Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Midweek Meditation: On Revelation (J.I. Packer)

"Christianity is the true worship and service of the true God, humankind's Creator and Redeemer. It is a religion that rests on revelation: nobody would know the truth about God, or be able to relate to Him in a personal way, had not God first acted to make Himself known. But God has so acted, and the sixty-six books of the Bible, thirty-nine written before Christ came and twenty-seven after, are together the record, interpretation, expression, and embodiment of His self-disclosure. God and godliness are the Bible's unity themes." (James Innell Packer, Concise Theology, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993, 3)

"What Scripture says, God says; for in a manner comparable only to the deeper mystery of the Incarnation, the Bible is fully human and fully divine. So in all its manifold contents - histories, prophecies, poems, songs, wisdom writings, sermons, statistics, letters, and whatever else - should be received as from God, and all that Bible writers teach should be revered as God's authoritative instruction. Christians should be grateful to God for the gift of his written Word, and conscientious in basing their faith and life entirely and exclusively upon it. Otherwise, we cannot ever honor or please Him as He calls us to do." (5)

Monday, January 16, 2017

BookPastor >> "Christianity and Chinese Culture" (Miika Ruokanen and Paulos Huang)

This review was first published at Panorama of a Book Saint on Feb 17th, 2012.


TITLE: Christianity and Chinese Culture
AUTHOR/EDITOR: Miika Ruokanen and Paulos Huang
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010, (384 pages).
ISBN: 978-08028-6556-4

This publication is a collection of conference materials presented during the 2003 Sino-Nordic conference with the same name as the title of this book. Prepared by scholars, theologians, Confucianists and Christian contributors, this volume attempts to bring the best of 'human-oriented Confucianism' and 'religious vitalism of Christianity.' It believes that Confucianism and Christianity needs each other. The former cannot deal with the deeper religious needs of the Chinese people. The latter needs a proper understanding and appreciation of Confucianism in order to be relevant and be appreciated in the Chinese culture. More importantly, it shows how the Chinese authorities are opening up to the benefits of religion, and that religion is 'not harmful to society.' Instead, there is much good that Christianity can bring about in the social wellbeing of China. This represents a great opportunity for Christians to work with the Chinese people to bring about mutual benefits.

It attempts to cover three broad areas. Part One looks back at the traditional frameworks of Confucianism and Christianity in China. Eight Chinese scholars present largely conciliatory papers that emphasize commonness, similarities, and compatibilities between the Chinese and the Western cultures. There are similarities like motivation for moral good works, recognition of some kind of evil and original sin, similar attributions to a Higher Being, and inter-religious dialogues. Frequently, the Chinese scholars point to the positive missionary example of Matteo Ricci, who himself embraced Confucian values and ethics. Interestingly, according to one scholar, Christianity seems to be more favourably accepted than other religions. One paper talks about the religious conversions of Lin Yutang. When Lin finds a conflict between Chinese culture, Taoism and Christianity, he chooses humanism and leaves Christianity. Thirty years later, after recognizing the flaws and limits of humanism, he returns to Christianity. One particularly interesting paper is how folk religions, pragmatism, secularism, rationalism, influences the attitudes of Chinese people toward Christianity. Chinese culture has been both an influence as well as a limit to the spread of orthodox Christianity.

Part Two comes back to the present state of how the Chinese people (or scholars) perceive Christianity. There is a strong sense of seeing Christianity from the eyes of Chinese culture, rather than vice versa. In other words, the scholars continue to find common ground through 'comprehensive theology' by locating a 'mean.' The premise is that the mean of Chinese culture, and the mean of Christianity will intersect. It is still very much a 'balanced' approach that resembles the Taoist yin-yang philosophy. One paper offers much food for thought. In The Contextualization of Chinese Christian Theology, Yang Huilin argues that Christianity can be contextualized through language immersion, through humanities studies, through research into the present faith communities, and an understanding of what atheism means. For the West, atheism is antagonistic. For the Chinese, atheism is more of an 'indifference.' In response, Western theologians like Thor Strandenaes point out the 'counter-culture' nature of Christian theology.Wang Xiaochao gives 5 misunderstandings of Christianity made by the academic circles in China; namely, 1) misunderstanding the origins of Christianity, 2) Misunderstanding the relationship between Christianity and Roman Empire; 3) Misunderstanding the link between Christianity and Western philosophy; 4) Misunderstanding Christianity and the events in the Middle Ages; 5) misunderstanding Christianity and modernism.  Dr Choong Chee Pang, former principal of Trinity Theological College in Singapore gives a dual response. On the one hand, he commends Xiaochao for his concise identification of the 5 misunderstandings. On the other hand, Choong says that any misunderstandings less than a biblical foundation, will remain very much a misunderstanding. This is particularly illuminating. One very down-to-earth paper deals with the practical difficulties of people living in China. With the rise of pluralism in churches, the rising rich-poor divide in society, the materialistic, pragmatic, secular society, the challenge for urban Chinese is to find a sense of spirituality. Gao Shining admits that Christians who have 'strong faith' can overcome these challenges. Those who are interested in political and social place of Christianity in China will appreciate Li Quiling's paper which touches upon how the Chinese view religion in society.

Part Three looks to the future challenges. Deng Fucun's paper explains why 'conservative theological thinking' may not work as well as the three-self patriotic church theology. The key point is that Chinese culture prefers a middle ground, and any theologies that push to any extremes will be rejected in Chinese society. Of all the three parts, this final part is perhaps the most challenging because it pushes fundamental Christianity to the borderline (even over the line) of compromising the faith, in favour of cultural relevance and acceptance. While the West grapples between Christ and Culture, as far as Christianity in China is concerned, there is another layer: Christ and China.

My Thoughts

I have three reactions when I read this volume. Firstly, it is one of disappointment because diplomacy seems to come first, critical scholarship that we are used to seeing in academic circles appears secondary. The bulk of the essays tends to prefer diplomatic tact over critical engagement with biblical principles. Intellectual vigour is perhaps subservient to the higher purpose of searching for common grounds. A majority of the scholars seem to prefer the positive messages, even claiming that Christianity is not as contradictory as many people have thought. At least the responses by the European and American scholars are a little more engaging with alternative, even opposing views. It seems like the Chinese scholars themselves tend to toe the middle ground normally, and if forced to choose, they will tend to interpret Christianity from the eyes of Chinese culture rather than from biblical grounds. It takes the Nordic responses to bring out the non-Chinese perspectives.

Secondly, the representations are lopsided toward European and Chinese scholarship. Out of the 33 contributors, only 2 are from North America. Considering North America as a major world player, it is unusual for a work like this to be limited to Chinese and Scandinavian circles. Thirdly, this book presents many windows to help Westerners understand Chinese culture a little more. This point is perhaps worth the price of the book.

All in all, in view of the lack of literature and materials on Chinese culture and Christianity in the English language, this book is a welcome addition. In order to garner a wider acceptance, such sino-Christian studies need to be more global in outlook, and the interactions need to have a greater degree of biblical foundations. What about the Chinese diaspora? What about the re-integration of Chinese scholars trained in the West? What about Western expatriates or missionaries working in China?

My main critique of this book is basically this. The contents do not exactly reflect 'Christianity and the Chinese Culture.' I feel that a more accurate title is, "Christianity seen through the eyes of Chinese Culture." There is a place for diplomacy and tact. However, for any work to be academically rigourous, deeper critical scholarship and more alternative views are needed. Perhaps, the reserved manner of scholarship from the Chinese contingent is in itself a picture of how the Chinese approach life.

Ratings: 3.75 stars of 5.


Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Midweek Meditation: On Theology (J.I. Packer)

"Theology is first the activity of thinking and speaking about God (theologizing), and second the product of that activity (Luther's theology, or Wesley's, or Finney's, or Wimber's, or Packer's, or whoever's). As an activity, theology is a cat's cradle of interrelated though distinct disciplines: elucidating texts (exegesis), synthesizing what they say on the things they deal with (biblical theology), seeing how the faith was stated in the past (historical theology), formulating it for today (systematic theology), finding its implications for conduct (ethics), commending and defending it as truth and wisdom (apologetics), defining the Christian task in the world (missiology), stockpiling resources for life in Christ (spirituality), and corporate worship (liturgy), and exploring ministry (practical theology)." (James Innell Packer, Concise Theology, Wheaton, IL: Tyndale, 1993, xi-xii)

"Remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ called those he wanted fed sheep rather than giraffes, I have aimed to keep things as simple as possible. . . As I often tell my students, theology is for doxology and devotion - that is, the praise of God and the practice of godliness. It should therefore be presented in a way that brings awareness of the divine presence. Theology is at its healthiest when it is consciously under the eye of the God of whom it speaks, and when it is singing to his glory." (xii)

Monday, January 09, 2017

BookPastor >> "How to Read the Bible in Changing Times" (Mark L. Strauss)

This review was first published on Jan 14th, 2012 at Panorama of a Book Saint.


TITLE: How to Read the Bible in Changing Times: Understanding and Applying God's Word Today
AUTHOR: Mark L. Strauss
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011, (278 pages).

This book is one of the clearest and helpful guides to laypersons wanting to learn how to interpret the Bible. Beginning with a humourous rendition of some extreme literal reading, Strauss plays a few roles in the writing of this book. As a Bible tour guide, he shows readers the various genre terrains in both the new and old testaments. He provides the highlights of Scripture as well as themes. As a gentle teacher, he shows readers how to read and how not to read Scripture. He shares his key Heart of God hermeneutic which is essentially entering the story of God and with neighbours, learning the ways of God and living out the biblical principles through fellowship and witness to the world. All of these are done through the empowering Holy Spirit.

As a scholar, Strauss weaves in many different perspectives of Bible reading. He details the various genres and themes in both the Old and New Testaments. He talks about the different levels of bible interpretation, the various criterion of understanding, and also the three hermeneutical frameworks. He crafts out four general questions that help us understand and apply God's word today.

  1. What is the passage saying in the light of the whole Bible?
  2. What is the author's contexts, purpose, and place in the light of the historical, literary, or genre?
  3. How does the passage inform our understanding of God and the world?
  4. How does the passage teach us to be (attitudes and character) and to do (actions and goals)?

What I like about this book is the clear manner in which difficult topics are dealt with. Apart from the point by point explanations, the author uses lots of Bible references and examples to demonstrate the use of the texts. Strauss generally adopts a 3-point framework. He first states a perspective. Secondly, he explains it in simple terms and examples. Thirdly, he provides an application. These things are hallmarks of a good teacher. The last chapter, "Where Cultures Collide" is certainly worth expanding on.  My critique is that this chapter is too short.

If you are a keen Bible reader, this book will enhance your Bible reading. If you are a student, this book is a must have in your personal book shelves. If you are a Bible teacher, you will love this book and use this book in any introductory level book on hermeneutics. If you are always wondering how to apply ancient texts to modern contexts, this book is an essential read.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


Wednesday, January 04, 2017

Midweek Meditation: Kenyan Prayer

"From the cowardice that dare not face new truth,
From the laziness that is contented with half-truth,
From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth,
Good Lord, deliver us." (Kenyan Prayer)

Monday, January 02, 2017

BookPastor >> "Pastors in the Classics" (Leland Ryken, Rhilip Ryken, Todd Wilson)

This review was first published on Jan 30th, 2012 at Panorama of a Book Saint.


TITLE: Pastors in the Classics: Timeless Lessons on Life and Ministry from World Literature
AUTHOR: Leland Ryken, Philip Ryken and Todd Wilson.
PUBLISHER: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2012, (192 pages).

This book teaches us to read literary works, with a special focus on learning the portrait of pastors, leaders, and the pastoral calling. Written in two parts, it is different from a typical non-fiction book in the sense that it shows rather than tells us what to do.The authors gently remind us that literary works are firstly to be understood as a presentation of a human experience. This keeps readers patiently mindful and emotionally ready to shake hands with the text. Secondly, literary texts are for readers to appreciate the authors' interpretation of that experience. This enables readers to embrace the author's understanding like a warm hug. Whether the reader agrees or not is another matter. Understanding is key. Thirdly, it is for the enjoyment of the many creative literary techniques, forms, and beauty. This helps readers to look with the original authors, interpreters, and all, to look in the same direction to appreciate life as a whole.

Part One is the major section of the book, drawing a sharp portrait of the pastoral life through 12 classic works. It lists some essential information like author's background, date published, era concerned, book length, setting, and plot overviews. What is helpful is the description of the characters played out. The unique value of this book is the way the authors sieve out the implications for pastors, leaders, and the pastoral ministry, through themes and insights for leadership.  For example, in "The Scarlet Letter," the Rykens summarizes the book with the words, "Hidden Sin and Its Consequences" while at the same time describes the themes of sin, shame, revenge, punishment, salvation, and forgiveness. It is a 'negative example' that can be used to facilitate a life more aware of the potency of sin. There is also the 'positive example' of perseverance in spite of great suffering. In 'Cry, the Beloved Country,' suffering is seen not as something to be despised and hated, but to be endured for sanctified service. Each chapter ends with a pertinent 'reflection or discussion' section that drives home the theme for application. The questions turns a fictional work into a very personal application, for a non-fictional world.

Part Two is like the section of minors, that bring together 58 short reflections and summaries of literary works. The subheadings of each chapter basically condenses the learning points in one short quip. It does not go into similar depth like the 12 works in Part One. Instead, it points readers with handles to appreciate the texts from a ministry and minister perspective. It looks very much like an extended annotated bibliography of books, much like Eugene Peterson's "Take and Read - Spiritual Reading: An Annotated List." Some of the notable works include "The Poisonwood Bible," "Les Miserables," "Father Brown," "The Brothers Karamazov," and even two of Jane Austen's novels!

Closing Thoughts

Even though many of the works are fictional, the experiences and the emotional ups and downs are real and authentic. It shows us the deep struggles and inner angsts of people in the pastoral vocation. There are many things in ministry that cannot be explained through words, or even stories. Some experiences need the help of good literary devices in order to do justice to the nuances of the emotions.

In a world of modern bookstores packed with story books like Chicken Soup series or all kinds of short stories that aim to inspire or create feel-good emotions, books like Pastors in the Classics, go much deeper, wider, and I dare say, richer. Just the table of contents and introduction pages are worth the price of the book. The literary beauty and brilliance that Pastors in the Classics contains reminds us all over again, that good books are hard to come by. Once they do pass by, read it, for we may not know when we will get another chance to read another good book.

This book is a collectable item for leaders, pastors, ministry workers, teachers, students, and all readers wanting to have a  great literary experience.

Ratings: 5 stars of 5.


"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc. Available at your favourite bookseller from Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group".

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Midweek Meditation: "A Prayer of Erin Lane"

Almighty God,

You created us that we might live in you. 
You rescued us from sin and death,

And made us alive with Christ,

Joined to him as our head 
And to one another as his body. 

Yet we move through the world as if we were alone, 
Forgetting that we are joined to Christ, 

That our life is found in him.

Thinking that we can know and love the Lord
Apart from the fellowship of the Church.
And so our schedules and anxieties swirl around our own 
Self-evaluation and opportunities 

Instead of your call to the Church. 

When we do gather with your people,
We do not bear with one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. 
Instead we interact with each other out of fear. 

We allow differences in personality or age,
Culture or education, to obscure the unity of the Spirit.
We fail to believe that you have given gifts to everyone to build up your Church. 

So we envy the talents of others.
We deny your generosity toward us,
Focused on self-doubt rather than grateful service.
And so we fail to see your goodness to the least among us, 
Accustomed to division

And immaturity in your Church,

Instead of seeking to grow up in your love. 

Forgive us, Lord, for sins that divide us 
From one another

And from you.

Grow us up into the knowledge of your Son 
And in submission to him. 


(Erin S. Lane, Lessons in Belonging, IVP, 2016, p167-8)

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