Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Little Pilgrim's Progress - Helen Taylor

Little Pilgrim's Progress is a rewritten, illustrated version of Pilgrim's Progress and Christiana for kids.  In this version, Christian is a "Little Pilgrim" who is close friends with a little girl named Christiana who has several little siblings. Christian goes out on his pilgrimage first, and meets with various characters similar to the original Pilgrim's Progress, though some of them have been changed to be boys instead of men.  Christiana goes on her pilgrimage later on in the book with her siblings, where they also encounter Christian's father who has become a Christian and is also journeying to the Celestial City.   

There are two things that I had trouble with regarding this book and this is that first of all Christian's mother, who had gone to the Celestial City before him, is focused upon too much, she is portrayed as if she is watching, and possibly even helping him on his pilgrimage.  Speaking of Christian's mother, one character tells him, "you will find her again, little Christian…And do you know that she often very near to you?  You cannot see her, but she can see you." It took away some of the focus that should belong to God alone as Helper and Protector. We don't want children looking to their dead relatives for help, they should rely upon God!  And then when Christian arrives in the Celestial city and meets his mother he seems more focused upon her than upon the King: "'Does the King live there?' whispered Christian to his mother, for his hand was still clasped in hers.  'Yes,' she replied, 'and when you have knelt before Him and seen His glory, you will be perfectly happy forever.'  'I am happy now,' said little Christian, 'because I have found you, and you love me.'   'Ah yes,' she answered, 'but the love the King is far greater than mine.'" That just seemed very odd…instead of assuming that Christian had learned to love the King above everyone else (especially now that he is in 'Heaven', he loves his mother seemingly above everybody else and has a desire to be with her more than with the King.  It almost makes it seem as though Christian became a 'Christian' only because he wanted to be with his mother! This would be something to talk to children about if they read this book or you read it to them. 

Secondly, I thought that many of the theological dialogues were too dumbed down, and too much was cut out that could have been rendered into language understandable by children, such as the various  Scripture quotations that are cited in the original Pilgrim's Progress.   I could have understood  why the book was written the way it was if the book were for very little children but the back cover says that it is for 8-12 year olds.  Also, I found it odd that though many of the dialogues were very watered down many of the difficult names were left unchanged, such as Diffidence, By-Ends, and Discretion.  Why weren't those simplified as well?   

 But overall I liked the book. Aside from moments like what I mentioned above, most of Christian's focus does seem to be on seeing the King. I did very much like the change of the Monster Apollyon's name to a monster called 'Self'.  Which results in some interesting dialogue, like Christian saying to Self after Self tries to woo him, "The King loves me better than you do, and I would rather live with Him."  And of course Self gets angry with Christian and declares that Christian is his own servant, not the King's, and Self and Christian end up in a big fight with each other. 

All in all it is an interesting read that kept my attention throughout, even when Christiana began her journey and travelled through many of the same places Christian did.  There are many interesting concepts to discuss with children and as I said above, it would be good to talk to children about the flaws of the book as well.

Many thanks to Moody Publishers for sending me a complimentary copy of this book to review (My review did not have to be favorable).

You may purchase this book from Christian Book Distributors and other bookstores.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Short Answers to Big Questions about God, the Bible and Christianity - by Clinton E. Arnold and Jeff Arnold

Short Answers to Big Questions about God, the Bible and Christianity by Clinton E. Arnold and Jeff is just what its title declares it to be, it is an endeavor to answer, in only a few pages, many questions new Christians, or unbelievers, have about God, the Bible or Christianity.  The book is not as good as I had hoped it would be.  My main problem with it is its presentation of the relationship/interaction between God and mankind. 

 First, its discussions of the love of God toward people are presented too much like the modern concept of "falling in love", an uncontrolled, "couldn't help it" type of thing.  Here are a few quotes to demonstrate what I mean:  "God isn't just loving, he is love……And he isn't just a loving person 'in theory'; he literally, at this very moment, is aware of his deep love for you. "and, "he loves you because he created  you…If  you have a child,  you have felt this love before; you don't love your child because of what they've accomplished; you love them because they are your child.  This is how God sees you. …"  I don't remember anywhere in the Bible where God's love is declared to have been bestowed on us simply because we are His creations.  God created Satan too but He doesn't love him even though he is His creation. "The problem of sin created a serious dilemma for God…It is his nature to hate sin….yet he earnestly wants a relationship with his people…..", "In his perfect purity, holiness, and righteousness, God is deeply offended by our sin.  Yet he longs to have a close relationship with us.  Since he cannot simply overlook our offenses, he devised a merciful and loving plan to deal with this problem…"  To me, this makes God's love come across as a human loving a pitiable sickly little child, but God's love isn't generally presented that way (unless you count the picture of God's love towards Israel, but even then, it was His choice), it's more like God choosing to love a corpse, or a zombie…those dead in their sins and yet using their decaying faculties to rage against God and His attributes and desires. God CHOSE to have pity on us, God CHOSE to love us detestable creatures, creatures who naturally choose to despise Him and His laws in favor of their own selves and desires.  He chose to make us New Creations, breathing spiritual life into us. 

Second, in answering the question "Why Bad things happen to good people", part of the explanation is given like this, "God gave us the free will to make our own decisions.  Without this freedom, we would be unable to truly love God - or each other, for that matter; we would simply be robots following commands.  So when we ask how an all-powerful God could allow someone else to wrong us, the problem with what we're asking is that God's power has nothing to do with it;….God could, if he wished, end all pain on this earth right now.  He could step in and directly control everyone's actions, thoughts, and feelings in order to keep anyone from doing anything that causes harm.  But imagine the cost:  an entire world full of people who move around like puppets, never saying or doing anything that wasn't controlled for them.  No one wants that." So will we be robots in Heaven, not able to choose evil?  When God makes us into New Creations, Christians, does that make us puppets?  Is it really more loving for God to let a person choose to make choices that will lead to condemnation for eternity than it is for Him to change their dispositions to desire the right and accept Him so that they will live in the New Heaven and the New earth for eternity?  That logic doesn't come from the Bible.  That logic doesn't even make sense when it comes to parents with their children, it would not be loving for a parent to let their child slap their brothers and sisters around and then also give them the option to choose to stick their finger into a light-socket.  The loving thing to do would be to stop them from doing both of those things, not giving them a choice in the matter, even if they aren't happy in the process of being stopped.  "…without this freedom, we would be unable to truly love God.." really? Where does the Bible say that?  True love comes from God (see 1 John), it doesn't originate with human beings.  God defines love, and we learn in the Bible that true love is selfless.  So to rephrase the above statement, "Without the freedom to be selfish, we wouldn't be able to truly be selfless?"  As you can see, I don't believe that question about why bad things happen to good people was answered biblically in this book. 

Things like the above really bothered me.  This is not to say that there weren't good things in the book, there were.  I just don't think that this book would necessarily be the best to give an unbeliever or an immature Christian because some of the answers given do not match up with what the Bible says.  I really liked their section on why we don't always sense the presence of God. That chapter contains many statements that I really like, actually, I think they're excellent! So I'll end on a positive note with my favorite excerpt from the book:
Soon after I stopped feeling this intense love and presence of God, I started grasping for things that normally brought that passion back.  I would drive almost an hour away to find churches with great worship bands and speakers……I knew on some level that there was something off about the way I was approaching this, but I felt like I needed to do whatever it took to get that feeling back.  And then one day it struck me:  my faith had stopped being about God and had become about how I felt.  That was really selfish of me.  It shouldn't have mattered how I felt if I trusted that God was real.  At that point the best thing for someone like me was to remove those feelings so that my faith would once again become about God, not myself. ….the end result was that I began learning how  to center my life around God with or without the feelings that I once had…….To make Christianity purely about feelings is to make it about ourselves rather than God.  God doesn't promise to constantly flood us with intense emotion…From the earliest days of the church, Christians have based their closeness to God on theology - on what they knew about God from Scripture - rather than feelings.  Many of the first Christians shed blood for believing in God.  If anyone had the right to feel distant from God, wouldn’t it be the people suffering for his sake? Instead, the early disciples rejoiced at the chance to suffer for Christ (Acts 5:41)."

I received a free review copy of this book from the Baker Books Blogger Program and my review did not have to be favorable.


Monday, October 5, 2015

The Carols of Christmas - Andrew Gant

The Carols of Christmas by Andrew Gant goes through various popular carols of Christmas and tells some of their intricate, and often confusing, history.  You may not come out of the book wiser than when you started it about who wrote such and such a carol but Gant himself warns of this in the intro:  "…if you occasionally get to the end of a chapter in this book slightly unsure about who wrote words or tunes or bits of either, me too…." Apparently we don't know exactly who wrote some of the songs, and many of them were revised from their original written form. 

One of the histories I found particularly interesting was that of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, originally Hark How all the Welkin Rings' by Charles Wesley.  Apparently George Whitefield was one of the people who revised the song, one of the verses he changed was "universal nature say 'Christ the Lord is born today!'" to "With th'Angelic hosts proclaim, Christ is born in Bethlehem!'"  I found it interesting that Mendelssohn, the man who composed the music that was eventually used for the words, didn't think that the tune was fit for religious songs and that it would "never do for sacred words.  There must be a national and merry subject found out…" Nowadays it would be hard for me to picture it put to secular words!

Gant's style of writing is a bit confusing at times, he strikes me as trying too hard to be casual, which doesn't always flow very well in my opinion. Also some of his statements were a bit weird, for instance, his comment, "the most potent force in the shaping of human destinies: luck", and then again, when speaking of the original lines of Wesley's hymn, cited above, "universal nature say…" he declares that , "…there is something gloriously inclusive, almost pantheistic…in Wesley's lines…much better than Whitefield's replacement." Statements like that seem a bit odd for a Christian to say.  There were several songs where I had wished that he would have dealt more with the history of the wording and meaning of the words  but he focused on the development/ evolution of the commonly used tune (or tunes) for the carol instead.

All in all it was a bit confusing, and I think it could have been written a lot better than it is, but it did have interesting tidbits of carol history in it, and the cover is pretty and feels neat!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the BookLook blogging program in exchange for my review, which did not have to be favorable. 

I rate this book at 3 out of 5 stars.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Happiness - By Randy Alcorn

God commands His people to be happy and therefore being 'happy' is a matter of obedience for Christians. Such is the argument of Randy Alcorn's newest book "Happiness".  It seems that he has encountered a lot of Christians who seem to think, or imply, that happiness is sin and that God's purpose is for us to be holy, not happy.  He declares that the oft cited difference between happiness and joy is in reality a nonexistent difference, that the terms are so alike in meaning they are synonymous.  "The distinction between joy and happiness is not biblical".   

He critiques the view that 'joy' is more 'contentment' without reference to the emotions, while 'happiness' is primarily circumstantial and emotional.  He makes a case that the word "joy" is also emotional in meaning.  He also believes that "happy" is the better term to use in the case of many of the Greek and Hebrew words translated in many Bibles as "blessed".  Perhaps the term "blessed" isn't the best term to express the actual meaning behind the original words, but is "happy" truly the best?    I don't deny that the words do, perhaps even often, denote 'joy' or 'happiness', but do those terms always express their primary meaning?  Alcorn quotes from dictionaries and lexicons to show that the definition of "happy" corresponds with aspects of the lexical definitions of the Greek and Hebrew terms. One of the elders at my church (also a biology teacher at a Christian school)  pointed out that the lexical meaning of a word is not necessarily the common usage/evolution of the word.  He used the word 'gay' for example: the dictionary still includes 'happy' as one of the definitions, but nowadays, to use the term in reference to happiness would be unwise as its primary usage in our society refers to homosexuals.

 So, when Mr. Alcorn makes statements like, "God threatens terrible things if we will not be happy" and "A Gospel that promotes holiness over happiness isn't good news. " and, "our happiness is a measure of our obedience"  what picture does that convey? When I think of "happy" I picture an emotion ,a beaming face, a person in a state where they are prone to laugh merrily.  I suspect that others may have the same idea of 'happiness'.  Am I sinning if I am not in a jolly state?  Am I disobeying God when I am simply content with His will and am in a serious, not a merry, condition of mind? What if I changed the quotes above using a synonym for happy, "Our merriness is a measure of our obedience",  "A Gospel that promotes holiness over jolliness isn't good news."  This is along the lines of what Mr. Alcorn's statements imply to me.   

Again, maybe he is right and "blessed" isn't the best English word to use to translate words like 'makarios', but are the words 'happy' and 'joyful' the best ones to use?  For instance in the beatitudes, is the best translation truly, "happy are the poor in spirit…" or would expressions like  "content", 'favored by God' or 'fortunate', fit better?   

Alcorn says that, "Maybe by defining joy as unemotional, positional, or transcendental, we can justify our unhappiness in spite of God's command to rejoice always in him" But is having the 'happiness' emotion to be our primary goal?  Or can we admire and be in awe of God without having a feeling of merriment or jocularity? Can't one serve God without being jolly and yet not be sad? "…feelings are not the entirety of joy, but since God's joy involves his emotions, shouldn't our joy involve ours?"  Alcorn asks. Maybe this is the case, but does the emotion have to be "happiness" or can it be emotions of "awe", "contentment", "peace", or can it be an action of the mind/thought processes like focusing on God's will and submitting to it, loving others, praying to God, or even weeping with those who weep? But  does delighting and rejoicing in the Lord always take the form of great emotional happiness?  I'm sincerely asking these questions, not just using them as counters to Alcorn's arguments.

Alcorn seems to think that a major problem among Christians today is that they are against happiness.  Maybe the ones he knows of are, but the ones that I know of aren't.  Actually, I've thought that a major problem amongst Churches has been the focus upon drumming up emotions and feelings, like happiness, over and above seriously trying to be intent upon learning and doing what God says.   The statement is made in the book that the word happiness has been, "a bridge between the church and the world - one we can't afford to burn".  Alcorn makes a great case that Christians should be happy in the Lord, and that true happiness can only be found in Him and doing His will. But Happiness, even happiness in the Lord, isn't the beginning of wisdom, rather, "The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom".  Our witnessing to bring others to Christ will not, and should not (I think) always be presented as an offer of happiness, but rather out of our reverence for the Lord, we may witness by warning of His judgement:  "having known, therefore, the fear(not the happiness) of the Lord, we persuade men…"(2Co 5:11 ASV). " And our motivation in serving the Lord will not always be our emotional happiness in Him: Having therefore these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all defilement of flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God. "(2Co 7:1 ASV) Not, "perfecting holiness in the happiness you have in God". 

 I am NOT against Christians being happy, I just don't see the biblical proof that we're necessarily sinning if we are not in that particular state.  If he had presented it from the standpoint of the many reasons Christians have to be happy in the Lord and used material that he has presented in sections of this book like, "Ways to Cultivate Happiness", "Happiness Comes From Meditating on God's Word," and "Happiness Through Confession, Repentance and Forgiveness." I would have liked it much better.   A lot, and I truly mean a LOT, of good points were made in this book, I just didn't like how Alcorn presented the concept of happiness as an obligatory state for Christians to be in, and I wasn't convinced of the exegetical necessity for all of the Greek and Hebrew words dealt with in the book as needing to be translated as 'happy'. 

Many thanks to Tyndale House Publishers for sending me a complimentary review copy of this book (My review did not have to be favorable)