Sunday, June 28, 2015

Book Review: Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now

Heretic: Why Islam Needs a Reformation Now
Author Ayaan Hirsi Ali purports Islam needs to undergo Reformation because, contrary to what some claim, Islam is not a religion of peace. She sees Muslims as divided into three groups: Medina Muslims, who commit violent acts; Mecca Muslims, who live by the Qur’an but do not practice violence; and Modifying Muslims who, like herself, are working to adapt their faith to life in the modern world (although they are considered heretics for promoting such nontraditional views).

Hirsi Ali grew up a Muslim in a variety of locations that varied in stance toward faith and practice. She now leads study groups dealing with this topic at Harvard Kennedy School and has developed five “theses” she hopes might lead to change:  

1. Allow the Qur’an be open to interpretation. 
2. Emphasize this life, rather than the glory of the afterlife. 
3. End sharia laws. 
4. End the practice of “commanding right, forbidding wrong.” 
5. Abandon the call to jihad.

Chapter by chapter, Hirsi Ali elaborates on these facets of Islam. She writes, “Multiculturalism should not mean that we tolerate another culture’s intolerance.” Weaving her own story throughout the book makes for interesting reading. She fled to the Netherlands in 1992 and has become globally known as an award-winning human rights activist. Founder of AHA Foundation, Hirsi Ali was chosen by Time Magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Heretic includes an Appendix of “Muslim Dissidents and Reformers” and an extensive section of notes.

This book gave me a much better understanding of ISIS, Al-Qaedi, Boka Haran and other groups of their ilk, whose goal, according to Hirsi Ali, is to rule the world. She sees Islam as the root problem behind their aggression and has herself been targeted for speaking out. Heretic is an important read to understand the stories behind today’s headlines.   

Book Review: Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus: How the Jewish Words of Jesus Can Change Your Life

Walking in the Dust of Rabbi Jesus by Lois Tverberg

As in her previous book, Sitting at the Feet of Rabbi Jesus (which I reviewed May 7), author Lois Tverberg believes that understanding the culture of the ancient world is critical to interpreting and applying the Bible to our own lives. For instance, while we may puzzle over phrases such as “the kingdom of God has arrived,” Jewish people would have understood that to proclaim the kingdom was in fact announcing the expected Messiah had arrived.

The title of the book refers to the fact that disciples of a rabbi were encouraged to walk so closely by him as they traveled the dusty roads of Israel that they literally walked in his dust. They didn't want to miss a word he said. And they not only walked with him, they lived with him as “apprentices,” observing and absorbing the fabric of his faith and life.

Did you know that Jesus’ reply to the lawyer who inquired about the greatest commandment began with the first line of the “Shema,” passages of scripture that were repeated twice daily to remind the Jewish people of their commitment to God? The entire Shema is included in the book’s back matter. And Jesus’ subsequent statement to love your neighbor comes straight from Leviticus.

I found it fascinating to learn that Jews saw biblical commands as “teaching” rather than “law” and eagerly studied. Each chapter ends with questions to apply the teaching to your own life. And the book concludes with extensive notes, a glossary, recommended resources, a scripture index and a general index.

This book will be an important addition to your library because it equips you to read the Bible with fresh eyes, open to truths you may have previously overlooked. Tverberg writes in an easy, understandable style. She has been writing and teaching about the Jewish background of Christianity for 15 years and cofounded the En-Gedi Resource Center, which seeks to deepen Christian understanding of the Bible in its cultural context. Her website is

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Book Review: Wonder

Wonder by R. J. Palacio

If you love story, you’ll enjoy this novel written from the perspective of a boy with a major facial deformity. The book opens with August facing fifth grade, his first year of public school after being homeschooled. Of course the thought of facing the scrutiny of peers throws him into a panic, and he digs in his heels. A thoughtful principal asks a few classmates to support August in the venture, and before you know it, you’ve entered Auggie’s world. You view it not only through his eyes, but also through the eyes of his big sister and his classmates, who line up for and ag’in him. It’s funny. It’s sad. It’s touching. And it’s real. You gather what Auggie looks like from the reactions of others. Of course there are all the complexities of relationships and middle school shenanigans that go with them.

Wonder is a #1 New York Times bestseller. I enjoyed the book because, even though it’s fiction, you gain the perspective of those who suffer abnormalities, and we all benefit from such insight. I can’t say much more without giving away too much of the story. But it’s an easy read, a fun read and a read that will help you look at those different from you with fresh eyes.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Book Review: When Jesus Came to Harvard: Making Moral Choices Today

For 15 years, author Harvey Cox designed and taught a course intended to make Jesus relevant to Harvard students. That course became so popular that classes had to move to a theater setting. His premise: Jesus was a rabbi and needs to be understood against the backdrop of Jewish law and the day's religious practices; however Jesus’ life and message continues to be relevant.

According to Cox, Jesus style of teaching was similar to that of other rabbis. They responded to questions with anecdotes or with other questions designed to make people think. People are generally more motivated by storytelling than by stated principles, hence Jesus emphasis on parables.

I did not agree with Cox’s position on some biblical points. He de-emphasizes the virgin birth, preferring to stress “the divine fatherhood.” He justifies his approach by saying the virgin birth is difficult for modern students to grasp. He takes some of Jesus’ stories as meant for his time, rather than to be taken literally. He asserts Jesus’ temptation is really about which leadership style he will chose. I did not understand that connection.

But I learned a great deal reading this thought-provoking book. For instance, Cox states that the Sermon on the Mount is meant to guide people living in community under the reign of God. He points out analogies Jesus makes, such as calling followers “light of the world,” which Cox sees as a calculated mockery of Rome, since Cicero described Rome as “the light of the whole world.” Cox views Palm Sunday as a political move—a display of nonviolent rebellion, since it involved a public entry into the seat of established authority.

Cox has little time for dispensational theology, such as that described in the Left Behind series. He devotes a chapter to Jesus’ words from the cross, “For they know not what they do,” and ponders the complexity behind the phrase.

For some years, Cox wrote, he did not teach about the resurrection of Christ because he wasn’t sure of his own opinion. But he finally sees it as God’s victory of life over death, good over evil. He admits uncertainty about his view of the Second Coming and considers whether it might mean simply an appearing of one who has been here all along.

The book is a worthwhile read because it challenges you to think through what you believe. Where do you agree with the author? Where do you disagree? His conversations with students and their reactions to his teaching shed light on the mindset of people today. As Cox relates world events such as the torture of Jesus to the torture of prisoners today, students (and readers) grapple with moral issues.

Cox’s discussion sessions pushed students to articulate positions and examine convictions. By discussing everything from medical procedures to ecology, from genetics to death and dying, from conflict to medical procedures, Cox challenges readers to do likewise. Notes and an index conclude the book.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Looking Through the Kaleidoscope of Life

As a child, I loved playing with a kaleidoscope. When I peeked through the hole at the end of the tube—wow—what an intricate pattern of gorgeous colors! And even more amazing, with every turn of the tube, new patterns emerged. The kaleidoscope was a treasured toy that in my day amused both adults and kids alike. We always carefully put it away in a writing desk drawer after use.

In many ways life is like a kaleidoscope. Today was a gorgeous day, so I sat out back to eat lunch. I had been working on a sewing project, even though I had not sewn a garment in decades. But it was going well, and I felt pleased, happy, content with life. In fact, as my mind contemplated challenges of the past, I did my best to thank God for them because they stretched me and strengthened me in many ways. Hurtful remarks made me wrestle with who I was in God’s sight. Unfair treatment challenged me to rise above a situation. God uses the worst of circumstances to bring out the best in our human nature—if we look to him.

Now, of course, when our eyes are dimmed with tears, it’s hard to see beauty within the kaleidoscope. I admit, I’ve often missed it for days, months and even years. But patience is the key. In James 1:2 we read: “Consider it pure joy . . . whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.”

Like the kaleidoscope, each snapshot of life offers a unique beauty all its own. As we point that toy toward the light--the light of Christ--and turn that tube, colors brighten and surprising things happen. It is no secret, what God can do. Those song lyrics were popular about the time I was playing with the kaleidoscope, and the message is timeless.

Can you see something good that came out of a past challenge? Thank God that He saw you through it. And if it’s not too personal, share a note so others may be encouraged.

Enjoy the journey.