Tuesday, June 27, 2017

NIV Kids’ Visual Study Bible

©2017 Zondervan, Grand Rapids

A Study Bible. For Kids. What a neat idea! I know that my children, raised in a Christian home, coming to know Christ as Savior at an early age, and now growing up in a society that no longer values the Bible as much as it did, say 40 years ago when I was a kid, and I have been looking for something that might be a good study tool for them as they come to a place where learning more about the Bible, its lives and times. Perhaps this new offering from the Zondervan publishing group might fit the ticket.

As a book for reference and study use, I would give the publishers fairly high marks for the physical construction of this Bible. It is a hardcover with pretty sturdy binding that includes a built-in place ribbon for marking one’s place when he/she puts the volume down. I can also say that the cover and the contents (“over 700 images inside!” boasts a colorful sticker on the front cover) are vibrant and eye-catching. While the pages aren’t the delicate and precious onion-skin type pages you might find in a high-end, leather-bound copy of the Scriptures, they are thin enough to keep the nearly 2000-page book from being unwieldy.

I think that it would be good to look at what this Bible claims about itself to help in assessing its usability for kids.

First of all as a Bible for kids. The question that comes to mind is, what age and reading level constitutes a “kid”? I would want to settle into the 9 – 12 age range (give or take a year or two), which would place the reader in the 4th – 6th grade reading level. Going with the NIV for the text of the book could be argued as a less than stellar decision because of the eighth-grade (estimate) reading level of that version. When you want to reach kids with a study resource, it might be better to use a more readable translation (although going with the third-grade level NIrV might be going a bit too shallow) when Americans often tend to top-out at the sixth-grade level.

The book also says right up front that it is “visual” and announces (albeit with a sticker) the presence of “over 700 images”. I did not take the time to count the images, but the book is packed with them. Some are photographs that illustrate the portion of the Scripture that they accompany. Other images are artists’ renderings. All of these are okay, and seem to be of really good quality, but the images that caught my eye are the charts, graphs, and visuals that give a thumbprint explanation of such things as the difference between the Jewish months/calendar and our modern understanding of the year. From time to time a margin will be dedicated to the “Life Line” of one of the biblical characters (such as Jacob, Moses, or Herod the Great).

Apart from the pictures scattered throughout the pages, what makes this a “study Bible”? Nearly every margin contains some quick and simple commentary on the Scriptures of that page. These comments are rarely more than a simple paragraph, but help in the understanding of the ways and words of the Bible. Also, each book of the Bible is preceded by a full-page background of the book: Who wrote it? Why was it written? What are the major themes? And so on, to help the reader get a better understanding of the book they are reading. At the back of this volume are a table of weights and measures to aid in comparing biblical amounts to modern equivalents, some obligatory maps (the Exodus, Paul’s missionary journeys, and the like), and a couple of indices to help find the “infographics” and maps scattered throughout the text. What’s missing is even a simple concordance to aid the reader in finding the passage(s) he/she wants to study.

Overall, I think this is an excellent effort to put “dig deeper” Scriptures into the hands of boys and girls. I would recommend it for children ages 10-13 (around 4th – 6th grade). At a cover price of $32.99 (US) it would be a good investment in the Christian growth of your child or grandchild. I would give the book 4 out of 5 reading glasses for doing a good job of achieving the publisher’s goals.

—Benjamin Potter June 27, 2017

[This book was provided free of charge by the publisher for purposes of this review. The opinions are my own.]

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Hello Stars – Alena Pitts (with Wynter Pitts)

©2017  Zonderkids, Grand Rapids

The author of this book is a young (very young) actress/model who got her start in the recent film War Room. She teams up with her mother to pen this book about a young girl who literally falls into an acting role.

In some respects, Hello Stars is fairly easy to categorize—it’s a book by a twelve-year-old girl writing about an eleven-year-old girl and what can happen if life takes a turn. Choosing to abide by the writer’s motto, “write what you know,” Alena tells a story that could be very similar to her own. Is it any wonder that the book is targeted to preteen girls? It is a book that brings faith to the forefront in both family and workplace settings. Even with all of this right up front, the book itself categorizes itself in a laundry list of titles: it is part of the “faithGirlz” books developed by Zondervan’s Zonderkids division; it proclaims on the cover that it is the first in the “Lena in the Spotlight” series (which advertises book 2, Day Dreams and Movie Screens, is available in bookstores and online). So, choose a category and settle in for a nice story.

The story, told from the voice of 11-year-old Lena Daniels, brings the reader into the heart and mind of a preteen girl. She has her special friends at school, she loves her family, and she would just die to meet her favorite singer, Mallory. When she prays that her video greeting to Mallory will win her an opportunity to spend time with the singer, she is convinced that it’s a flop. And then the call comes that Lena has been chosen to star opposite Mallory in an upcoming movie based on faith.

The book is a good read and will appeal to its target audience for a variety of reasons. It speaks in a voice that is familiar to them, it addresses topics and dreams that most (if not every) preteen girl is concerned with, and it bears a positive message about faith and God.

As with any book of this nature, and especially first outings for an author, the story does have some drawbacks. It will have limited appeal even among young female readers because it has a tendency to “preach” a lot. Not that the sermons are bad, but it may find its way only into the hands of girls of faith. The tone and message of the book will help this limited audience to grow in faith (just as the main character does), but if the desire is to reach an audience outside the Christian community, the authors and the publisher will find an uphill battle.

All in all, I’d have to give the book 4 out of 5 reading glasses for a really fun summer adventure offered by a first-time author. I did find myself enjoying the family I met in the pages of Hello Stars (almost to the point of checking out book 2) even if I’m not a preteen girl (I am the father of one, though).

—Benjamin Potter, June 22, 2017

(I received this book from the publisher for the express purposes of this review.)

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Not All Roads Lead to Heaven – Robert Jeffress

©2016 Baker Books, Grand Rapids

When I was a high school student I was part of the team. I did not play football, basketball, or baseball, but I was on the team—the speech and debate team. I will readily admit that I was neither exceptionally nor remotely gifted in the art of debate. In fact, at tournaments, I begged our debate coach to let me just participate in the speech events that I enjoyed. But alas, she always made me partner up with my buddy and lug our cases of cases and evidence into the debate room where we would participate in two to three rounds of debates usually being eliminated early.

As you can see, dear reader, I have not decided to make apologetics my life ambition. I’m just not going to go out of my way to get into a theological debate with someone. Even so, there are times when I find myself in a situation that requires me to bring an answer for my faith—and often the questions are difficult. What is a Christian to do when it comes time to stand up for faith? That’s where it helps to familiarize oneself with people who have a gift for defending the faith.

That is where Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of FirstBaptist Church in Dallas, Texas, and his recent book come in handy. Dr. Jeffress is no stranger to defending Christianity. He has been interviewed on countless occasions where faith matters arise. He has found himself on the debate stage with noted opponents to the Christian faith and shown well. And so he has written Not All Roads Lead to Heaven to help the average Christian understand and defend the doctrine of exclusivity (that Jesus Christ is the one and only doorway into eternal life).

Jeffress address some of the most often voiced objections to and questions about the claim of Christianity that Christ is the only answer to questions about salvation. He bases his answers to these tough questions in Scripture (both Old and New Testaments) and weaves his way through the maze of logic that has tripped many a Christ-follower. Some of the loudest objections [exclusivity is intolerant; what about someone who’s never heard about Jesus? What about little children?] with care, understanding, and a better response than the typical defensive sarcasm that touches the lips of many Christians. The author reminds the reader of a couple of important notes that should be remembered whenever we encounter someone who wants to question our faith: We are dealing with God and His ways, and God’s desire is to see as many people come to salvation as possible. If we are to find salvation, we must do it on the terms of the Author of salvation, though, and not what seems like a good idea at the time.

This book is a short, readable guide to answering questions that a Christian might have about how inclusive the gospel message is; a resource to approaching non-believers (both friends and acquaintances) who might take issue with the exclusive claims of Christianity; and a study to acquaint the believer with a stronger foundation as to how to approach the doctrine of salvation—after all, it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ (and only Jesus Christ).

I give this book 4.5 out of 5 reading glasses as at times it gets a little weighty, although Dr. Jeffress does an excellent job of keeping the complexity of the issue simple most of the time.

—Benjamin Potter, June 13, 2017

Saturday, June 10, 2017

The Money Challenge – Art Rainer

©2017  B&H Publishing Group, Nashville

According to the blurb on the back of the book, Art Rainer is the “vice president for Institutional Advancement at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He holds a Doctor of Business Administration from Nova Southeastern University and an MBA from the University of Kentucky.” What makes me want to read what Art has to write is more that he is the son of Thom Rainer, and I expect that what he has to say will be well-thought out and succinct. In relation to his degrees and position, I think that perhaps his subject matter is right down the alley of his education. That subject matter: money.

More than money, though this little 150-page book is about applying God’s design to your money in order to help you become a stronger follower of Jesus. It’s a book about the Christian’s use of the resources entrusted to him/her by the Maker and Master of his/her life. If you think that this is just another in a room full of already written, tried, and tested tomes about the subject of money management (or even stewardship) you’d miss the mark. Rainer seems to be more interested in helping Christians be better Christians than simply help Christians be richer Christians.

If you are interested in simply a stewardship or money-handling, pick up a book from Ron Blue or Dave Ramsey or the late Larry Burkett (all good Christian money management experts). Some of the money management principles they espouse are either used or expanded on here. So, what is it that Rainer is offering? I would personally label it discipleship. The springboard he uses to launch into Bible-based, full-out discipleship is one that is dearest to the heart of many Americans—the pocketbook.

The thirty days of discovery (part of the book’s subtitle) are woven into the three aspects of living the Christian life that turn money woes into money management and general living into genuine Christianity: give generously, save wisely, live appropriately. People, Rainer states, are designed to be generous. And through our generosity we find happiness. The reason we save is to be generous. The reason we get out of debt is to be generous. The reason we buy a house is to be generous (in the long run). Rainer also asserts that “living appropriately” is based in the idea of living within one’s means—not trying to keep up with the Joneses (whoever they may be) nor having the latest gadget.

What might draw the reader to this book as opposed to other money management books? Its brevity is a big plus. Rainer says as much in 150 pages as many gurus take 300 to disseminate. I also enjoyed the fictional example woven throughout the book, bringing a personality to both the person needing help and the mentor who presented her with the challenges (it never hurts to have an It’s a Wonderful Life allusion).

I would recommend this little book to Christians (both new and old), especially those who are struggling with financial matters. As with many books, producers may be interested in churches and small groups using this as a curriculum for small group study. I think it will have its best application as a one-to-one discipleship tool. In fact, I am making plans to use it to disciple my children as they reach the age of 14-17, as a tool for both discipleship and money management learning. It will be an invaluable tool for Christians desiring to find God’s design for them (and their money).

Five out of five reading glasses from me. For more information about the book, listen to this interview between Thom and Art Rainer (the publisher and author of the book). [#TheMoneyChallenge from @artrainer and @bhpub is available NOW at your favorite bookselling outlet.]

—Benjamin Potter June 10, 2017

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free from B&H Publishing Group for this review.]

Friday, June 2, 2017

Life After – Katie Ganshert

©2017  Waterbrook Press, New York

Life happens. That is the thread running through this fast-paced romance by Christy Award-Winning Katie Ganshert. I can attest to the fact that life happens as I sit down to write this review (three months late). May I whine just a bit? I started reading the book and was well on my way to finishing it when I slipped on the ice and broke my dominant wrist. So much for typing up the review when I finished reading the book. Then, as does for all ministry types like me, life happened some more. Things got busy at church, things got busy with the busy family, and then a major funeral happened. And so, here I am, three months later, and I have a little more thought into the book than I normally do. (Excuses over, now on to the review.)

 Not being familiar with Ganshert’s work, and desirous to see how my review would turn out, I checked out a copy of an Amish Christmas romance that was written with the contribution of Ganshert and others (Amish Christmas North Star, WaterBrook, 2015). What I found there (in Katie’s story from the book) was a moving story with well-developed, likable characters to push the story along. Consequently, I began to look forward with a little less trepidation to examining the latest book from this author unknown to me, in a genre normally not read by me.

Set in Chicago, the story starts off with a BANG when, well, life happens. On an icy, snowy day, a commuter train derails destroying lives and homes all over the city. Only one passenger survived. The book follows her story, as Autumn Manning comes to grips with her role in the “Tragedy on the Tracks” as the event is labeled in the media. While all her friends and family are trying to figure out why she is not happy, does not feel fortunate, that she didn’t die in the accident, Autumn is filled with regret, remorse, and guilt spurred on by the continually lingering question Why? All the while struggling with a lingering amnesia that her doctors and psychiatrists are hoping to help her move past.

In ensuing pages, Autumn finds her life entangled with the lives of the families of those who died in the tragedy, including Paul Elliot and his daughters. Originally thinking that his wife is the lone survivor, Elliot arrives at the hospital to find a stranger in his wife’s bed.

Ganshert develops the main characters well, but some of the supporting parts are played by people we just don’t want to like, even when we want to like them. Perhaps it is the role they play (Autumn’s former boyfriend who shows back up to help with a memorial that Autumn finds herself not only entangled in but in charge of, for instance—you’ll need to read the book to get the whole story, otherwise I’d have to spoiler alert you).

The story has everything that a romance reader is looking for: likable characters, plot twists, semi-steamy love scenes, emotional conflict, and perfect resolution (the right guy gets the right girl and all is well in the end). For someone who rarely reads romances, I was pleasantly surprised. I’ll give Life After 4 out of 5 reading glasses.
—Benjamin Potter August 31, 2012

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.]

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