Sunday, August 14, 2016

‘Life-Changing Magic: A Journal: Spark Joy Every Day’ (Book Review)

It didn’t “spark joy.” That’s why I’m marking the one-month anniversary of using my KonMari journal by throwing it away. At first I thought it would be a great way to record my progress in decluttering my living space and getting on track with my life. Instead, writing in it became a tedious chore I sought to avoid. Don’t misunderstand me. I love to journal. However, used to free writing as much as I wanted on whatever days I wanted, I now found my thoughts reduced to daily short snippets, forced to conform to one-third of a page in a small book. Rather than being inspired, I felt constrained by the pre-allotted space and trapped into a long-term investment by the three-year format. Add to that some rather dull and repetitive quotes. On a whole, it’s not apparent that the author put any real effort into the product. Of all the journals I’ve ever purchased, this one was definitely the least gratifying. I enjoyed Marie Kondo’s real books and still do, but this purchase was a big disappointment.

Saturday, May 14, 2016

‘A Lady’s Pocketbook Ministry’ (Book Review)

If you’re going to illustrate godly principles using a material good, why not use a purse? After all, it’s one thing that is almost universal among American women today, regardless of age, race, and class. Each item found in a typical handbag then could represent a virtue sought after, a discipline to attain, or a lesson to be learned. This is exactly what Barbara J. Barnes must have had in mind when she wrote A Lady’s Pocketbook Ministry (Westbow, 2015).

The author is a former missionary and member of the Pleasant Grove Church of Christ (Inverness, FL). The book is a brief study guide, sorted into thirteen chapters and complete with prompts for discussion, organized for a typical women’s Bible class. Admittedly, I’ve generally not been impressed with self-published books, but I gave this one a chance because someone, who personally knows the author, recommended it to me. During my read, I found the content a little disorganized and the “worksheet” questions a little too basic, but the main problem was its outdatedness.

Right off, the title tells us something’s amiss. Not only does the use of “ministry” make it sound like a service is being provided, but the terms “lady” and “pocketbook” harken back to a “black and white” era. The items chosen also seem to fit the past more than the present: a Bible, set of keys, family photo album, friends photo album, small pendant watch, eye glasses, pen and paper, crocheted cross, bookmark, medication, coins, and mirror. These are too generation-specific to make effective illustrations. I would even argue that they are too person-specific because the list even leaves out another universal symbol of womanhood: lipstick, something that no “lady” with a “pocketbook” would’ve ever been without.

If the author had asked my opinion before taking the manuscript to print, I would’ve suggested to keep the keys and mirror and to reconsider everything else: No Bible. (That’s cheating.) No crocheted cross. (Too many CofC readers will cry “Catholic!” and throw the book away.) Cash or a debit card instead of coins, which are more of a nuisance today than anything else. “Pain killer,” which would still conjure up images of “medication” in the minds of older women but also “Motrin” in the minds of younger ones. Eyeglasses paired with contacts. Lip balm or lip gloss. And of course, a phone. Every reader, whether in her teens or in her eighties, can identify with a phone, even if they are one of the few who don’t have one.

Again, I think that the author’s idea has merit. The theme oozes with the kind of cuteness that attracts many women to Bible studies. Unfortunately, I don’t see a lot of leaders actually selecting it for their women’s groups. There’s just nothing to maintain interest in their younger members. For that reason, I can’t recommend this book.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

‘Learning to Speak Life: Fruit of the Spirit’ (Book Review)

While many parents might wish to incorporate regular family devotionals into their day, few generally make a long-term success of it. Time constraints and changing priorities are usually blamed, but probably more often than we realize, the real culprit is the study content itself. Varying ages, attention spans, and levels of biblical understanding create a challenge for already over-worked moms and dads. Having ready-made resources available would certainly ease the burden, and that’s what Michael and Carlie Kercheval have provided with their Learning to Speak Life series.

The first study guide, Fruit of the Spirit (2013), takes the familiar Galatians 5:22-23 passage and provides lessons covering each of the nine virtues listed by Paul. Each lesson has a relevant Bible verse to memorize, prompts to define each “fruit,” confessions to recite, role play guidelines, “Silly Sayings” (i.e., tongue twisters), a short story showing the virtue in action, discussion questions, family project ideas, a sample prayer, and a “Digging Deeper” section to encourage more study.

While it might look like a lot of content, there’s not much that I think is really usable. The heart of each lesson lies in the role play and short story sections, and unfortunately both felt like they were thrown together without much thought about what lessons they’re supposed to promote. Also, the “confessions” made me uneasy. I’m not a fan of teaching by catechism, and it struck me as a bit presumptuous of the authors to compose such statements.

When it comes to engagement, the lessons need even more help. The “Silly Sayings” are poorly written in an unamusing sort of way. The copywork would be better labeled as “busywork,” a half-hearted attempt to provide something for the kids to do. And “digging deeper” just means looking up additional Bible verses linked by the key words. I would’ve preferred to see coloring and word game pages, ideas for journaling, art project instructions, song lists, and practical applications and solid research prompts for teens and older children.

Yes, the LSL curriculum is flexible enough to be easily molded to fit the unique needs of your family, but I’m not sure that’s a positive selling point in this case. Parents would buy the guide primarily to have something ready-made. In addition to the weaknesses mentioned above, the content is unapologetically targeted at preschool to early grades. Families with older children will have to supplement a lot, raising the question of whether this premade study is worth the bother. Teachers, however, focus on specific age groups and generally plan on supplementing their lesson materials. So I can see the guide’s potential for use in Sunday School, Vacation Bible School (VBS), and children’s Bible classes at Christian elementary schools.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Lost Anonymity or Will Fitbit Change My Life?

Casual Runner by  Chris Hunkeler (Flickr)
Yesterday, a relative sent me a friend invite on Fitbit. I didn’t even know you could have friends on Fitbit. To be honest, I hadn’t looked closely at the fitness app’s features, just opening it up once and awhile to log too many calories and not enough exercise. (I don’t have one of the tracker devices.)

Unlike being “discovered” on other social media, this was a little disconcerting. Sure, Fitbit doesn’t report personal information like your target weight and such, just the number of steps logged, badges earned, and friends. But still…It’s not like connecting on Facebook. It’s more like connecting on Yelp – You shop there? – but then some. Do I really want people to know I’m working towards some goal…and haven’t gotten anywhere near obtaining it?

On the other hand, maybe that’s why it’s been so easy to get off course. Without accountability, without positive support, it’s very difficult to achieve goals in life, whether they involve advancing your education, pursuing a new career, or finding a new relationship. I know that from personal experience.

Maybe the Fitbit friend invite was a sign – a sign that in order to actually make progress on my diet and exercise, I need to connect with others, rather than running a lone race. Maybe what I’ve needed all this time was some motivation. Fitbit might only report positive achievements, but silence will speak volumes. Maybe I’ll finally get off my chair and get a tracker. It can’t hurt…much.

And yes, I did accept the friend request.

Friday, February 26, 2016

‘A Doctor in the House: My Life with Ben Carson’ (Book Review)

There are books that make for some really tiresome reads, and Candy Carson’s A Doctor in the House: My Life with Ben Carson (Sentinel, 2016) needs to be added to the list. The author, wife of famed neurosurgeon Ben Carson, can’t mask her unspoken intent of garnering support for her husband’s shot at becoming the next President of the United States. But rather than providing an insider’s perspective of the man’s life, with all its ups and downs, Carson appears to subscribe to the belief that, during a job interview, it’s best to recast one’s weaknesses – and even mundaneness – as strengths.

From the very first page to the last, the doctor is genius and a miracle worker. And when there’s anything that might be construed as otherwise, Carson is quick to put a positive spin on it. The doctor is a calm and cool “hero” when he steps aside to let a robber hold up a fast-food joint. He “comes through” for her when he catches the baby and placenta during an emergency homebirth and then sends her off to find something with which to clamp the umbilical cord. I could go on, but I’ve got a headache.

The point is that it’s rather boring to read two hundred pages of a doting wife’s…doting. Yes, the doctor has been a vanguard in neuroscience, and that’s amazing. But I think most readers are interested in reading about a real person, not a constructed flawless superhuman. My only recommendation is to leave Candy Carson’s book to its proper place. Her grandchildren can cherish it as a hodgepodge collection of stories about their grandparents’ lives, accompanied by written endorsements from their colleagues and children. Future (real) biographers can use it as a source of information probably not available elsewhere. To everyone else I recommend leaving it on the self.


Disclaimer: I received an advanced copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on GoodReads.com. There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

‘How to Choose a Translation’ (Online Course Review)

Holy Bible by Freaktography (Flickr)
For the average Christian who hasn’t the time, money, desire, or prerequisite learning to pursue a formal education in biblical studies or theology, there is an array of websites offering introductory courses on a variety of subjects. They vary considerably in price as well as in the quality of their content, often depending on the credentials of the developers or lack thereof. I have tried out courses on a number of platforms, but usually got bored before finishing them. For a while BiblicalTraining.org was the exception, but now I can add ZondervanAcademic.com to the list.

ZondervanAcademic.com offers a few courses, including Old Testament and New Testament surveys and classes on Biblical Hebrew and Greek. Recently, it announced a free one-unit course titled How to Choose a Translation, covering some basic information about textual criticism, approaches to Bible translation, and the history of Bibles in English. I decided to try out, my first time using that platform.

The course begins with a 15-minute lecture by author J. Scott Duvall, Professor of New Testament at Ouachita Baptist University, followed by some reading material that covers the video content with some additional detail. A Cerego application offers a flash-card like game to test your memory on key facts from the lesson. Short essay questions allow you to think deeper about the ideas presented. (Your responses are even saved and available for reference in the My Grades section after you’ve completed the course, although no comments on them are provided.) Wrapping the course up is a 10-question multiple-choice assessment. The whole thing can be completed easily in a couple of hours.

Since Zondervan is known for publishing the New International Version (NIV) and the New King James Version (NKJV), you might be concerned about the course’s bias. That turned out not to be an issue. I thought the content was balanced, not designed to push the student into buying any particular translation. (I don’t feel as though my English Standard Version (ESV) was being slighted in the least.) This also carried over in how the short essay questions were worded. They tended to ask the student’s opinion about things rather than assuming he or she actually holds particular views, such as the Bible being divinely inspired. This makes the course a bit more accessible for members of different churches as well as nonbelievers. It also shows the careful thought put into designing the course, as leading questions are definitely a mark of sloppiness.

If I were to name the course’s downside, it would be the fact that its content was wholly basic, more than it needed to be. For example, there’s no discussion about the content differences among manuscript text-types, something which is often a big concern for Bible shoppers. It would’ve also been helpful to have examples of the translation approaches at work, so that their differences are made obvious to the student. However, despite these imperfections, I still think the course is worth a look-over, especially considering the price. The short answer questions made me think more deeply about how I view translations, something which I think can be a real benefit for any student, regardless of prior familiarity with the topic.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

‘The 100 Ways Grandma Killed Me’ (Book Review)

Every generation goes through a cycle of thinking they know better than their parents and then getting annoyed when their own children think that they know better than them. This is especially true when it comes to childrearing, as scientific advancements and long-term studies result in more and more questioning of traditionally-held beliefs and practices relating to child health and psychology. A new grandparent is likely to feel hurt, annoyed, or even angry to learn that her grown child thinks that her parenting methods are outdated and perhaps harmful to the grandchild she loves. Add in a grandparent’s tendency not to be so much of a protective “parent” but rather someone who indulges and spoils the child, and there’s certain to be conflict.

One grandmother, Lucy Silver, has obviously tried to defend her actions by writing The 100 Ways Grandma Killed Me (CreateSpace, 2014), a short picture storybook about a little girl’s enjoyment of all the things her grandmother does, much to the displeasure of her parents. Grandma feeds her with a bottle made in China, gives her junkfood galore, and lets her play in activities that excite and injure her.

The underlying message seems to be, “Grandma is fun, and Mom and Dad are bores,” but sadly, it is the book that is likely to bore. 100 Ways suffers from the lack of a clear storyline and awkward poetry. The CGI-animated illustrations, created by Christina Cartwright, I just found unappealing. While this sort of book might cheer up a grandparent who feels her advice is a bit unwelcome, I don’t think the average parent will appreciate it or the average child will identify with it. (Thinking about my own grandmothers, I certainly couldn’t.) I think that a story that pitted two grandmother’s cultures and parenting styles against each other – with the child learning to love both, of course – would’ve made a more enjoyable book for the entire family. (And less offensive to the parents.) Considering Silver’s own reference to celebrating both Chanukah and Christmas, I think that would’ve worked for her own grandchildren too.


Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on GoodReads.com. There was no obligation to write a review.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

‘Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave’ (Book Review)

I remember reading about Shyima Hall in the news: a girl kept as a family slave, literally right under everyone’s nose. It’s one thing to hear about such things happening. It’s quite another to have it so close to home. (She was in Irvine in Orange County. I was living in Tustin, an adjacent city, during the time.) Some years later, when I heard about her memoir, Hidden Girl: The True Story of a Modern-Day Child Slave (Simon & Schuster, 2014), I was eager to have a chance to read her side of the story.

The book begins with Shyima’s younger years in Egypt, her family plagued with financial difficulties. While the author doesn’t excuse her parents handing her over to work for another family, the book does show the reader why they probably felt they had no other choice. Kept as a slave, eight-year-old Shyima tolerated substandard living arrangements, received no education, and had no time for herself. It was work day and night. She kept track of time passed by the birthdays of her owners’ children.

When her owners decided to move to the United States, they went to a lot of trouble to make sure Shyima joined them. Shyima’s life of slavery continued over here, until someone dropped an anonymous tip about the suspicious girl to the police. Now free, Shyima’s struggles didn’t end. She faced court trials, foster family drama, and the struggle of trying to find her place in a very different culture. But in the end, you can see that she’s happy and optimistic about life and eager to educate the American public about the modern-day slave trafficking problem.

Hidden Girl is a great book, taking its reader through a whole range of emotions. Cowriter Lisa Wysocky did an excellent job keeping a very foreign and little girlish voice to the narrative. And it was encouraging for me to learn that the Orangewood Children’s Home (with which my old church had been involved) played a positive role in helping her. The book is good evidence that – even though there’s a lot of social and economic issues abroad – there are real problems here at home that need our attention too.


Wednesday, January 27, 2016

‘A Girl’s Guide to Moving On’ (Book Review)

Middle-aged Leanne has put up with her husband’s cheating for so long that she’s forgotten what it was like to be loved in her younger days. She’s content, however, to continue the charade her marriage has become, that is until she realizes the price of her silence. Her son has followed in his father’s footsteps, disregarding his own marriage vows. Leanne, now fearful that her grandson too will grow up thinking that cheating is acceptable, informs her daughter-in-law Nicole of the infidelity; and both women promptly begin divorce proceedings. Offering each other support and encouragement through the process, they eventually learn how to “move on,” coping with financial changes and finding new love.

Only the last line above refers to the actual plot of Debbie Macomber’s  A Girl’s Guide to Moving On (Ballantine, 2016). The rest is merely backstory, which if it had been included, I think would have made a more exciting book. Instead the reader is treated to two overly clichéd romances. Both women are supposed to be “classy” but fail to show it. Both ex-husbands try to manipulate our heroines’ lives (rather than basking in their newfound freedom, go figure). Both new love interests are overly stereotyped – one a manly tow-truck driver (who punches things when angry), and the other a sensitive European (who gets unreasonably jealous). Both plots are left seriously underdeveloped because of the space taken switching back and forth from Leanne’s perspective to Nicole’s.

I liked the close relationship the author shows between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. I also like Leanne’s personal growth as she learns how to forgive her ex-husband. But I finished the book wishing for more substance. A Girl’s Guide to Moving On might work if you’re looking for something mundane to read in bed before dozing off or while waiting for your kid to get out of soccer practice. Otherwise, I recommend giving it a pass.

Disclaimer: I received an advanced reading copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on GoodReads.com. There was no obligation to write a review.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Engraving Heavenly Truths – Survey of the New Testament

In an effort to standardize our children’s Bible class curriculum here at Alhambra Church of Christ, our unofficial minister of children’s education purchased the Engraving Heavenly Truths Series, put out by D. L. Woods Publications, that came highly recommended by another congregation. The EHT Series is a four-year systematic study of the Bible and Church doctrines, designed for flexible use with any age group.

The curriculum is really bare bones. The foundation is actually a flashcard packet of “facts” to memorize (like a catechism) and a booklet containing content outlines with some additional details and verses. The wording is designed to be consistent with the Authorized Version of the Bible (called the King James Version) and its modern update, the New King James Version (NKJV). There are some supplemental materials available, but most of the responsibility for creating the lesson and suitable activities rests with the teacher. This explains why the writers suggest devoting the previous quarter to course preparation.

Right now, our children are working on EHT-1, Survey of the Old Testament with another teacher, and I’ll be heading up EHT-2, Survey of the New Testament during the second quarter, beginning in April. (Our year begins in January, not September like most congregations.) As I’m preparing over the next couple of months and then teaching, I’ll be blogging my thoughts about the curriculum. I hope that these upcoming blog posts are informative for my readers, especially those who might be considering using EHT.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

‘Fallen: Out of the Sex Industry and Into the Arms of the Savior’ (Book Review)

As a little girl, Annie Lobert longed for love and acceptance. Instead she learned that she was worthless in the eyes of others, from her emotionally abusive father to the men she met at bars and clubs, who thought nothing of drugging and raping her. Anxious to gain control over her life, she turned to “high-class prostitution,” making some serious money. But what she thought would be a short-term job (to save up for school, of course) soon turned into a terrifying form of slavery.

If you’re looking for something to read this Human Trafficking Awareness Month (or anytime really), consider Fallen: Out of the Sex Industry and Into the Arms of the Savior (Worthy, 2015). Part testimonial, part memoir, this book tells the heartbreaking story of Annie Lobert’s experience working as an “escort” in Hawaii, Las Vegas, and her home state Minnesota. While a life of expensive jewelry, handbags, and cars might appear glamourous to some, Lobert reveals the darker side of being a sex worker, including the toxic relationship between her and her pimp. Now free from that life, the founder of Hookers for Jesus devotes her time to reaching out to other prostitutes and raising public awareness.

Despite its heavy topic, Fallen is a quick read. I attribute this to the fact that the story didn’t grip me the way similar ones have. Perhaps this is due to the author’s style of writing. Lobert doesn’t allow the events of the story to unfold naturally. For example, we learn of her eventual reconciliation with her father when she’s first trying to explain her troubling childhood, instead of later in the book. Hindsight influences her comments about being used and manipulated by lovers, clients, her escort agency, and her pimp. And we don’t get to see how her miscarriages and clinical abortions affected her while she was a prostitute because she doesn’t mention them until the end, when discussing how difficult it was to forgive herself. The end result is a lack of a clear picture of how Lobert finally became aware of her situation, decided to get out for good, and came to convert to charismatic Christianity.

I appreciate Lobert opening up about her past. It’s not easy for anyone to do. I also appreciate her willingness to speak frankly about the sex industry, when many under-informed people promote it in the name of freedom and many Christians prefer to turn a blind eye to its victims in the name of upholding decency. While there is always room for improvement, Fallen is an important book in the growing number of resources addressing this social problem. For that reason, I think it deserves your consideration.

Monday, January 4, 2016

‘Unsung Heroes (and a Few Villains)’ Bible Study (Book Review)

At a conference early last year (2015), a speaker recommended Wanda Robinson’s Unsung Heroes (and a Few Villains): A Women’s Study of Lesser-Known Men in the Old Testament (Gospel Advocate, 2015). I decided not to judge the book by its messy title and bought a copy. Unfortunately, that book recommendation was probably better left ignored.

The study guide contains thirteen chapters, each centered on some of the relatively minor roles found in the Bible: Ishmael, Hur, Ithamar, Caleb, Korah, Achan, Boaz, Nabal’s servant, the 450 prophets of Baal, Gehazi, the man who touched Elisha’s bones, King Manasseh, and Ebed-Melech. The author notes some key lessons the reader can learn along with some questions for group discussion.

While I liked the overall idea and appreciated some of the insights offered, I was overwhelmingly disappointed with the book. There’s enough commentary in the Bible on some characters like Caleb and Boaz to draw some conclusions. However, featuring others like Hur and Ebed-Melech just led to a lot of unfounded speculation. The bitter truth is that the Bible just doesn’t give enough information about many individuals for us to undertake a worthwhile character analysis. Imaginative elaborations might work for fictionalized stories and feature films, but pretending that certain case studies exist when they don’t isn’t helpful for a Bible study, especially a grown-ups’ one.

The other thing that bothered me was the factual errors. This not only calls into question the author’s competence, but also that of the editor. Robinson confuses the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. (No, Babylon was never the Assyrian capital.) She claims that Ishmael was a slave because of his mother’s status. (No, this wasn’t colonial Virginia.) And she repeats a really silly story about Zulus catching ring-tailed monkeys with melons. (It’s ring-tailed lemurs. And what those Zulus were doing in Madagascar, I don’t know.) Clearly, the author never did her research, and this is the age of Google.

Needless to say, I can’t pass on the recommendation. In many churches, women’s education is sadly neglected, but books like this one don’t improve the situation. We don’t need more authors who take passages out of context or repeat a story as true because it makes a desired point. We don’t need more authors who cite one verse in six different Bible versions when Strong’s Concordance will just tell you that na‛ar can mean both “servant” and “young man.” Instead, we need authors who will fact-check, authors who will bring the content up a notch. And we need ruthless editors, who will send manuscripts back for revision until they’re truly ready for publication.