not surprisingly he runs away to avoid it. Rosa is a ward of the state, but not having achieved excellence in music, it’s a pragmatic financial decision for the state to slate her for unwinding. Lev, however, is a 'true tithe'. the tenth child of a devoted family, born to be given as an unwind and has spent his whole life knowing he had a such a purpose. All three lives intersect in the opening chapters.

Of course, with terminations no longer allowed, many babies are now born, but not all are wanted. This led to the Storking initiative, where any unwanted child could be left on any doorstep, and whoever found them was obligated to raise them. There is a very committed Juvenile Authority policing arm, as not surprisingly a lot of kids slated for unwinding need to be brought forcibly under control to make it happen. The facilities where unwinding occurs are called Harvest Camps, and when we get to an account of the medical process itself, it is truly chilling. However, there are some glimmers of hope when it’s revealed that there is an underground network taking kids to a form of safety in an aeroplane graveyard.

Later, Lev meets up with Cy, who having had 1/8th of his brain replaced, shows occasional tendencies to steal and behave differently, which is attributed to the kid whose brain he has received.

It’s worth reading the novella UnStrung at this point to fill in some of Lev’s timeline.

The second major novel, UnWholly contains the same characters as Unwind and continues their story, adding two more main characters. Starkey is a storked kid given for unwinding by his adoptive parents, because he has become a rebellious youth. Finding his way to the airplane yard, he sees opportunity for leadership and looks to challenge the status quo. Miracolina is another tithe and completely convinced of her own importance and holiness.

The next two books (UnSouled and UnDivided) continues the storylines as they get more complex and darker. Thankfully by the end, some light has begun to shine and you finish the series with much more hope.

There is also a collection of novellas all connected to the Unwind world, called UnBound. Most will only make sense after you have finished all the major books, and add extra information.

Shusterman has a way of seeing the key issues in what are creatively complex situations. He can identify current processes, policies or ideas in society (A, B or C), and take them where they could logically, but disturbingly go, all the way down the line to X, Y & Z.

As with his other books, there is almost no romantic element, or at least nothing descriptive. There is no swearing at all that I can recall, proving yet again that authors who chose to use extensive swearing really just show their lack of vocabulary and creativity. No swearing is needed here to convey the horror of what people can do to each other. Obviously there is a lot of violence, evil deeds, awful people and disturbing medical descriptions. Highly recommended for mid-older teens and adults.

Monday, January 27, 2020

Mini-reviews

Hello again dear readers! We'll kick off 2020 with book reviews, as per usual.

Today I'll start with some mini-reviews and move to the usual format of more detailed reviews from next week. I've loved getting into some fiction over the summer, and decided that I always need to have some on the go to allow myself some downtime. Here are a few that only warranted short reviews:

Falcon of Sparta, Conn Iggulden. This is only one volume, so it seemed short compared to Iggulden’s other extensive series. It recounts the 1000 mile retreat that the Spartans took after being routed by the king of Persia. It starts with with brothers Cyrus and Artaxerxes vying for the throne after their father Darius’s death. It was very interesting, and told a story from a part of history that I have little knowledge about.

Solider Son Trilogy, Robin Hobb. This will likely appeal to fans of Hobb's other work. It has an interesting mix of magic and military life as a young man destined for service as a soldier's son in the military, takes a very different turn when the magic in him once dormant now comes strongly to life.  I enjoyed all three books, found the concepts intriguing, and even though the story was reasonably complicated, it was well written and easy to follow. A very enjoyable read.  This could have had a whole review, but I was purposely trying not to write one, so that I could just enjoy the rest that the reading brought!



The Road, Cormac McCarthy. A relatively short, horrifying tale of a man and son wandering across a post apocalyptic American wasteland. Aiming to get to the coast, they traverse lands coated with ash and devoid of life. Occasional groups of bad people cross their path, who have taking to eating people to survive. But these two are looking for the good people, who must be somewhere. While beautifully written, emotionally evocative and conveying a strong sense of the connection between father and son, it is overwhelmingly tense, depressing and despairing. A short read, and one that is challenging, but you don’t come away with any real hope, or indeed explanation.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka. Touted as a winner of comic fiction, I was expecting something a bit different. Reviews suggested it was hilarious, but I found it quite sad. Nadia’s 84 year old father, widowed for 2 years, has fallen head over heels for 34 year old gold digger, Ukrainian born Valentina. Nadia and her sister Vera set out to save him when it becomes very clear all she wanted was to live in England and get her hands on his money. At the same time it tells the story of the family and their years of oppression under dictators, through famine and into war in Eastern Europe.

Monday, December 16, 2019

Conqueror

Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series

I have been drawn in again by Iggulden’s writing. Having previously enjoyed his Wars of the Roses and Julius Caesar Emperor series, I have now delved into the 12th and 13th century of Mongolia and the empire of Genghis Khan. I have read a bit of historical fiction about the women around Genghis Kahn before, so had a rough idea of some events, but this was excellent.

As I worked my way through the five books, I was regularly astonished at the discoveries within. The empire that Genghis Khan and his sons established is truly astonishing. I don’t think there has ever been anything like it.

Wolf of the Plains starts with Genghis (named Temujin) as a small boy, son of a local Khan (tribal leader). When he dies, his wife and 6 children are turned out by the clan, as other men claim the leadership. Through pure dedication and wits, their mother Hoelin keeps the children alive and they slowly re-establish themselves. But anger drives Genghis, and a desire for revenge. He has realised just how many tribes of the Mongol lands fight one another in a desire for power, as well as how many people exist without a clan. He decides to unite them all. He seems to have had a truly impressive force of personality, as well as a cutthroat willingness to destroy all things in his path. By the end of Book 1, he has gathered most of the local tribes together to make a great nation.

In Lords of the Bow, he has come to realise that the Chin empires to the East have subtly controlled and corralled the powers of his people for centuries. He sets out to change it and forces his way into Chin lands, past their great walls and mountain passes, making numerous cities his vassals and forcing the emperor to his knees.

In Bones of the Hills while on the brink of complete control of the Chin lands, Genghis withdraws and sends the bulk of his armies west to fight against the Arabic nations who have dared to oppose him.

Throughout there are detailed and extended accounts of the way battles worked and how the fighting forces moved and operated. It was fascinating. At the same time, there are many personal details about Genghis’ own family life and the struggles within. His eldest son Jochi was never certainly his, as his wife was captured by invaders at the time she fell pregnant, so he never warmed to him and his second son Chagatai was the one he favoured.

In time though the rivalry between the two older boys leads him to name his third son, Ogedai as heir. In the fourth, Empire of Silver, we see what happens when the khanate has passed from father to son. As extensive as the exploits of Genghis were, I was continually surprised to see just how far the Mongolian raiders went over this time. They headed north and routed Moscow, and then crossed the Carpathian mountains and invaded Poland and Hungary. It seems they were on the brink of completing overtaking Europe. Book 5 (Conqueror) tells the tale of the next few khans, which was equally fascinating.

In his book Human Race, Ian Mortimer acknowledges that if the scope of his research has extended beyond the west, Genghis Khan would have been included as one of the key agents of change of the whole period. His complete scope of influence on the Asian continent was almost unmeasurable. Mortimer also noted that the introduction of projectile weapons (arrows, guns and cannons) completely changed warfare. It seems that the Mongolians were unparalleled in their bowmanship. All were trained from a young age and could shoot arrows on horseback with unparalleled precision. They literally mowed down an enemy before every reaching them in hand-to-hand combat.

I appreciate Iggulden’s acknowledgement of facts vs fiction at the end of each book. It is clear from the copyright pages that the events and people referred to are real, but this is indeed historical fiction. Iggulden clearly has filled in many gaps with his own creativity, yet you are still left with a sense of awe at what this dynasty achieved.

Monday, December 9, 2019

CrossTalk

CrossTalk, Michael R. Emlet

I read this book as part of one of my CCEF courses and I am very glad I did. Emlet has brought together in a skilled and nuanced way several key factors in biblical interpretation and application:

  1. The ability to read a text in its redemptive-historical framework, understanding it’s literary genre, initial purpose and initial readers.
  2. The way to interpret that passage in light of Jesus work of saving grace.
  3. How to then apply that passage today in ways that both do justice to the original purpose of the text, and also make it ‘living and active’ for today reader.

Up front he is clear about his purpose:
“Consider this book a hybrid of sorts, a resource to help you understand both people and the bible thoroughly. This book gives attention to interpreting the biblical text and interpreting the person.”
His goal is to deal with what he terms “microethics”: “how we use Scripture to meaningfully intersect with a particular person’s life as we minister to him or her.”

This book is aimed at anyone who wants to make these two aspects work well together. I felt that he summed up my own experience from a strong bible learning tradition in a nutshell: “If you’re like me, you have probably received more instruction on how to study the Bible than you have on how to practically use it in your life and ministry.”
“This book should help you interpret people as well as Scripture and suggest relevant biblical applications that will benefit those around you. This should be true whether you are involved in a formal teaching or discipling ministry, in professional counseling, or in impromptu discussions at the local cafĂ©.”
The early chapters address how to read the bible and spend the time ensuring that you understand the passage as it was written. What is also crucial is to read it in a historical-salvation framework:
“Knowing how the story ends, we ask, “What difference does the death and resurrection of Jesus make for how I understand this passage?” The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ is the climax of redemption initiated in the Old Testament and the sure foundation for the life of the newly formed church.”
Later chapters look more at understanding people, for as Emlet says:
“To apply Scripture to our contemporary lives, we also need to understand people.… I want to give some overarching categories for understanding and approaching people.”
Using the ideas of Walsh and Middleton he says there are four basic worldview questions we can ask of people:

  1. Where are we?
  2. Who are we?
  3. What’s wrong? 
  4. What’s the remedy?

Another way forward is to approach people as saints, sufferers and sinners. Each person has aspects of all three, and being balanced in our understanding of their faithfulness, struggles and temptations enables us to be more nuanced in our counsel:
“God’s redemptive words confirm our identity as the chosen people of God, console and comfort his afflicted people, and confront the ways we turn away from his character and redemptive work.”
Emlet then turns to combining our understanding of the bible with our understanding of people.
“Reading the Bible without reading the person is a recipe for irrelevance in ministry. Reading the person without reading the Bible is a recipe for ministry lacking the life-changing power of the Spirit working through his Word…Rather, the goal of reading Scripture and reading people together is so that we can help others increasingly reflect the character and kingdom priorities of Jesus Christ.”
He starts with some overarching principles, and then uses extended examples of two different people to assist with his explanations, showing how he would counsel them from a passage in the Old Testament and the New, neither of which would have been passages most people would first turn to.

If you want to get the most of this book, you will have to do some work alongside it. Emlet has put a lot of thought into how to guide the reader along the process of learning, and so the explanations, exercises and questions at the end of every chapter will assist greatly for those that invest the time.

Many people I know already take this approach seriously, that is, reading the bible in the context it is in, the finding the larger context in the frame of biblical history and how it relates to Christ, and then bringing it to appropriate application for today. I am part of a church tradition that highly values this method in preaching, bible study and personal counselling. I do this myself in these areas. But I was reminded and challenged again of how important it is to do this well. By well, I mean accurately: actually getting to the heart of what the bible passage meant for those readers, how it is fulfilled in Christ and what that means now. But, I also mean, how we talk to people about the bible in ways that are natural, encouraging and challenging. How we really bring God’s word to bear appropriately in people’s lives today.

So, this is a very helpful book that takes seriously the claim that the bible contains everything we need for life and salvation. By encouraging the reader to take the bible very seriously and properly use it in a redemptive-historical way, Emlet paves the way for those who minister the word to do so in ways that are accurate, sensitive, and truly founded on Christ and his gospel.

Monday, December 2, 2019

A Small Book for the Anxious Heart

A Small Book for the Anxious Heart, Edward T. Welch

Edward Welch has followed up his small meditative book on anger with this one on anxiety, A Small Book for the Anxious Heart: Meditations on Fear, Worry and Trust.

Many of my comments about that book also apply to this one, so feel free to go back to that review.

Each short chapter is 2-3 pages, and as such it’s a primer for hearts that worry. It will start to address the issues you face, and where your heart is in it, but it won’t be extensive. Some chapters are to prompt further thought, some are explicit biblical teaching, and some are challenges to your own behaviour. There was no clear order that I could determine, it meanders through topics and seems to double back to things. Yet this works for many. I strongly prefer a clear structure, but not everyone does. And with the format used, it needs to and does have continual grace, teaching and challenge scattered throughout.

He notes:
“The aim of this book is to help us become more skillful in how we identify our fears and anxieties, hear God’s good words, and grow. You could say that our goal is wisdom. Wisdom is another name for skill in living.”
He wisely observes at several points that this wisdom takes time, anxiety works now. Change is slow and gradual, but worries are now and immediate.

Some comments that I found helpful:
“The dilemma is that worries tell you to take matters into your own hands, but that message needs to be altered to say, “What a perfect opportunity to trust the God who is strong, loving, and faithful.” 
“Faith in Jesus will not replace your fears. Instead your faith will coexist with your fears and begin to quiet them. You will learn, by faith, to see your life from Jesus’s perspective and to trust that he is your ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).”
Regarding the power of prayer:
“Left to myself I spin out doomsday scenarios, hoping that my frenetic mind will stumble into some answers. But when I go to my heavenly Father and tell him my worries, when I remember his words to me (an ever-present help in trouble), and when I thank him for his care, the peace of Christ does begin to rule my heart and mind. It’s a miracle that still takes me by surprise.”
Comments about worrying about death and the future:
“In response, we remember that today has enough troubles of its own, and we live in the grace that the Lord liberally gives us today. Don’t try to imagine a diagnosis of cancer. You do not yet have tomorrow’s grace, so your imagination will tell an incomplete story of the future. If you are going to venture out into the future, continue far enough out so that the story ends with you welcomed into heaven for an eternity of no more sorrow, tears, and fears (Revelation 21:4)”
Overall, it’s a helpful way for someone facing worries and challenges to come before God regularly for a period of time to consider the promises of God and what it means to work through anxieties and cast our worries on the Lord. As habits are formed by daily repetition, this could help someone with worries and fears to daily stop, and consider God’s place in their worries. However, this is probably not a book for someone with chronic anxiety, at least not on their own.

Because it's really only a simple treatment, some readers will be left wanting. For example, Day 6 notes that your past can shape your present worries. This is a pretty light approach to dealing with potentially major issues, with the only answer seeming to be ‘go to Jesus more’. Many people need much more help with their past than this.

As with his book on anger, there were reflection questions at the end of each chapter to prompt further thought, which is a helpful place to leave people - if they make the effort to use it. I would have loved to see more suggestions for prayer for many chapters would have naturally led to thanksgiving or confession, and actively encouraging that response would have been beneficial.

A book of little reflections that those struggling with worries and anxieties may well find helpful.

I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 25, 2019

Diary of a Teenage Girl

Diary of a Teenage Girl: Caitlin series, Melody Carlson

I have been challenged again recently to reflect how teenagers learn, in fact how we all learn. While logic has a strong place and reason can appeal, by and large what appeals to most of us is a story. A tale we can get caught up in and relate to, and then ponder how we would react in similar circumstances.

This is one of the best arguments for providing our children with Christian fiction. They could spend their lives reading only secular fiction, and that would stretch their minds, but that also would constantly reinforce some world views that we might want to challenge. Christian fiction can be a way to help reset some of the persistent secular narrative and remind youth that there are other people asking the same questions about what it means to live a life of faith today.

In Becoming Me, Caitlin is 16, and it’s the final 6 months of Year 11. She decides to write a diary from January 1 to the end of the school year. She’s living your average (American) teenage life, with a vague commitment to a church and youth group. What she really cares about is being popular and so is excited to be noticed by Jenny, one of the cool girls, and thrilled to get to know some of the boys they are friends with, particularly Josh. She ends up kissing him a lot on a youth group skiiing weekend (even though he has been dating Jenny), and falling completely head over heels for him. When he proceeds to ignore her after the event, she has to ask some hard questions of herself.

She has an unease about her choices, whether she is a kind friend, how shallow everyone is, and whether she is living in a wise way. At the same time, something is going on with her parents as her Dad, who is really strict with her, is spending more and more time away from home and her mother.

She seeks advice from her Aunt Stephy, who has historically had a bit of a wild side, but to her surprise Stephy challenges her and encourages her to reconsider God and her relationship with him, and to come to the church she now attends.

In time, she comes to a real commitment of faith, but it’s still hard to make wise choices. She gets in the car with a driver who has been drinking, and she nearly gets into major trouble with a boy at an unsupervised party. Realising how much danger she was nearly in makes her reassess everything.

The youth grouper leader Clay is a real encouragement and in time Caitlin makes some hard decisions about how she wants to live, as she responds to faithful biblical teaching.

It’s a wild ride of emotion. In five months she becomes a Christian, has to deal with major family problems, a school shooting, and a friend’s teenage pregnancy. She comes to her own personal convictions about dating and premarital sex, and makes a vow to God to abstain from both. While I haven’t read it, it seemed like there was an overlap with I Kissed Dating Goodbye here. (Each book even has a ‘contract’ to abstain until marriage at the end, so Carlson clearly has this as a high priority agenda).

This is a very honest story about teenage girls. It talks about the desire to be included, the desire to love a boy, and the attractions and temptations that such desires bring. Because it’s a diary format, Caitlin can be really honest, as she records her thoughts, reactions, worries and prayers. I found it quite realistic.

Miss 14 loved it and continued with the others in the series which have similar dramatic events. It’s My Life is that summer, which includes a mission trip to Mexico with youth group friends, in which Caitlin is challenged by the poverty she sees. She starts Year 12 and has a friend struggling with anorexia. Who I Am is placed over the final half Year 12 and making major decisions about college. At the same time there are tensions at school over racial differences, and she continues to wonder about friends’ choices relating to boys. She comes to understand her tendency to be judgemental and faces some of her own prejudices.

On My Own is the first year of college at the state university. The biggest issue here is the relationship with a moody and roommate who rebuffs Caitlin’s offers of friendship. At the same time a close male friendship is tending towards a relationship of commitment, but she isn’t sure about the right way forward, navigating conflicting advice from friends and mentors.

There is a fifth book, named I Do (wonder what happens in that!?), but it’s placed a few years later and I haven’t read it yet.

I had not realised how prolific a writer Melody Carlson is until I started to research her. She has written dozens of books for children, teens and women, all with a strong Christian focus. There are another two series of diaries of teenage girls too, and those characters play minor roles in the Caitlin books.

I think they are a good offering for teen girls, they are honest, open and help them think about what it can mean to live in ways that honour God over these years. Of course, it’s very American, and she is clearly pushing a non-dating prior to marriage agenda, but even that’s something for teens to think about. I could be more picky about them theologically, for example there is a strong sense of morality rather than a high sense of grace, and they are more theocentric than Christocentric, but overall I think they encourage readers to godliness and promote values that many parents would encourage. I suspect these are stories that teenage girls of faith will be interested in and that will also make them consider the wisdom of choices they make.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Why Do We Say Good Night?

Why Do We Say Good Night? Champ Thornton

In simple, rhyming verse, Thornton uses this story with a little girl and her mum to acknowledge the fears young children have about darkness and going to bed. It’s bedtime, but she isn’t sure night time is good, and so asks “why do we say goodnight?”

Her mum points out that the monsters and scary things she imagines in the dark aren’t real, but more than that, there are three promises about God that the little girl can cling to:

  • God made the night “so even dark is good and right”
  • God sees everything, so “dark is like bright light to him”, and when it is dark, “God is watching through the night”
  • God is near, “Just like a shepherd guards his sheep, the Lord protects while we’re asleep”


It’s aimed at pre-schoolers, with very simple language. Rommel Ruiz is the illustrator, and there is a cartoony, art-deco sort of quality to them, and since it’s night-time, lots of dark colour with blues and purples throughout. The scenes start with her simple normal bedroom, but then various shapes and toys come alive to be bigger and scarier in the little girl’s imagination.


For little ones with worries about bedtime, this could be a lovely way to remind them that God is with them always, protecting, caring and in control.



I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.  

Friday, November 15, 2019

Good News for Little Hearts - part 2

Last year I reviewed the first three releases the Good News for Little Hearts series by New Growth Press. Now there are three more to add to the collection.

Aimed at children aged 3-8, the story creation for all is attributed to Jocelyn Flenders, with David Powlison, Edward T. Welch or Jayne V. Clark named as an editor for each book. Just as with the first series, the illustrations are by Joe Hox, who brings animals engagingly to life in situations we all can identify. Children will enjoy spotting the captivating touches that Hox has woven in: stacks of books for chairs, textas for bedposts, and trees growing through homes.


Gus Loses His Grip (When you want something too much) tells the story of little Gus, the racoon, who loves sweets. He sneaks them up to his bedroom, he thinks about them when Papa is reading about the Easter story, and when his mum takes him to the post-easter sales, he stuffs his pockets with the candy samples from the shop. His dad spots them and he is taken back to apologise to the storeowner, who forgives him. After this though, dad’s eyes light up with the shopping sales himself and he buys things at the fishing store.

Papa realises he, like little Gus, also wants many things:
Papa agreed. “Yes! You’re not alone, Gus. Mama and I struggle too. I’m beginning to see all the areas where God might want me to lose my grip! You know that’s why we need Jesus. We can’t stop eating too many sweets, buying too many trinkets at the market, or buying too many fishing lures and poles without help from him. What we think we need grips us, but our sin is not too strong for Jesus!”
Together the two of them consider all the good things God has given them: the singing birds, the lovely breeze, the fish in the stream and tasty strawberries in the field.
And once we lose our grip on what we want, we can notice all the wonderful, sweet things God has given us to enjoy. The Great Book says, ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good.’ Look around at all the things you can see that the Lord has given us.”
Like Jax’s Tail Twitches, a great thing about this book is that parents also acknowledge they struggle with wanting lots of things and have to be careful as well.


In Henry Says Good-bye (When you are sad), hedgehog Henry’s precious ladybug pet Lila has died and he is struggling without her.
That night, Henry didn’t want dinner. When Mama and Papa said goodnight and closed his bedroom door, he rolled into a prickly ball and cried. He didn’t understand why this had to happen—why to Lila, and why to him. He felt so alone. He couldn’t imagine facing tomorrow and telling his friends— let alone seeing them with their pets.
After a hard day at school, Papa tells him that God knows about his sorrows and that he counts his tears (Psalm 56:8). Together the decide to invite Henry’s friends over to remember Lila. After they all spend some time together sharing stories, Papa talks to them all about the day when they will go to heaven to be with Jesus and there will be no more tears.



It’s a genuine and honest book acknowledging the pain of grief, that people stand by us in our sorrows, and that God knows and cares about them. It would be suitable for any little one faces the sadness of losing a pet or maybe even a loved person in their life. (The Moon Is Always Round would also be a good choice for this)


In Tori Comes Out of Her Shell (When you are lonely), little turtle Tori’s family has moved and so Tori is starting a new school. Tori is shy and struggling, she doesn’t want to stick out, and so puts her head into her shell and stays out of the way. A lovely teacher tries to coax her out, sharing her own story of embarrassment when she was a young skunk at school and she got a fright and sprayed everywhere.
“What did you do?” asked Tori.
“I didn’t know what to do, so I just put my head down and jammed my hands into my pockets. But I found a card in one of them that my papa had given me. It was a verse from the Great Book that said, ‘There is a friend who sticks closer than a brother.’ It reminded me that Jesus would always be my friend no matter what.”
“I thought I would never have any friends after that, but I’ll always remember how Sally Salamander came right up to me and said, ‘Don’t worry. Everyone is afraid of being embarrassed. I’m afraid of sliming my chair.’


When they go to their new church on the weekend, the preacher says the same thing, that Jesus is with us always. Tori begins to believe it and ends up befriending little Gertie Gecko, who also admits to being lonely. When she shares what she has learnt about Jesus, Gertie seems interested and so Tori invites her to church. It’s lovely to see the modelling of sharing Christ with friends in this book.


Just like the first three in this series, each book contains notes and biblical guidance to help parents as they teach children about loneliness, grief and wanting more, which many parents will appreciate and hopefully realise to apply to themselves as well. There are also tear out bible verses for kids to keep in their pocket to remember God’s truths.

And as before, a great feature of these books is the strong parental figures. They guide their children in the truth, acknowledge their own faults and listen well. They bring their children back to God’s word as they guide and instruct, and are corrected by it themselves.

I was given ecopies of these books in exchange for an honest review. 

Monday, November 11, 2019

Grace in Deep Waters

Readers with good memories will recall how much our family enjoyed Christine Dillon’s fiction books: Grace in Strange Disguise and Grace in the Shadows, so we were lining up to get our hands on the final in the series: Grace in Deep Waters.

Again, this starts just where Book 2 left off. Because I don’t want to ruin the storyline for new readers, I will be vague with the description!

Naomi, Rachel and Blanche are coming to terms with the loss of a dear sister in Christ. Blanche is also estranged from her husband William, having come to realise just how much he clings to reputation and status, rather than Jesus. Having avoided numerous issues for years, Blanche has finally stood up to him, and has had to leave the home as a result, for William is incapable of having people around him who disagree with him.

The story shifts focus in this book, so those who are keen to hear more of Rachel’s story may be disappointed. It is William and Blanche that are on view here, and it switches between their perspectives. Blanche is working through her grief, yet also finding more of herself, with a job and a realisation she has skills that are of value to others. William, on the other hand, has lost his way and his once steady confidence has taken a hit. To avoid dealing with the problems he sees brewing, he takes a two month posting on Lord Howe Island, where he becomes friends with Reg, a key lay leaders of the local church. In time both come to question if and how God is at work in their lives.

I’ll leave the description there for those who want to read it themselves.

Dillon has again captured the key issues of our hearts in this book. What is our idea of success built on? How do we react when our carefully created lives start crumbling down around us? Can we forgive ourselves when we have done things that seem unforgivable? Will we come before God dressed up in our own achievements, or open, honest and facing our sin?

The storytelling focus is not as strong in this book, there is more of an emphasis on prayer, particularly long-term faithful prayer.

Some Christian fiction books make you uncomfortable with their message – the platitudes, the neatness, the idealized romance. I have found Dillon’s books make me uncomfortable too – but in a good and very different way. They challenge me to consider how I would react in similar circumstances. They challenge me to consider my faithfulness, my prayerfulness and how I speak of Christ to others. That’s an uncomfortable I need to feel, and I am thankful for her skills as a storyteller.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Last Christmas

I’ve found it hard to know how to review this movie.

In the beginning, it’s a funny and heartfelt story about a girl who has lost her way. Katarina, or rather Kate, as she insists (played by Emilia Clarke) lives with no regard for her health or wellbeing; she drinks, sleeps around, and keeps trying out for unlikely singing parts, while working as an elf in a all-year round Christmas shop. As her sister comments, “you are the furthest thing from an adult I know”. Even though she regularly manages to sabotage her friendships, everyone continues to give her leeway because last year Kate was sick, really sick, and in many ways she is still recovering.

Her boss at the store, aptly named Santa, is played wonderfully by Michelle Yeoh, she is both funny and acidic.The store is gorgeous, full of both charming and awful Christmas decorations and knickknacks. As Kate says, “Santa loves Christmas more than taste or sanity”.

Kate’s family emigrated from Yugoslavia and her overbearing and protective mother, Petra (cleverly acted by Emma Thompson) guilts and harangues her adult children, yet thrives to be needed. Kate describes her family: “anger, shame, resentment, embarrassment, and that’s just my mum”.

It’s a close collaboration with the music of George Michael and Wham! and much of the storyline hangs on the opening lines of ‘Last Christmas’. Hit song ‘Faith’ is also used, as is the Five Young Cannibals line 'She Drives me Crazy', being the ringtone Kate uses to alert that that her mother is calling.

Then there is Tom (played by Henry Golding). He appears outside the shop and hangs around to get to know her. As they spend time together, he encourages her to ‘look up’ and she begins to see all the decorations above eye level spread around London. He takes her to his own secret garden, a charming nook hidden in the city. He doesn’t have a phone, because he got sick of looking at his palm and left it in the cupboard. A friendship and then romantic relationship develops between them, but something is a bit off. He disappears for days at a time, and warns her at one point “you can’t depend on me”. Throughout the first half of the movie, I kept thinking, there is something not right about this guy, he seems both an empty character and too good to be true.

But one thing he says really does get her thinking “every action of a common day makes or breaks your character”. Slowly she starts to change, she helps others, she offers time at the local homeless shelter and she works to repair damaged family and friend relationships.

All of this makes for a story that has real potential - it was realisitic, funny, quite well-crafted and very prettily filmed.

Then comes a twist that requires you to completely suspend reality. And it’s how you feel about that that will determine how you feel when you exit the cinema.

Personally, I don’t mind silly, I don’t mind soppy romance, but what I want is something believable. I thought it might finish well, but once the story changed you had to reinterpret the whole movie. And I still can’t figure it out in a way that made any sense looking back. In the end, it was emptier than it needed to be. As my friend and I analysed it after, we thought it had great potential and could have been a great message about people growing and changing as a result of living through hard times, but in the end it was quite unsatisfying.

I was guest of Universal Pictures.

Monday, November 4, 2019

God, You and Sex

God, You and Sex, David White

This thorough book by David White considers God’s views on sexuality and what that means for believers living today. Because this is an area highly relevant for the marriage ministries we are involved in, as well as for today’s culture, this a detailed review (and also refers to some specific sexual practices).

White begins by introducing why a book like this is needed, noting four trends in the church: the rise and normalisation of pornography, the increased sexual activity amongst Christian dating couples, the confused Christian teaching about sex, and the shift in views on same-sex intimacy.
“I want Christians to have a thorough biblical understanding of why God’s design for sex is a lifelong union between a man and a woman. And I want you to be able to connect Christian sexual ethics to a broader Christian worldview.”
He states the book is for everyone, while noting,
“These pages will be easiest to read for those who are happily married and who experience a passionate and fulfilling sex life. Your experience of this good gift naturally leads to worship of the Giver. But that’s a small percentage of people who will pick up this book.”
So he acknowledges those in hard marriages, who are single, who live with same sex attraction and survivors of sexual abuse. There is a wise, gentle and understanding tone here, and he also shares his own story of sexual brokenness and redemption.

There are helpful warning words at the end of the introduction:
“Sexual experience will always be more like a piece of chocolate cake than a source of life. It is a gift to be received with thanksgiving that should lead to a heart of increasing gratitude, but it will not change your life. Only living in relationship with the Lover of your soul will do that.”
Starting with God’s work in creation, White points out how God made sex as a good gift to be enjoyed that reflects the unity within the godhead and that because of God’s trinitarian nature, love predates creation.
“From Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is unashamedly positive about marital sexuality. As we will see, a robust understanding of God’s design for human sexuality is a beautiful proclamation of the gospel promise that God will be our God and we will be his people.”
Sex in marriage is a ‘reunion’ of God’s image bearers designed to bring forth life as well as oneness and intimacy to the couple, to really be known.
“It is the coming together emotionally and spiritually, as well as physically, that makes human sexuality a reflection of our Creator.”
Chapter 2 expands what it means for God to be our lover: “God created marriage and sexuality for us to know his heart toward us”. He considers the extensive use of adultery imagery to explain Israel’s turning from God. He tells of his experience of his first wife’s death, coming to understand God’s extensive love for him which is more than any spouse, and then moving towards remarriage as he fell in love again. He asks the reader to consider:
“How would your relationship with God change if you pictured him as a lover, rather than a judge? Even if you feel more comfortable with God as your Father or Redeemer, how does it alter things to see him as your husband? What do you think is missing from your understanding if you do not have this crucial piece?”
Chapter 3 expands the idea of union with Christ and what that means for sexual union.
“Our union with Christ is the adoption into the extended family of the Godhead. Because union with Christ is at the center, marriage as a “one flesh” relationship provides a poignant metaphor to describe the wonder of our relationship with Jesus.”
It is the covenant bonds of promise and faithfulness that make sexual union a delight and a treasure:
“The issue is whether this couple is willing to make public promises committing their entire self and future to one another. Only this is good enough to merit the glory of godly sexuality because only this mirrors the radical commitment of our God who is zealous for us and longs for our sexual union to reflect his commitment of love made by promise and oath, ratified by his own blood.”
He then extends this to consider that sexual pleasures reveal a God of delight.

Chapter 5 considers sex in relationship and the damage of sexual sin, noting
“Simply put, sexual sin violates the fundamental reflection of the most glorious union—our connection to our Lord through his Spirit—which is implicit in God’s good design of marital love. That’s why God cares so much about sexuality and why sexual sin is so profoundly damaging.”
Yet sexual sin is also universal, and therefore needs to brought into the light,
“It is because sexuality is so glorious, not that sexual sinners are so despicable, that sex requires such care.”
Chapter 6 starts to examine sex as service to the other. “Sexual pleasuring in marriage is a wonderful obligation that spouses are blessed to repay each other.” I appreciated his analysis and explanation of 1 Corinthians 7, addressing the issues it can raise, especially the expectation of sex on demand. He takes the time to deal with this pastorally from a number of angles, concluding,
“God gave us 1 Corinthians 7:1–5 because spouses need to be taught that selflessness must govern the marriage bed and serving each other is the path to deep joy and fulfillment. This conforms us further to the image of our ultimate Bridegroom.”
He considers the need to talk openly about sex in a marriage. He includes oral sex and differences in desire amongst a discussion of what mutual giving would look like. He also turns to consider areas he thinks are problematic.

Chapter 8 addresses single sexuality, both the opportunities, but also the grief and loneliness that may also be present. He encourages the reader to see that singleness has a place in the kingdom of God, proclaiming to the world that the idols of companionship and sexual expression in this world can be truly found in Christ:
“Your commitment to live chastely as a single Christian proclaims to a watching world that there is another King, whose own willingness to embrace a different kind of life disarmed the lies of the enemy (see Colossians 2:15). You testify to the truth that sex is not necessary to have a rich, powerful life.”
Next he focuses on the worldview behind fallen sexuality, and then various sexual practices that he believes do not fit God’s design, including masturbation, pornography, sex outside marriage, and gay marriage, but finishes with the reminder that:
“The real problem is that broken sexuality is universal, affecting every person and community on the globe.”
All of us have a sexuality affected by the fall. He consider some of the norms of our culture today and the lies behind them, most notably the overarching view that sex is all about me and what I/we want. In the end, he encourages the reader to:
“focus on your own sexual redemption. Like me, that will keep you plenty busy. And if you have already made great strides there, ask God what new ethical issues he’d like to tackle in your life”
He turns to the challenges of parenting today and encourages all parents to be willing and ready to discuss these things often with their children. Some topics covered include masturbation, technology use, LGBTQ+ issues, and the hook up culture.
“Given the cultural messages and mounting hormonal pressure, our kids need compelling reasons to obey God in their sexuality, especially as they approach their teen years and beyond. When it comes to talking to your kids about sex, getting out of your comfort zone means being willing to have multiple conversations with your kids.”
He then considers biblical sexuality in public, “the last few decades have marked a dramatic shift toward a sexuality that wildly diverges from Christian orthodoxy.” So that “The sexual ethic once taken for granted is seen as oppressive and harmful to society, and people who uphold biblical morality are going against the flow, often ridiculed as quaint and progressive.”

“The only way we can show perfect courtesy and have gracious, salty words is if we are daily aware of our own need for God’s grace.” We should invite friendships with those with whom we disagree over their sexual ethic, and we are called to love everyone.

The final chapter raises the vision for everyone, and points us towards the end times when we will glory in our complete and satisfying relationships with Christ.

We recommend numerous books on sexual intimacy for married couples. The advantage of this is the biblical basis and detail of the theological considerations and perspectives. Many focus on how to have sex in marriage, this offering adds much more, giving a reason why to have a high view of sexual expression in marriage. From there, one can consider the challenges presented for people and couples with their own issues, as they face the challenges of an ever changing sexually expressive and permissive culture.


I was given an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, October 28, 2019

God Friended Me

I was drawn in by the enjoyable, clever and interesting pilot episode of this series.

Atheist podcaster Miles, who has rejected the faith of his family, is sent a friend request by God. Convinced it’s a hoax, he keeps ignoring it, but it is insistent and he finally accepts. He is immediately sent a friend suggestion for a man who just happens to be walking past him, who he follows and ends up stopping from jumping in front of a train.

The next friend recommendation is for journalist Cara who is having some family issues of her own. The two of them start to investigate what is going on, trying to hack the account and track the IP address, along with Rakesh, Miles’ coworker.

The strands get tighter between everyone as various connections are discovered between them.

***

As I continued to watch the rest of the season, I found myself intrigued. Miles’ father is a minister, his sister is a social worker who owns a local pub and is in a committed lesbian relationship, and his mother died in a car crash when he was eight. Cara has her own complicated past with a mother who deserted the family. All of the story lines become prominent at various points and are very well done.

They continue to search for the real person behind the God account, using hacking and tracking to do so. If you wanted to question the ethics, they use their workplaces to hack accounts, seem to rarely be at work and often use dodgy and deceptive methods to track people down.

Yet, each time the God account swings into operation and Miles is sent a friend request, they end up helping someone in a specific and detailed way, almost all to do with restoring relationships. Miles, Cara and Rakesh all discover they love helping people.

At one level, it’s very neat. Every episode has a storyline that ends neatly wrapped up in a bow, in a great feel good moment that often brings a tear to the eye. Yet even saying that in a somewhat cynical way, I didn’t feel cynical watching it. There is a real understanding of humankind and their struggles, the complicated lives that people have as well as their desires and dreams. The writers clearly have remarkable insights into human behaviour. Miles and Cara come to see that helping people isn’t a burden, it’s an opportunity.

At the same time, the larger mystery of who is running the God account keeps developing an overarching plot line. They are all convinced it’s a very sophisticated hacker, not that it could actually be God.

It’s an interesting premise that I have enjoyed watching. I think it could raise questions for people and be a good conversation starter. The faith represented here is not Christian (that is, Christ is never mentioned), in fact is almost entirely fits the definition of “moral therapeutic deism”. Yet, it is one of the few shows I have seen that is willing to even raise questions of faith, reason, atheism and put them together in an intelligent and even nuanced conversation. Big ideas are addressed: suffering, grand design, faith, hope, calling, unity. And over it all - why is the God account operating at all? Why operate with Miles?

Over all of this are the excellent visual effects. It’s set in New York City and the filming is fantastic. The shots are filled with beautiful light and it shows off the city in a way I haven’t seen before. The images are clean and clear and as a result the whole show feels light and positive. I don’t recall any swearing, violence or inappropriate intimacy, and I suspect you could watch it quite happily with teenagers and have some good conversations with them as a result.

I watched all of Season 1 and enjoyed both the storylines and the characters, and how they have were slowly drawn to intersect together to a quite satisfying finale.

The first series is currently available free to air on the 7Plus website, and Season 2 has just started showing.

Monday, October 21, 2019

The Moon is Always Round

The Moon Is Always Round, Jonathon Gibson

It’s not often that a children’s book brings me to tears, but that is just what The Moon Is Always Round does each time I read it. Gibson has written a heartfelt book teaching children the truth of God’s goodness, in the midst of especially hard times.

Dedicated to his son Benjamin, the little boy in the book is meant to be him. Told in the first person by the little boy, he and his dad have a game they play when they look at the moon. Whatever shape it looks at any point in time, when Daddy asks “what shape is the moon”, little Ben always replies ,“the moon is always round”, and it means that “God is always good”. It’s their little catechism to talk about no matter what things look like and though it can sometimes be hard to see, God is always good.

So:
When Dad told me I was getting a little sister, the moon looked like a banana.
But Dad said, “The moon is always round.” 


When the mummy’s tummy looks like a watermelon, the moon looked like a shrivelled orange, but dad still says that the moon is always round.
Even when I was told that my little sister wasn’t coming to live with us after all the waiting, Dad said “The moon is always round.”
When the little sister can’t come home, and little Ben asks why, Dad replies: “I don’t know why. But the moon is always round.”

When they are at the funeral they remind each other that the moon is always round, and that means that “God is always good”.



There are helpful instructions at the back to talk to children about the moon and Good Friday, explaining the story behind the book, and giving a little catechism about the moon.

The illustrations by Joe Hox perfectly match the feel of the book, and it’s particularly the mother’s face at various points of their loss that keeps moving me to tears.

I am so thankful that Gibson found a simple, yet profound way to explain God’s goodness at all times to his own son in the midst of their family’s loss, and that has now chosen to share it with others. In many ways it deals with a very specific subject (the stillbirth of an infant), and so would be a very helpful resource if that were needed for your own family situation. However, the idea of God being good in all circumstances, even if we don’t understand them, is relevant for young children across a whole range of circumstances, and many parents and children will benefit from this tender, gentle, yet honest story.

Monday, October 14, 2019

The Good Name

The Good Name: The Power of Words to Hurt or Heal, Samuel T. Logan, Jr

This book came from honest, humble beginnings, written by Logan analysing why it was right for the Westminster Theological Seminary board of trustees to dismiss him as president for ‘shading the truth and bearing false witness’ after speaking a lie in a faculty meeting. To be honest, many of us would have hardly counted it as a lie. He introduces the story and uses it to explain how it led to a lot of soul searching and analysis of the meaning of the ninth commandment.
“My purpose in writing is to show that, as Christians, our words exist to reflect Christ’s character—his holy concern for God’s good name, his constant love for others, and his absolutely reliable truth. When our words are scornful, selfish, or false, they dishonor Christ. And especially when we speak such words to or about fellow Christians, they can cause great damage in Christ’s church.”
“Perhaps this little book will help all of us to live according to what Scripture says about bearing true witness, so that Jesus is honored as he should be.”
He turns first to consider the power of words, noting:
“Serious students of Scripture simply must take account of the fact that God, in his written revelation, has even more to say about how we speak to and about one another than he does about our sexual activity or theft or murder.”
God’s word is powerful: it creates and sustains, it also judges and redeems. As we are created in the image of God, we have a responsibility with our words as well:
“Given the enormous power of words, and the way they connect us to God himself, we must take great care with them and use them for the life-giving purposes God intended.”
In God’s word we usually find follow redemptive words following judgment words:
“Perhaps that would be a good pattern for human words to image. If we ever find ourselves in situations which call for words of judgment, redemptive words should quickly follow.”
Chapter 2 addresses how scripture defines true and false witness. He deals with how words of judgment can look, and are often unloving and unkind by humans. He addresses the ninth commandment, and then explanations and interpretations of it in various catechisms. Along the way, he notes the following:
“The problem of inappropriate judgment has plagued the church since its very beginning and the results continue to be devastating.” 
“how we speak is as important as that we speak, because the good name ultimately at stake is the name of Christ.”
“The point here is really a simple one: even as we speak against the sin and error that we perceive in others, our own sin may play a significant role in how we respond to those others. There can be sin mixed in with our good motives. It is usually when we really do see someone sinning that we end up defaming them—and sinning ourselves. So it takes the utmost prayerful commitment to make sure that our response is as God-honoring as we desire the words and deeds of other people to be.”
Chapter 3 addresses some of the damage done by false witness. Starting with the first lie told in the bible (the serpent to Eve), he considers numerous cases of lying or bearing false witness in the bible, and then extends to the evidence of false witness in the early church, noting for then as we learn as now:
“The lesson is clear: how Christians talk about one another can facilitate actions by secular governments that undermine what Christians on both sides of any argument actually desire. How we use our tongues matters.”
He notes that the Reformation was an overall blessing to the church, “but its positive impact was significantly undermined by how Protestant Christians talked about one another.” He asserts the same happened in the Great Awakening in America, and continues to today when Christians argue with each other, call each other names and accuse each other of heresy.

Chapter 4 starts to examine principles for bearing true witness. We should analyse our hearts and consider why we speak the words we do. We need to remember that we do not know other people’s hearts and therefore cannot speak with any authority about their actions or choices. He warns about the use of labels and particularly suggests that we avoid using either liberal or conservative to categorise others. He then delves into the mire of word usage online and has some great advice and warnings for Christians as they seek to honour God in the online space. There is consideration given for now to deal with error, suggesting we should communicate with governing church bodies as appropriate, rather than use online forums to air grievances.

Chapter 5 fleshes out the guidelines in some current, specific areas of controversy: abortion, evolution, women in church leadership roles, social justice matters, same-sex marriage and dealing with sexual misconduct allegations. He starts with four preliminary points: our words matter, check your motive, stay on point and cast no aspersions, and secure slippery slopes. All of these are helpful ways to interact specifically with what he has said over the course of the book in conversations that are currently very relevant. No answers to these issues are given, but guidelines on how to have constructive conversations. As such, it is relevant and instructive, and much Christian dialogue would be greatly improved and be much more God-honouring if we all gave weight to such considerations.

A timely book that challenges the reader to consider the power of their words, the easy tendency to sin in this area, and ways to honour the Lord as we choose wisely the words that we use.

I received an ecopy of this book in exchange for an honest review.