Review of The Character Builder’s Bible: 60 Character-Building Stories from the Bible by Agnes and Salem de Bezenac

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Genre: Children’s Story Bible

Recommended.

Our family has several favorite children’s Bibles that we rotate through, and this is the one my kids are currently most excited about. The illustrations are perfect for young children, and the stories are simple enough that my seven-year-old can easily read them, and the perfect length to keep my five-year old’s attention.

Each Bible story is connected to a positive attribute (diligence, honesty, service, praise) or theme (peer pressure, salvation, Easter, Holy Spirit). The first two-page spread of each story includes a full-page illustration and concise biblical narrative, and the following two-pages provide the definition of the character trait or theme and a comic-style layout showing how the theme is relevant to children in daily life.

For instance, the story of Samuel hearing God’s voice is connected with “attentiveness,” with the everyday life illustration showing how to set aside quiet devotional time to hear God. The story of the friends carrying the paralyzed man to receive healing from Jesus emphasizes “friendship,” with the real life illustration portraying four examples of healthy friendship. And the story of Zacchaeus demonstrates an example of repentance: feeling sorry, asking for forgiveness, attempting to make it right, not repeating the wrong.

Some of the stories could be better connected with their theme, but have nevertheless provided opportunities for family discussion. Also, the emphasis of this book is on character-building through Bible stories, so this is probably not the best “Bible” for readers desiring a cohesive narrative of Scripture. Although there is a strong evangelical focus, with the basic details of the Gospel message presented in impressive directness and simplicity.

I most love the discussions that have come out of this book, especially of the various character traits. I also appreciate how it introduces new vocabulary, and enjoy that 43% of the stories (26 out of 60) come from the New Testament, as our family tends to spend more time in the Hebrew Bible.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale Kids.

 

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Review of Keeping Faith in an Age of Reason by Jason Lisle

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Genre: Apologetics/Bible Resource

Recommended.

This is an excellent resource for addressing areas of confusion or criticism within the Bible.

Lisle begins by introducing common fallacies, then works through 420 alleged contradictions to show where Bible critics have faltered in their logic, and how the Scriptures in question actually fit together.

The biblical “contradictions” are arranged in thematic sections: Quantitative Differences, Names, Places, and Genealogies, Timing of Events, Cause and Effect, Differences in Details, and Yes or No Questions. It is also easy to search for specific chapters of the Bible, using the Scripture Index in the back.

A wide range of passages and concerns are addressed, ranging from details one might not consider (e.g. #49: For how much did David buy the threshing floor?, or #186: To whom were the cities of Exhtaol and Zoreah given?), to larger theological concerns (e.g. #185: Is circumcision required?, or #329: Is God the creator of evil?). Although many of the contradictions could be addressed more thoroughly (and to include theological variances within the Christian perspective), I really appreciate the succinctness and clarity of each point, and the focus on thinking through the logic of each criticism. The practice of critical thinking–both within and outside of one’s own perspective–is essential to having a strong foundation of faith; and this text allows readers to practice this skill.

Teens and adults who want to have a stronger grasp of apologetics will find this a helpful guide in affirming and defending their faith.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Master Books.

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Review of the 10 Minute Bible Journey by Dale Mason

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Genre: Family Devotional Bible

Highly Recommended!

I’ve been asked several times recently whether I have a favorite Bible devotional for homeschooling, and can tell that this is going to be our new favorite. It goes through the Bible from Creation to “Forever” in 52 stories of the biblical accounts, plus an additional 8 bonus sections on select topics, and a 2.5 foot fold-out timeline.

Each devotional can be realistically completed within 10 minutes (I timed myself reading a few of them, with an average of about 6 minutes each in my “mom” voice). They also include enough depth and detail to draw out into an extended conversation if preferred.

I most love: 1) the fantastic illustrations, 2) the Creationist/apologetics perspective, which even includes commentary on related issues such as the Ice Age, 3) the narrations and details within each story line (date ranges based on Ussher’s calculations, ages of characters at the times of each event, etc.) bring the accounts to life, 4) the historical chronology is thoroughly presented, even including the division of the Kingdom of Israel, 400 years of silence, and other stories that are often omitted from children’s Bibles like Isaiah’s ministry in the nude, King Josiah’s reign, and the stoning of Stephen, 5) controversial areas of theology such as the charismatic gifts, and eschatological perspectives are neutrally presented–everything follows the Bible pretty closely without adding to the story, and 6) reading the Bible itself is encouraged with a plan of daily Scripture reading, as well as footnotes for further study, and suggestions for using this devotional within a small group environment (including discussion questions).

I do have minor constructive feedback from a Messianic Jewish perspective: I do not love the word “convert” as used in the account of “The Conversion of Saul,” considering that his spiritual revelation opened him up to a born again experience, but not a new religion. He was more in line with the intentions of Judaism after recognizing Jesus as Messiah than beforehand in his legalism. Similarly, there is a negative widespread implication regarding the Pharisees. However, Paul considers himself a “Pharisee” even after becoming a Christian (Acts 23:6, Phil. 3:5), so the Pharisees are not “bad” in and of themselves, rather it was their hypocrisy and legalism that were problematic, leading them away from recognizing the Lord, rather than toward Him.

Overall, I’m very excited about this resource! You can find it at Master Books.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from New Leaf Publishing.

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Review of Deep Under Cover by Jack Barsky

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Genre: Memoir

Recommended!

deep under coverDeep Under Cover is a very engaging memoir of an East German KGB agent who infiltrates the United States during the Cold War. The author details his early life in East Germany, his recruitment into the KGB, his complex personal relationships, his transformation into espionage and rebirth into the identity of American Jack Barsky, and eventually of the love that changed his world, drawing him toward a new physical and spiritual identity.

Jack’s story is both fascinating and touching. His perspective of each “side” during the Cold War is valuable. And it is clear throughout that the Lord continuously intervened on Jack’s behalf. He ends with focusing very directly on the mindset shift, which lead him into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. His encounter with the FBI is also particularly interesting.

It’s amazing Jack was able to share his story so openly, regardless of what details may be missing as per each mission. Definitely worth reading!

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale Momentum.

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Review of Invitation by Bill Myers, Frank Peretti, Angela Hunt, and Alton Gansky

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Genre: Supernatural Suspense/YA Fiction

Series: Harbingers, Cycle One

Loosely Recommended.

invitationThis first installment of the Harbinger series is made up of four novellas, each written by a different well-known Christian fiction author, and each from the point of view of a different character. The aim of the series is to write fast-paced, supernaturally quirky short stories that read like a TV series. While this is not necessarily “YA Fiction” it has a youthful appeal.

The four primary characters are: Brenda, a prophetic tattoo artist, Professor James McKinney, an atheist ex-priest, Tank, a soft-hearted football player with healing abilities, and Andi, a Jewish assistant to the professor, who loves patterns and numbers. These four are drawn together as unlikely friends to solve mysteries, use their gifts, and influence people.

These stories were a little strange for my taste, and I didn’t know what to make of them, despite enjoying the overall concept. Also, not all of the episodes had a clear resolution.

The first episode involves a cult-like school, where the characters are trying to save a student from being brainwashed. The second deals with a disappearing house that haunts people (creepiness ensues). The third involves a plague of eye-less dead animals. And the fourth centers around saving a girl from another dimension. For the most part, the episodes were strange, but not dark, thus appropriate for most Christian readers.

I didn’t really enjoy this, and probably will not continue reading the series, but I do think it could be enjoyable for an older teen with good discernment, who wants edgy Christian fiction.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House.

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The Music in Me Lives (Holocaust Poetry)

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In light of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day), I thought I would share this poem I wrote based on the life of Wladyslaw Szpilman as presented in his memoir The Pianist and accompanying film. It’s called “The Music in Me Lives” and speaks both to the miraculous survival of one man in the Holocaust, as well as to the themes of life, death, and detachment, and the place of art in guiding the soul through suffering–all of which are personal to me in my own journey.

Since this was a class project that I was not planning to share, my introduction addresses my classmates in the context of previous class discussions.

The poem itself begins right at the three minute mark; feel free to skip ahead (being in front of a camera is not my happy place).

If you are not familiar with this movie or book, there are major spoilers in my presentation.

 

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Review of The Returning by Rachelle Dekker

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Genre: Futuristic/Supernatural Christian Fiction/Sci-Fi

Series: A Seer Novel, Book 3

Not Recommended.

978-1-4964-0229-5Two decades have passed since the Seers fled the Authority City, with Remko and Carrington forced to leave their baby girl Elise behind. Now the Authority City is under the manufactured “peace” of a vaccine inhibiting memories and causing robotic submission to the authorities; yet Elise is immune, and is beginning to wake up to her identity as a Seer, as a supernatural shift is set in motion, with both sides gearing up for their inevitable confrontation.

I enjoyed the first two books of the series: The Choosing, and The Calling, even though I had a slight theological concern with each of them. In this final installment, the spiritual/theological aspect is much more prominent. I really like the theme of identity as a child of the Father’s, and how the inner struggle of light and darkness is portrayed. I also like the Seer’s process of learning to work together, and embracing their various supernatural gifts.

However, there is a stronger spiritual theme of finding one’s light within oneself that is not at all biblical, regardless of how many churches may embrace this form of religious syncretism. The Bible teaches that since sin was introduced into the world, humanity is born into sin, and then reborn in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus came to save the whole world; but we must receive his salvation in order to have the Holy Spirit inside of us. When an unbeliever looks into himself he will not find God, but must choose to receive God’s calling, and die to himself.

Dekker’s characters are entirely focused on the light within themselves, and in all things, as the source of their identity and power. As a result, when the characters suffer, they go within themselves and are entirely self focused in a transcendent chat of beliefs (in line with Eastern religions, New Age, or modern psychology despite the “Christianese” language) rather than suffering in the example of the Christian Apostles (or Jewish Patriarchs) by looking to God and sanctifying His name in the midst of affliction. Dekker’s spiritual metaphor is clear as she constantly quotes Scripture (often out of context). I cannot advocate this harmful theology, despite some of the other positive spiritual motifs.

I also felt that the story itself was not as strong as it could have been. While there were moments of internal and/or spiritual struggle, the intensity of the suffering and conflicts were too shallow and unrealistic, the characters too often had overly simplified solutions to every problem, and the novel overall felt predictable, shallow, and preachy (of its poor theology).

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale House Publishers.

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Review of Catching Heat by Janice Cantore

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Genre: Mystery/Crime Novel

Series: Cold Case Justice, Book 3

Not Recommended.

catching-heatDetective Abby Hart and PI Luke Murphy are sent to San Luis Obispo to work on the cold case of a murdered student, as well as a second case in finding a dangerous missing person. Meanwhile, Abby strives to find closure in the case of her parents’ death, investigating this personal case on the side.

This series should be read in order! Starting at book 3, the current cases were easy to follow, but the I felt lost with Abby’s personal “Triple Seven” case until near the end when the perpetrators gained a small role. I also had gaps with the characters’ histories and relationships. Consequently, the romance seemed like too much too soon, but likely had been built on in the other books.

I enjoyed reading this for the lighthearted romantic crime novel that it is (especially in the final suspenseful portions), but did not get as much out of it as I do some books. I really liked another of Janice Cantore’s books, so was expecting more. Overall this was a “mediocre” read for me–not bad, but also not memorable.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale. 

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Review of The Occupied by Craig Parshall

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Genre: Thriller/Supernatural

Series: Trevor Black, Book 1

Recommended.

theoccupied

Trevor Black is a high profile defense attorney until he is physically threatened by the demonic manifestation of one of his criminal clients. As his life falls apart around him, his developing gift of spiritual discernment (i.e. smelling and seeing demons) prevents him from continuing life-as-normal, and he begins to seek truth–both from God, and in unveiling the connection between multiple demonically-based crimes.

Trevor’s life is woven together through three parts: “The Flesh,” “The World,” and “The Devil,” progressing from his childhood/coming of age, to the shattering of his prestigious criminal defense career and marriage, then his return to his hometown to investigate the murder of his childhood friend, while connecting the physical and spiritual patterns of his life.

The narrative is true to its promise as a supernatural thriller, and is a quick read as a result of the suspense. There is mature content including sexuality, demonic manifestations, and heinous crimes involving Satanic occult rituals. Some of this was difficult for me, and I probably would not have chosen to read it had I realized the supernatural focus. But upon finishing the narrative I am left with a positive impression of how everything came together in such a revealing and honest manner, without exalting the sin or darkness, or detracting from the message of faith. It is well crafted, spiritually en pointe, introspective, engaging, and ultimately points toward hope in Jesus. It may also be enlightening for those drawn to horror, who have not considered the spiritual framework behind physical evils.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Tyndale.

 

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Review of The Domino Effect by Davis Bunn

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Genre: Contemporary Fiction/Suspense

Not Recommended.

dominoeffectEsther Larsen is a top risk analyst, and math prodigy, who notices alarming trends that will have devastating effects on the global economy if not stopped. In a parallel to the biblical heroine, she steps out to share her voice with the world, and prevent disaster–putting herself and those she loves at risk.

Esther is a very likable character, and immediately drew me into her story. She is strong, independent, refined, and logical, yet has the relatable introvertive challenges in processing her emotions, trusting a community of friends, and letting go of the past. There were several moments in Esther’s personal and professional life where I identified, connected with, and celebrated her achievements and character growth.

The global economic crisis was also set up to be suspenseful–initially. But the pace became much too slow about a third of the way into the novel, and it killed the suspense for me. The bad guys were not believable, or nearly wicked enough to create the needed tension and apprehension. And, while the details of the economic threat were interesting to me, the tone did not feel imminent.

I also found the end to be completely unmemorable–everything was too easily worked out; and I did not understand the point of a couple of the side stories, which did not tie together well for me. I needed more suspense, higher stakes, and more connections within the themes of the larger picture.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Bethany House.

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