Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Review: And There was Light

And there was Light
Jacques Lusseyran
New World Library
ISBN 978-60868-269-0

Some books should not be read with other books. Or the other book will not compare favorably. Some books remind the reader of why books are read in the first place  - because they open the eyes and heart to new worlds that the reader had never dreamed of. Some books remove the cap from our head, and open the top of our skulls. “And There was Light” is such a book -- at least in the first section. But for some, it might be the second section. It depends.

This is because “And There was Light”  is divided into three sections. This is a subtle division, of course, because one’s life is generally not laid out in clearly demarcated lines. But the autobiographical relating of Jacques Lusseyran’s life does fall neatly into three sections.

The first is about his blindness, the second about his work in the Resistance, the third about his time in a prison camp and release. A book with three such disparate sections will elicit different reactions depending on the writer’s heart and interests. The first, about the author’s blindness and subsequent discovery of a different way of seeing, is spiritual, philosophical, almost rhapsodic in its depiction of the greater inner light that guided him and helped him to see. The almost mystical feel of the narrative would affirm truth to those who are acquainted with the magical in life. It is energizing, amazing, spiritual truth, yet to the more rigid-minded whose ideas of life are rooted in mundane ideas of how the world “really operates” this section might seem poetic at best and deluded at worst.

The second section -- that in which Lusseyran describes the work of the Resistance and his part in it-- reads at first like a story about young boys pretending to be important. This is true especially if the reader does not understand the work of the French Resistance during the Nazi Occupation. But as one reads -- and puts aside the idea that these young teenagers are merely playing at war-- one sees the importance of the work they carried out. Those who live in countries which have never known life under the occupation of a foreign power will begin to understand the great work of the French Resistance.  Lovers of war history will like this and the last section although some readers may be hard put to make it through the first section.

The third section details the author’s imprisonment. Throughout the book, the author is of course blind. But he is not imprisoned by his blindness. His blindness does not shrink his life or impinge on him but turns out to be freeing. Still there were moments when blindness affected his optimism. The first was when the fascist Vichy government declared that blind people could not teach. The second was when he was imprisoned. But none of these challenges affected Lusseyran’s natural optimism, an optimism which was based on his trust in God’s love and pity.

One of the most harrowing experiences in the book concerns the author’s meeting with a blind despondent child whose parents had not understood the different way of “seeing” and had effectively shut down the emergence of the child’s other senses. Seeing the child, Lusseyran is horrified at what his own life had been if his parents had not challenged the accepted norms of educating the blind or the accepted human idea of physical reality.

Spiritual books open the world of spirit to  those who are willing to see it. The world of spirit is readily understood by those whose minds are rooted in the earthly way of seeing. When Lusseyran speaks of living light, or the morality of sound, some Christians and New Agers may understand. Those who understand Quantum Physics might understand. But others might be skeptical, confused, or dumfounded. No matter. Lovers of memoir will find the entire narrative majestic and heroic. The author speaks of the great things he did and yet the story is humble. The humility stems from his love of God, his adoration of his parents, and his admiration of his friends. The memoir has the feel of a classic, which it is ...being named as one of the top 100 Christian books of the 20th century. Powerful insightful commentary and insights stream across the narrative beautifully, effortlessly, and casually. Yet the verbal stylings are so joyful and rhapsodic that they echo older classic writings.  

This book is highly recommended, especially for those who feel they need the need to have their mind renewed, to those who work with or are disabled, to those with a spiritual bent, and to history buffs.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Review: Miracles by Tim Stafford

A book is like a horse one hitches one's wagon to. In order to enjoy it, one has to totally trust in that horse. By the time I reached page 199 of Tim Stafford's Miracles, I wanted to unhitch my wagon. Miracles is the kind of book that talks about Miracles yet uses "only those Biblical passages everyone reads" one would expect from a Senior Writer for Christianity Today, has written a book about miracles.

Although Stafford writes as one who is a "journalist" he doesn't include much of the primary document -- The Bible. He certainly doesn't include those verses that might challenge his take. This is what is bothersome: an author thinking he is being fair when he is biased, at worse or Biblically-ignorant at best.

Stafford is trying to be honest.
A good
thing, because many Christian books often strike some readers as dishonest for various reasons. So, honesty in a book about skepticism and faith, is to be lauded. But when an author writes a book on healing that focuses more on human experience, denominationalism, and human reasoning without adequately balancing it with the Bible, then iffy human-experience-based theology is what results. Not that Christians should go about not using their minds, but God's ways -- and His Mind-- are higher than mere human minds, observations, and conclusions. Jesus warned his disciple Peter about looking at John's life. Paul warns his readers to  look to Jesus and to the Scriptures as well. The experience of human life is not to be the basis for any theology and the "this is what I have seen and understood about miracles" ways of discussing theology is problematical at best.

Paul has many letters in his epistles, many of which are prayers that the readers (or hearers) in the churches have wisdom and revelation. Tim Stafford should have prayed those prayers prayerfully before he wrote this book.

There are many things wrong with this book. But I will only state a few.

On page 199, he writes: "God is the master of everything that happens." One is tempted to ask: "WHAT?" John the Evangelist writes that "we know all the world is under the power of the evil one." But Stafford seems to believe the popular cultural sayings "There's a reason for everything" or "God's in charge of everything" or "God is sovereign."  Not that we should blame everything on the devil but many things are not under God's control: human sin, human doubt, human actions being just a few.

Admittedly, this is what most people believe, but that a journalist would state such an untheological common truism shows a Calvinist bias.

There are other aspects of healing which he could have discussed.

One of the largest fallacy in the book is the false dichotomy it presents between "human faith versus God's sovereign will." By setting up this dichotomy, God is made to seem "mysterious" (allowing people to be afflicted for some great unknown good.) Thus Christians who believe God desires healing in all things are made to appear as if they are blaming innocent sick people for lack of faith. Not that miracles come by human work alone. In the Bible miracles comes by love, by faith, by community, by persevereance, by repentance, by know-how. And sometimes it comes by God's sovereign will. But John states that God is light and in Him is no confusion at all.

There are also questionable assumptions. Stafford states, "The Bible doesn't tell how to do miracles." But Jesus taught the disciples --even Judas Iscariot-- how to heal the sick and cast out devils. Peter and John healed the blind man by saying, "Such as I have I give you." The Great Commission seems to imply that all Christians have the power to heal the sick when the gospel --not legalism-- is being preached. From what I see Jesus told people to command if they believe. Plain and simple. This book subtly blames God by calling God mysterious. It never says -- as far as I can see-- that the church needs to understand more about healing or that the church is simply not doing things the way God told us to. After all, few Christians actually pray for the sick the way God has told us to pray.

Stafford also doesn't address the possibility that human illness is often the battleground of the cosmological war between God and the devil, and that miracles are a sign that Jesus has conquered evil and has commanded His church to continue to prove His victory. Stafford doesn't mention the devil at all. Jesus said, "The devil comes to kill, steal, and destroy. I came that you might have life." Jesus stated, "The Prince of this world is judged." If the darkness is past and the true light shines, the kingdom of God is still against sickness.
But most importantly, He creates a God who is vastly different from Jesus. While Jesus healed all who came to Him --and a few who didn't-- the God Stafford creates is mysterious and unpredictable. An easy answer to a predicament, and the easy answer for Christian believer-skeptics. It would be much more difficult to say God is generally predictable but I have not researched this matter enough to understand why miracles don't happen more consistently.

It is best to read books that promote a faith rather than those which engender confusion under the guise of journalism. And it is best to read one's Bible and ask for Holy Spirit wisdom to understand than to lean on one's own understanding and experience.  Jesuc Christ warned His followers to take heed how they hear.

Unfortunately, Stafford has not researched modern healing miracles as much as he should have and the examples he gives mostly fall into a certain camp of Pentecostalism. For those needing to build their faith, reading this book is like finding someone has poisoned one's Gatorade during a race. Not recommended. Better books than Miracles have been written. A J Gordon's The Ministry of Healing for instance is much more comprehensive about church history, the Bible, the missionary field, etc. (Here is Gordon's on Amazon.)  Also, Divine Healing by Andrew Murray, and The Gospel of Healing by A.B. Simpson. These are old books, written by true researchers whose insight were helped by the Holy Spirit. While Stafford wanted to write of his own experiences, somewhere along the line distinctions got blurred. The book stops being about his experience and his own spiritual journey and becomes a  "This is what I have seen therefore this is what is true because I am a journalist and I know what's true" treatise. Unfortunate because other books about miracles have been written by Christian nurses and doctors, people who see God's miracles daily. Stafford should have read those books before venturing into his own pitiful entry.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Review: Juicing, Fasting, and Detoxing for Life

Juicing, Fasting, and Detoxing for life: Unleash the Healing Power of Fresh Juices and Cleansing Diets  Revised and Updated
by Cherie Calbom MS, CN with John Calbom, MA
Hachette Book Group, Inc.

Some books give readers hope; some books go further and save lives or purport to do so. Every page of this book breathes passion. The introduction is a memoir of healing and the crisis that created the need for healing. That healing turned into a mission in which the Calboms attempt to bring healing to the lives of others.

The chapters are Introduction, The Secrets of Vibrant Health, Juicing for Life, Juice Fasting for Life, Detoxing for Life, Intestinal Cleansing for Vibrant Health, Liver, Gallbladder, and Kidney Cleansing, More Detox Programs, Mental and Emotional Cleansing, The A-Z Guide to the Nutrient Content of Foods, Recipes for Fasting and Detoxing, Resources Guide, References, Acknowledgments, Index.

Interestingly, considering its title, this book contains more information than juicing information, although juicing is its primary focus. The title and the table of contents do not convey the wealth of information about general detoxing. This book has chapters dealing with such issues as parasites, GMO-foods, massages, toxic emotions, vitamins, and heavy metals. But it is primarily a book on the power of juices, especially raw juices. It’s as if everything that has ever been written on healthful living has been collected into one handy, non-judgmental, and passionately hopeful book.

The writing is clear and conversational. There are charts galore and scattered notes on all aspects of wholesome eating and foods.

Heartily recommend this book. If one wants one book on healthful eating, this is the one book to buy.       

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Review: Astonished

Astonished: A story of Evil, Blessings, Grace, and Solace.
by Beverly Donofrio
ISBN: 978-0-670-02575-6
US $25.95
CAN $27.50

In an age of mashups, it is no surprise that there are spirituality/religions mashups. But when a memoir is about a person questioning her faith, mashups make it difficult to know which faith or religion is being questioned.

Astonished is a harrowing painfully-honest book about a rape. It is full of questions,and these questions are hard, silly, difficult, or just weird depending on which aspect of her syncretist religion Beverly Donofrio is questioning.

She is primarily a Roman Catholic and thus she understands that Christ has also suffered, but she is a Buddhist and a yoga practitioner as well. In addition, her parental issues --especially with male members of her family-- flavor her Catholicism with a Marian worship.  Yet, that honoring and worship of Mary (as the feminine aspect of God) is uncomfortable with the masculine expression of Deity.

A book such as this is a hard read-through for many reasons. Books about rape are painful. As are books about depression and grief. Such books require commitment of heart as well as of mind. And spiritual memoirs will always encounter the spiritual boundaries the reader has set up for herself. But there is something to be said about the author’s bravery at showing her naked self. If Christianity is defined as walking with God and living a transparent life with human beings, Donofrio could be defined as a Christian. Of course, some will argue that that kind of definition is certainly not what Christianity is not. Or possibly that Christianity is that and much more.

But what is one to do about the harrowing rape? It stands squarely in -- and is the sole cause-- of the book. To dismiss the events of the rape because of the funky self-chosen buffet theology is to be unloving.  

Donofrio’s is a theology that is rooted in her own self, a spirituality that is one-sided because of that. It also has a very Augustinian Calvinism in that it has an almost fatalistic conception that God controls (or doesn’t control) evil. Only a modern Calvinist would speak of “forgiving God.”  Indeed, many of the questions Donofrio asks comes from this confusion of spirituality and certainly would not have been asked if she were more theologically rooted in the Bible.  At one point, she writes, “I’ve one friend who thinks I’m a Christian because I’m so desperate to believe in an afterlife, I’m willing to believe a myth-- that Jesus is the son of God sent to die in reparation for Adam’s sin of disobedience. Which then opened the gates of heaven and gave us eternal life.” She then goes on to say that the only part of the myth she believes is that Jesus is the Son of God and that she “believes in karmic law and reincarnation….I refuse to believe that God punished the whole race for Adam’s sin-- or that God punishes ever.”’   This muddled theology which believes that Christianity declares that God punished the whole race (a misunderstanding of the theology of the fall of man) and which believes that God doesn’t punish anyone is just one of many such instances one encounters in Astonished. It shows a buffet spirituality which picks and chooses elements of several religions, without quite being knowledgeable enough to see how the discarded parts and the retained parts are interconnected.

If one would compare the pure white wedding dress given by Christ to His Bride with the self-made patchwork dress of one who supposedly believes. The dress is beautiful and even has patches of white but it is not a true wedding dress.

Those who read religious books have strong opinions rooted in their own theologies or denomination and those who are not religious have their own prejudices against any work that is blatantly religious. Therefore Donofrio is to be commended for bravely discussing both her spirituality and the rape. On the one hand, the theology -- or rather, the many theologies-- in Astonished are so typically narcissistic Hollywood and so self-created and messily syncretist that one cannot call it a Biblical Christianity and there is a dangerous wolf-in-sheep’s clothing quality to it which could taint the spirituality of some readers. This book falls into the category of spiritual memoir and thus those who are lovers of memoirs or are connoisseurs of spiritual journeys will like this book. Those who have endured suffering or had spiritual questions may also like it. Those who understand the richness of Christianity will find it laughable.

Saturday, March 08, 2014

Review: Gift of Faith

Robert Fleming's new book Gift of Faith is the first in a series to be published by Urban Christian. It is also his first foray into Christian fiction publishing. As, such, it is quite unlike the other novels he has written in the past. Gift of Faith tells the story of a pastor who suffers a terrible tragedy at the hands of his wife. The question the pastor is left with is: What kind of woman would do such a thing? The narrative follows the pastor as he discovers the true nature of his now dead wife, grieves for his wife and his dead children, comes to grips with his own encounters with human evil, and is slowly restored to hope and faith as he starts a new life.

Throughout the novel, one encounters evil in its many guises, especially the evil that appears in the urban Black community. Thus the pastor understands evil through looking at his own tragedy but also through his ministry in the Black Church. The book is unflinching in its depiction of sexual sins and the temptations and sins that beset those in the religious community.Time and time again, he counsels (or tries to counsel) the grieving, the sinful, the addicted, the obsessed, and begins to understand the subtle interweavings of evil, mental illness, neediness, sin and the plainly demonic.
Gift of Faith is a good book, but it is not excellent —and it does not compare well with Mr Fleming’s secular works.  There are several flaws that will trouble or distance the nonreader of Christian fiction, and there is one issue that Christians who read Christian fiction might argue with theologically or doctrinally.

The first flaw is that the novel is told in the first person. While Christian memoirs and testimonies are generally taken at face value, a work of fiction needs to have the ability to convince most of its readers. Readers of Christian fiction will readily accept a narrator speaking of his humility and holiness but those not used to this genre would be more convinced if the story had been told to a third person narrator. Because of the first person narrator, the hero’s goodness and self-praise is not easily proven or acceptable. Moreover, many discoveries made by the hero seem as if written to show his own righteousness, thus the story’s climax is challenged by a seemingly unaware and proud hero. A story about a good person is rarely told well from the first person’s (the selfsame good person’s) point of view.
For instance, lines such as, “The congregation was hanging on my every word, my every indictment of them” can be problematical.
The second flaw (and again this is a flaw that would trouble only those who are not readers of Christian fiction), is that the author shows moral growth instead of emotional growth. Indeed, there is often a preachiness that —while acceptable and even expected in Christian fiction— makes the narrator hero appear coldly detached in spite of all his declarations of grief. One expects to see the narrator walking through his empty house missing his murdered children but no such events or scenes is given the reader.
Instead, the author brings in several situations and characters to illustrate the moral quandaries that Christians —especially pastors— often face. As a pastor, it is understandable that these encounters would occur and that they would affect his theology and his recovery. The emotional arc is quickly swallowed up by the moral arc, and because the narrator already knows the spiritual answers to life, there is no emotional hook to draw us through to the novel. One moves from spiritual insight to spiritual insight, from moral lecture to moral lecture and in the end, the only answer the pastor finds are answers that show how evil his wife was and how good, holy and trusting he was. Because of this the book not only feels disjointed but one almost begins to feel that the wife was trapped in a marriage with a cold pious man with no heart. The author does not seem to be aware of this pitfall, which makes the read an uncomfortable one.

Again, these are problems that would only trouble those who are not used to Christian fiction. However, there are some moments that will trouble some readers of Christian fiction. Some readers may not like the honest brave description of sexuality and sexual situations. Urban Christian books, written by Black Christians, are often different than Christian fiction published by mainstream Christian publishers such as Bethany and Thomas Nelson. Thus readers of urban Christian fictions will not be too surprised or offended at the truth in many of these scenes.

However, some Christians — Black or White— might have a problem with a kind of fatalistic Calvinism that appears throughout the book, as evidenced in the following line:

Mr Burke realized his fate was sealed. He knew he was going to get a harsh sentence for killing the woman, a wife and a mother of a young child. The elders often told me that we are destined to fail during this life, that we cannot always measure up to the standard set by the Lord. I know this is true. We all know that. We are all sinners.
The apparent theological reasoning behind this is to show human imperfection and the inability for anyone to live a truly perfect life. It also  seems to show a compassion for human failure. But the words “fate” and “destined” so close together hint at a deeper Calvinist idea which the writer may or may not intend.
If one looks at the Bible, this seemingly compassionate idea of being destined to fail comes off as merely human sentimentality. For the Bible declares:
And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ: That we henceforth be no more children, tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive; But speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ: Ephesians 4:11-15
And you, that were sometime alienated and enemies in your mind by wicked works, yet now hath he reconciled In the body of his flesh through death, to present you holy and unblameable and unreproveable in his sight: If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister; Colossians 1:21-23
The Holy Scripture in Scripture commands that we not allow ourselves to be moved away from the hope of the gospel
Whereof I am made a minister, according to the dispensation of God which is given to me for you, to fulfil the word of God; Even the mystery which hath been hid from ages and from generations, but now is made manifest to his saints: To whom God would make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles; which is Christ in you, the hope of glory: Whom we preach, warning every man, and teaching every man in all wisdom; that we may present every man perfect in Christ Jesus:  Colossians 1: 25-28
Indeed, Christians are called to be conformed to Christ:
My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you, Galatians 4:19
This book has been accepted in many Christian bookclubs, including Urban Christian His Glory Book Club. It will no doubt speak to many who have suffered family tragedy. It will also be enjoyed by pastors, deacons and elders, because it shows the trials they encounter in their work. I recommend this book for those who are used to reading urban Christian. fiction. For those who are not used to reading such books, I would recommend reading Mr. Fleming's other books such as Fever in the Blood and Wisdom of the Elders, books which show the excellency of Mr Fleming’s skills at honestly depicting the problems and wisdom of the Black community. I look forward to seeing how Mr Fleming will merge the honest searing skill of his secular work with the requirements of the Christian genre. I have no doubt his next book in this series will be a better read.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Review: The Glory of Heaven

The Glory of Heaven
Betty Malz
Those familiar with the writings of Betty Malz are probably aware of her life-changing life-after-life encounter on a sickbed. That encounter changed her life and began her journey of discovering, describing, and collecting supernatural Christian stories of near-death encounters or angelic incidents.
The Glory of Heaven is an easy accessible conversational read. Bible quotes, inspiring stories, and discussions of heaven are interwoven throughout the book. What makes it different from other books on the same topic is that it is like over-hearing a "what-if" discussion of heaven. There is something dreamlike and meditative about it. The author uses old hymns, contmporary songs, Bible verses and the near-death stories to extrapolate on what heaven might be like. It is not argumentative or pushy. It's full of Biblical anticipation and will remind readers of the verse, "Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also." She expands the readers' minds and pushes away the sentimental ideas of angels playing harps on fluffy clouds thus making heaven a more real place, a true looked-for home for the Christian.
In chapters that explore home, transportation, companions, she establishes our heart on heaven. The chapters on the "no mores" is especially inspiring.
The Book is available in print, ebook, and on itunes.
Highly recommended, especially for sunday school discussions.

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