My Bookshelf

A blog that's dedicated to equipping Christians to think Biblically about all of life will have many references to books. This blog is no exception: whether it's book reviews, or references to books in posts, or even my newest endeavor, book giveaways, you'll find books are an important part of what I do here.

To that end, I want to describe an important feature of this blog: the slick wooden bookshelf in the right-hand column. As its name suggests, this shelf is populated with books I think every Christian should read. But there is some ryhme and reason to it that may not be obvious at first glance.
First, there's an intentional ordering of the books. While I feel strongly about the value of every book on the shelf, the first five that appear are my Top 5 recommended books. I forced myself to put 5 of my favorites on the top, and that was hard! But I did it, and the rest also follow a general order of recommendation. In other words, I'd generally recommend the first several books even more strongly than the last several. But they're all worth your time in my opinion.
Speaking of which, how do I select books for the shelf? Are these just my personal favorites, suitable to my tastes? Actually, no: I love many books that aren't on the shelf. What I try to do is choose books that I not only love, but that I think are particularly apropos and needed for Christians today. For instance, you'll notice books on developing our minds, because that's one of the church's big needs today. But you'll also see books on topics like spiritual formation, eternal perspective, and money - topics every Christian interacts with virtually every day.
The shelf is different from books that I'm reading right now - those are listed below it. Some of the current books I'm reading now may end up on the shelf, but many won't because I want the shelf to stay focused on especially timely, useful books.
Finally, a couple features of the shelf. There is a small "next" button on the bottom right which takes you to the second "page" with more books. Also, one of my favorite features is that you can hover your mouse over any book on the shelf and it will display a short paragraph I wrote on why that book made it onto the shelf in the first place. Pretty cool!
As an added incentive to read them (plus, as a way to just have some fun) every few months I'll give one of these recommended books away in a drawing, like the one I just did last week. So peruse my bookshelf, and consider tossing a couple of these titles on your own nightstand. Some of them take some mental effort to get through, but all of them are worth it in spades.
Happy reading!

Why I'm Uncomfortable With The Texas Polygamy Raid

You've all no doubt watched the proceedings over the last 2 months: Texas Child Protective Services ("CPS") seized 460+ children from the FLDS (a splinter Mormon sect) and put them all in state custody. I initially watched the proceedings with fascination, and several questions came to my mind. Then as the days continued on and the answers to those questions were not forthcoming, I became increasingly uncomfortable with what Texas had done. I kept my misgivings mostly to myself, sharing them only with a few friends and waiting for the courts to sort it all out. But on May 22 the Texas Third Court of Appeals ruled that the state's grounds for removing the children were "legally and factually insufficient."

Time to speak up.

First, my up-front disclaimer: I believe the FLDS is a cult with a severely warped worldview. I fully support the illegality of polygamy and underage marriage (2 things this group is known for), and I think they could scarcely be more wrong about their ideas of God, themselves, and the world.

Having said that, I am greatly troubled by what appears to be a grave breach of civil rights in this case. What the Texas CPS did is unprecedented: never before has so large a custody sweep taken place, and with so little evidence to justify it. The phone call which prompted the raid in the first place is looking increasingly like it was a hoax. What's more, the abuse allegation surrounded teenage girls who were forced into underage marriages; yet all 460+ children were seized despite the fact that most of them are boys and very young girls - kids that not even CPS says were being abused.

To justify such unprecedented categorical action, CPS has argued that the FLDS was brainwashing all the children into abusive thinking, which justifies the seizure of many kids who weren't actually being abused. That line of thinking is scary to me. This kind of "guilt by association" logic with no hard evidence behind it is what dictatorships use to violate their citizens. "You read the wrong books, so for your own protection we're sending you to the state re-education program."

It did not escape my notice that these proceedings were happening in Texas at precisely the same time the State of California was trying to remove it's citizens right to homeschool their kids if they so choose. You see, while most Americans (including me) think the FLDS cult is sick and wierd, an increasing number of Americans think anyone who takes their Christian faith seriously is similarly sick and wierd. To many nowadays, a parent who sends his child to a Christian summer camp, or to a Catholic parochial school, or (gasp!) homeschools his kids is no different than this Texas cult. It's all religious brainwashing, and thus no less subject to state interference. We've already had the rabidly anti-theistic Richard Dawkins argue that parents passing on religious belief to their children is itself a form of child abuse.
And the book in which he says this is a bestseller.

An interesting hypothetical: our government says a girl has a right to an abortion. Yet if her parents raise her to believe that abortion is morally wrong, are the parents subject to state coercion for denying their daughter her rights and thus "abusing" her? Using the logic of the Texas CPS, the answer would be yes.
The religious freedom and civil rights implications of this case in Texas cannot be overlooked. This is the real reason America has a church/state separation in the first place: to protect the citizens and their practice of faith from state coercion (the fact that such a separation has been used to marginilize religious people in public life is ridiculous, but that's a subject for another day).
Now let me say that if in fact some FLDS girls were married off before their legal age, that's statutory rape and the law should be enforced. One cannot do anything one wants in the name of religion. But this nation has always placed significant restrictions on the government's ability to control the lives of it's citizens, and for good reason. Based on what I've read, I simply do not believe the State of Texas had sufficient grounds to act so broadly against the FLDS.

I'm glad the appellate court agrees with that assessment.

Book Giveaway Winner!

The day of the book giveaway has finally arrived, and since this blog is a first-class operation we weren't leaving anything to chance. I didn't want any appearance of ballot-box-stuffing, hanging-chad-counting, or any other shenanigans associated with this drawing, so I called in the big guns to handle the honors. BTW, "The Big Gun's" 8th birthday is tomorrow and there's a fantastic tribute to my little man on his mommy's classy blog.

Tommy goes to work on finding a winner...

And the winner is...

...Ranjit Narjala! Ranjit is pictured below with his lovely wife Susan and their freshly minted first bumpkin Yohan. Ranjit and Susan have been church compadres for a year or so now, and are successfully adjusting to the new world of parenting. Congratulations Ranjit! I'll get the fresh, new copy of Safely Home to you at church.

Stay tuned for future book giveaways, as I plan to give one of my recommended books away every 3-4 months or so. You could be next!!

Book Review - Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis

I just finished re-reading this modern classic in preparation for a class I will teach this summer at George Fox University titled Christian Faith and Thought. Mere Christianity is one of the main textbooks for the class - deservedly so.
A brilliant scholar at Oxford & Cambridge in the mid-20th century, Lewis' journey from a youth of dogged and aggressive atheism to a life of committed Christianity is well documented. What makes Lewis stand out is the role his mind played before, during and after his conversion.

In Mere Christianity, we get a marvellous look inside this mind. Lewis takes us on a tour of life's great questions, and reveals his own thought process during his atheistic youth, during his changing young adult years, and finally later as a committed Christian. From this tour, with its before-and-after contrast, we get a fantasic view of how to think in a disciplined manner through the big questions of life.

Some major benefits from reading this book:

  • The core tenets of the Christian worldview are explained and compared with popular alternatives. Christianity is validated as the best explanation of life as we know it through comparison, logic, and human experience; not through a priori assumptions about the Bible's veracity.
  • Non-Christian readers get a good explanation of the Christian faith that does not demean them or insult their intelligence. I think this is why so many people like Lewis: agree or disagree, one finds interacting with him emotionally nonthreatening, though intellectually rigorous.
  • Christian readers get a picture of what "thinking Christianly" looks like - something churches nowadays generally do not excel at, I'm sad to say. In an era of Christian practice where the role of the mind has gone out of style and personal feelings are heavily overvalued, Lewis presents a refreshing look how I believe God intends the mind to be used in the life of faith.
I think that last point is why this book has been such an enduring hit among Christians: paradoxically, it's popular because it's so novel in Christian circles. A quick walk down the aisle of a typical Christian bookstore reveals very little substance when comapared to Lewis. Authors don't write at that depth much anymore, because we readers generally don't buy their books if they do. And the lives of Jesus' followers are impoverished as a result.

This book is on my Top 5 recommended list (see my bookshelf to the right) for these reasons and more. If you haven't read Mere Christianity yet, consider putting it on your reading list. If you have but it's been a while, this may be a good time to consider giving it another read. This "movie" is definitely worth owning, and watching repeatedly every so often.

Book Giveaway Drawing!

OK, time to have a little fun! This blog is hosting a free book giveaway!! The winner of this drawing will receive a brand new, un-read copy of Randy Alcorn's excellent novel Safely Home.

You'll notice that Safely Home is on my bookshelf to the right as a top-5 recommended book. It's the only fiction book, in fact, in that top 5 group. This is fiction at its best: a well-researched, engaging story that says something about our real, modern world. Specifically it conveys the reality of being a persecuted Christian in modern-day China - something millions of Chinese Christians live every day even as their image-conscious government insists the rest of the world look the other way. This seems particularly well-timed with the Beijing Olympics coming up this summer. Safely Home is also an excellent illustration of living with an eternal perspective, and will encourage and motivate every Christian to live a life worthy of our calling.

Entering this drawing is simple! Just leave a comment on this post. Yes, for you married couples, both spouses can enter separately! Just use separate comments to do it. If you leave an anonymous comment (i.e. you don't have a Google ID), then be sure to sign your name so I know who you are.

Entries will be accepted for one week, until Saturday May 24 at noon. I'll draw and post the winner by Saturday evening.

Good luck!

Belated Thoughts on the Pope's Visit

Pope Benedict left the United States on April 20, concluding a 6-day tour in our nation, and I for one am impressed. I should say that since I’m a Protestant the pope doesn’t hold a unique place in my faith, nor do I have any religious allegiance to him. Yet having said that, I love this guy!

I remember some hugh and cry when Benedict was elected to the papacy in 2005 because some felt he’s too conservative. Apparently many thought that the Catholic Church would be better served by a pope who’s more willing to “get with the times,” and start thinking more like a 20th century postmodernist and less like a heir of the 1st century Apostles.

Trouble is, the pope is precisely the latter. In fact (regardless of one’s convictions on apostolic succession), a Christian by definition is one who has embraced Christianity: the worldview laid down by Jesus and the Apostles. All Christians are thus heirs of the Apostles, and the pope is the single most visible and influential Christian in the world. I’m delighted to see that this pope evidently views his role in these terms. Consider some of his objectives while Stateside:

  • Re-energizing Catholicism the United States – in other words, if you’re going to call yourself a Catholic, it’s going to mean something. One example is his reiteration of the church’s stance against abortion to Catholic US politicians. Benedict seems more intent on contending for Catholic theology than winning popularity contests.

  • Declaring that moral relativism is dangerous, and that there is absolute right and wrong. He spent some time combating secular assumptions in Catholic universities, urging the schools to stay true to their mission.

  • Confronting the necessary but uncomfortable. I appreciated his remarks on the well-publicized priest sex scandals of recent years. Again, the fact that he addressed this subject when he didn’t “have to,” meaning it wasn’t dominating the 24-hour news cycle at the time, show an inclination to do what’s right, vs. what’s expedient.

Now I’m no expert on Pope Benedict, or even Catholicism in general. Nor do I make light of differences between Christian faith traditions. However, a heavily postmodern, secular age such as ours strikes me as precisely the time when dedicated Christians of all stripes (what C.S. Lewis would call “mere Christians”) should unite around the essentials of our faith, and winsomely live that faith among our fellow men. I think a Catholic church full of energized people who know what they believe and why they believe it, and who are committed to proclaiming the gospel in word and deed, is a good thing.

And I think a pope who applies his heart and mind to the task of advancing biblical truth in a relativistic world is to be commended. To the extent that Benedict pursues an agenda like the one above, you can add this one, lowly, non-Catholic’s voice to his chorus of supporters.

A New Feature

You'll notice a new "E-mail Me" button in the sidebar. It's something I've wanted to add for a while and I finally made it happen this weekend. This button is designed to provide you with a way to let me know what you're thinking, and what content you'd find useful on this blog.

Currently I post about things that are on my mind, which I think will be useful to readers. I generally post twice per week, and at any given time I have an additional 4-8 ideas of things to post about in a file. Some of those ideas never make it to print because better ideas come along, so there's always stuff to write about!

However, while this blog is certainly a reflection of my own thinking, it was never designed to be only that. My goal for this blog is to create a useful resource for you, it's readers. To provide content that will stimulate people's minds, encourage their thinking, and deepen their faith. All themed around my passion for Christian theology and comparative worldviews.

But in order to be the most useful resource it can be, I need to hear from you! Recently two different church members, independent of one another, asked me "hey, are you considering discussing the topic of _________ on your blog?" In one case the topic was something I hadn't even thought about blogging on, but I'd be happy to if people were interested. That made me wonder how many other topics are out there that I might not be thinking of, but should be.

SO, let me know! If you'd like to see something here just hit the button and zip me an e-mail. Depending on the topic and interest level you may just see it in a future post!

Prince Caspian

In just over a week, the film Prince Caspian hits theaters. This 4th book in C.S. Lewis' Narnia series is part great adventure story and part allusion to the Christian life. Caspian is a story about belief, and about restoring things to the way they're meant to be. Two more biblical themes could hardly be imagined.

Belief: In Prince Caspian Narnia is a different world than when we last saw it. No longer do fawns dance in the forests, or beavers and horses talk. Instead Narnia has been overrun and inhabited by a race of humans who have no time for such foolishness. These Telmarines (as they're known) are far too "sophisticated" to believe in Centaurs, in Lion kings, or in any of the magic that made Narnia. The parallel with modern secular life is hard to miss. I bet if Richard Dawkins had lived in Narnia at this time he'd have written a book called The Aslan Delusion.

It is within this world of brute, lifeless skepticism that the adventure takes place, as young Prince Caspian (the rightful heir to the throne of Narnia) seeks to dicover if there's any truth to the stories of old Narnia. And he discovers, as seekers do, that there is when he finds the few remaining "Old Narnians" hiding out in the forests. Yet the quest for truth extracts a price: Caspian has chosen sides, and now opposes the dominant force of his world. Ah, the parallels!

And it is this world to which the 4 Pevensie children return - a very different Narnia than the one they left. They have some new lessons to learn about serving truth in this later world. While Aslan was right by their side in the first film, he is much more aloof and difficult to find in this one. It's only as the children, beginning with the ever-faithful Lucy, put their trust in him that they finally find him. Thus belief becomes the key step in the quest for truth.

Not the way it's supposed to be: Caspian is ultimately about defeating the evil Telmarines and restoring Prince Caspian to his rightful place on the throne. But more than a story about a single ruler, it's a story about restoring Narnia to its original, intended glory. The allusion to God's plan of redeeming this world, buying it back from it's fallen state and creating a New Heavens and New Earth is potent.

And finally, Caspian is just a great adventure story! Yet aside from the raw entertainment value of a good adventure, which is considerable IMO (I'm a sucker for a good swashbuckling swordfight any day!) there is a lesson here too. Aslan may be there and truth may be found, but nothing is certain unless the characters each take their place in the battle, risk danger, and sacrifice. To follow Aslan in the service of restoring the true Narnia is to spend oneself in a worthy cause. It's all reminiscent of the Apostle Paul's comparing the Christian life to an endurance race - only one who competes can get the prize.

I can scarcely imagine a more entertaining way to visualize Biblical truths.

450 People Fell In Love With Rosemary Today

Our church recently sent a team of 5 to Sudan with Sudan Evangelical Alliance Partners. This morning we focused our worship service on their long anticipated report. The timing worked out perfectly, as the Africa Director for SEA Partners, Rosemary Khamati, was able to join us too.
Though Rosemary is Kenyan she has worked to serve the people of neighboring Sudan for years. I first met Rosemary 7 years ago while she was working for a different organization, facilitating mission teams from the U.S. in Sudan. I worked with her extensively during the course of 5 such trips to Africa that I was privileged to take part in. During this time I came to know her as a person of focus, determination, and deep conviction. It was fun today to see 450 members of my church come to appreciate the same qualities in her as she shared her heart for the work in the little town of Boma, Sudan. (Rosemary is pictured left with children in Boma)
Though a fledgling organization, SEA Partners has an outstanding long-term vision to work itself out of a job in Boma. This is a breath of fresh air in the world of African relief and development, which frequently creates dependence on international handouts. This dependence keeps people alive today at the cost of their future, and their dignity.
In contrast, everything SEA Partners does is integrated and designed to train people to take charge of their own future. They began with a school, which our church helped fund the construction of. There has never been a school in Boma, but now the next generation will be educated and equipped to rebuild their own community after decades of war. They are also working on health education, church leader training, drilling water wells, and teaching people how to grow their own food.
I am proud of the 5 members of Harvest Community Church who left jobs and families for 2 weeks to serve in Boma on our behalf. Their enthusiasm is spreading. I'm proud of the people in my church, who have enthusiastically embraced the challenge to make a difference in the world for Jesus. And I'm proud of my friend Rosemary, who continues to direct a complex work with a mix of humility, vision, partnership, and determination that inspires me.
I'm glad God has allowed friends like her to enter my family, and to impact my children. When the kids and I dropped her off this afternoon, they knew they were saying goodbye for at least a year. As we drove away Tommy teared up, and when I asked him what was wrong he emphatically stated, "I don't like goodbyes!" I don't either, bud.
But I do like people and experiences that stretch my family's perspective beyond our small little corner of the world. I'm excited to see what God will do in Boma through our church for years to come!

Rosemary with her 4 daughters Prudence, Amanda, Valerie, and Vanessa

Peet's Coffee + Esther Boley = A "Shot" In The Arm!

Peet's Coffee did it again - they made my day today. I had rationed my first month's winnings almost perfectly, running out just one day before the new shipment arrived. So I left the house this morning dejected and coffee-less. Thankfully my bride reminded me that I had a coupon for a free small coffee from Peet's, so off I went in pursuit of the elixir.

When I arrived I ordered a large coffee, paying the 30-cent difference between a small and a large, and was told I'd have to wait a couple minutes while a fresh batch brewed. I can always spare a minute for the freshest coffee possible, but a quick burst of customers left me waiting about 5 minutes. No big deal on my end, but to the conscientious employees of Peet's (which loves me, remember) it was a big deal. So I was handed another coupon for a free drink of any type or size on my next visit.

Somewhat taken aback, I staggered out to my man-rig and plopped my not-yet-coffeed carcass in the drivers seat. Then it hit me: I had spent a mere 30 cents, and for that I got 20 ounces of pure liquid joy AND a promise of more to come. Peet's always hooks me up!

Needless to say by the time I called Amy and told her the story I was in an outstanding mood. I then had to tell my co-worker Esther. You see, Esther became a dedicated Peet's convert shortly after I introduced her to the world's finest coffee, and she was one of the five recipients of free coffee when I won the contest. She too had run out and was eagerly awaiting her next shipment. So, feeling rather magnanimous, I gave her the free drink card I had just received and told her to go get a latte on me! Well, on Peet's. That made HER day.

Now some of my dear readers know Esther, but for the many who don't some explaining is in order. So let me describe Esther: Hmmm... thinking, thinking... well, she's... she's kind of like... oh never mind, I can't get it all into one post. Suffice it to say she refuses (deliberate choice on her part) to learn the meaning of words like "circumspect," "wall flower," or "bashful," and she's never met a stranger -- at least from her vantage point! So she not only waltzed into Peet's got her free latte, but she announced that she was a "collateral winner" of the contest at which time the entire store erupted in applause for her. Then somehow in the midst of all the bruhaha (I'm still not quite clear on how this happened) she managed to procure a good sized sample of a Peet's iced tea cooler! Only Esther could pull all this off with natural talent alone and no pre-planning.

I was so impressed with her story upon her victorious return to the office that I called Amy who agreed to meet Esther and I back at Peet's for a photo op with the fabulous people who had injected new life into several dreary Thursdays. What a way to start a day: Peet's coffee + Esther's... Esther-ness. Awesome!

L-R: Joel the applause instigator, my co-worker Esther, Megan the barista, and me with May's supply of coffee in a box!

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