February 23, 2015

The Bible from Scratch

When Saint Mary’s Press kindly sent me a review copy of the Catholic edition of The Bible from Scratch: A lightning tour from Genesis to Revelation by Simon Jenkins, I could see I was in for a fun read. Some readers might wonder “What’s this?” which is exactly what the opening text addresses, saying:

“The Bible’s characters themselves weren’t shy about using different methods of communication to get across what they had to say. Jeremiah smashed crockery. Ezekiel performed weird, one-man plays. David sang songs. Nathan told a trick story. Jesus talked in pictures.”

In that same spirit of getting people’s attention so they’ll actually listen, the book has youth in mind in this “beginner’s guide to the Good Book, something to help readers start their own explorations in the Bible.” After reading it myself, however, I think that any teen or adult, who doesn’t know their chapters from their verses, would do well to let this lively little book provide a guide.

To give readers an overview of the inspired word of God, one section takes you “Around the Bible in 30 days” and “introduces 30 significant Bible passages that will take you quickly from Genesis to Revelation.”

After that month-long challenge, the “Intro to the Old Testament” encourages Christians to read the whole Bible and not just parts. As the text says, “if we don’t read the Old Testament, then we miss out on a lot. Sticking to the New Testament and ignoring the Old is like walking into a movie when the film is two-thirds of the way through.”

Besides “a great deal of humor, tragedy and some startling encounters with God,” the Old Testament shows us “people arguing with God, wrestling with God, haggling with God, trying to get the best deal from God; people who struggle and will not let go of God – and a God who in turn will not let go of them.”

In addition to touching on interesting stories, poetry, and prophesies in the Bible, the book provides timelines of the Kings of Israel and Judah, quick sketches of Bible characters, brief summaries of each book, and a recap of what went on in the times between the testaments.

Then, the “Intro to the New Testament” defines its four sections as focused on:

 Jesus (Matthew to John)
 The Church (Acts)
 Letters (Romans to Jude)
 The End (Revelation)

With profuse use of cartoon drawings, silly sidebars, and overall good humor, the book presents sense instead of non-sense and gets serious as needed too. In discussing “epistles by apostles,” for example, the text explains that “Most of them were written to fix the big problems facing the young churches. The letters are full of details about real people and situations – and yet they also speak to us today.” Written by "people on the move," the letters (aka epistles) continue to help us:

 combat wrong ideas (Galatians, Colossians)
 tackle crises in the churches (1 & 2 Corinthians)
 explain important teaching (Romans, Hebrews)
 encourage Christians under pressure (1 Peter)
 make a personal appeal (Philemon, 3 John)

As “The End” comes, the author emphasizes the “classy ending” in the “cast of (literally) thousands, choirs of saints and angels, a pitched battle between the forces of light and darkness, a smoldering lake of fire for the wicked and paradise regained for the righteous.” More important than all that, “the Bible begins and ends with God and with the promise that the human story, despite its chapters of suffering and despair, will have the ultimate happy ending.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

The Bible from Scratch: A lightning tour from Genesis to Revelation, Catholic Edition, paperback

February 12, 2015

Resources from Catholic, Protestant, and Evangelical Christian publishers

What a blessing to receive review copies of a variety of Bible resources! Three Christian publishers sent new releases for me to review without knowing I would have one from a Protestant book publisher, one from a Catholic book publisher, and one from an Evangelical press at the same time – an ecumenical delight!

First, Saint Mary’s Press kindly sent a review copy of Living in Christ: The Bible, The Living Word of God by Robert Rabe, Editor Steven McGlaun, and a publishing team, who obtained church approval as shown by the nihil obstat and imprimatur.

This sturdy paperback with slick photos and an eye-appealing layout offers an excellent resource for Christians from most denominational backgrounds. However, avid Bible readers might be confused by the Section 1 title “Revelation” since this does not refer to the book of Revelation but rather the revelation God gave biblical authors. More importantly, that opening title addresses God’s revelation of Himself through creation, love, Holy Scripture, salvation history, and the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Section 2 briefly overviews how the Bible came to us in many literary forms, from poetry and prophecy to parables, making this all-time best-seller a masterpiece of literature. The Bible has far more than literary genius, though, as “The Old Testament is our compass, pointing us in one direction and one direction only – on the pathway to Jesus Christ.

Following a series of articles on Hebrew scriptures, the section on the New Testament says, “The four Gospels are the very heart of the Scriptures. The Gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John herald the Good News that God came to earth to fulfill the promises made to our ancestors, to form a Covenant with all people, and to overcome the slavery of sin and the darkness of death. They are our primary source for all that was revealed in the life and teachings of our Savior and Messiah.” However, “The Gospels are not identical. Each (Gospel) presents Jesus’ life and teachings from a different perspective. Yet in harmony and without error, they announce the truth that Jesus is the one and only way to the Father.” Amen!

This highly recommended book goes on to offer a look at other books in the New Testament and also to provide insights into “The Liturgy of the Hours,” “The Lord’s Prayer,” “The Scriptures and the Rules of the Saints,” offering further help for the Christian life such as the Lectio Divina (praying with scripture.)

In addition to that review copy from a Catholic publisher, I received a copy of The A To Z Guide To Bible Signs & Symbols: Understanding Their Meaning and Significance from Baker Books, a well-established Evangelical press. Written by Neil Wilson and Nancy Ryken Taylor, this high-quality slick paperback includes color photographs, key verses, and sidebars relevant to the topic.

Each entry covers two pages, which provides consistency in the layout but doesn’t allow space for the coverage required for in-depth research. Nevertheless, the easy-to-read text and eye-appealing pages give readers a helpful overview of topics ranging from Altar to Zion.

For example, the entry for “Bride” has a subheading on the Church as the Bride of Christ, which says, “The lovely picture of a faithful bride and wife is picked up by both Paul and John in the New Testament to symbolize the relationship God wants to have through Christ with all those who make up the church. Believers have been bought with the bride-price of Christ’s blood and are now wooed by his love.

The key verse for that entry comes from Isaiah 61:10. Then a sidebar reminds us that “Christ Jesus has no quarrel with His spouse. She often wanders from Him, and grieves Him – but He does not allow her faults to affect His love.”

For another example, the entry for “Fire” says that “Fire figures into the Bible in numerous ways – in daily life, religious ceremony, and as an instrument of warfare.” Also, “Fire is pictured as a purifying agent in people’s lives” as in refining gold and silver or in illustrating God’s judgment. Although I saw no mention of the tongues of fire that occurred at Pentecost (nor is there an entry for “Pentecost), the text under the subheading “Holy Fire” reminds us that “For biblical authors, the theophany of fire portrayed God’s power, holiness, and protection over his people.

The third review copy I received came from Concordia Publishing in a nice reddish-brown pseudo-suede cover with cream-colored pages, a red marker ribbon, and an easy-to-read font. As the Preface tells us, the “Concordia Psalter intends to engage all Christians in singing the psalmody of the Church.” To enable readers to do that, “The tones are carefully selected to match the character of the psalm text…. Generally, only one tone is to be used with a psalm, but many of the tones are paired with complementary tones that can be used for singing longer psalms by switching tones somewhere during the course of the psalm.

More importantly, these “Old Testament Psalms not only permit us to see Christ in them, but they also require it. Resurrection, eternity, a universal kingdom, forgiveness, even grace and blessing – each ultimately has its home and fulfillment in Jesus Christ,” Who embodies God’s Word.

With scriptures from the English Standard Version (ESV), the page for the 23rd Psalm begins with a musical notation followed by the Psalm and a prayer: “Lord Jesus, who alone is that one Good Shepherd, thanks be unto You for all Your spiritual and bodily benefits. Let the Word of Your salvation dwell among us richly, and suffer not that trusty staff, the Word of Your promise, to be taken from us.”

For another example, my favorite Psalm 103 includes two tones, the ESV text, and this prayer:

Father of light, we praise You because You forgive iniquity and do not reward us according to our sins. What You promised to the fathers You have fulfilled in Your Son. As the east and the west can never come together, so remove our sins far from us, that they can be accounted to us no more, for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Savior. Amen.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

Concordia Psalter, suede-like cover

The A To Z Guide To Bible Signs & Symbols, paperback

Living in Christ: The Bible, The Living Word of God, paperback

February 2, 2015

African American Catholic Youth Bible

With February designated each year as Black History Month, what better history can we find to honor than that of God’s peoples and places in Africa as revealed throughout the Bible?

Last year, I reviewed the African Heritage Study Bible published by Judson Press, which evangelical Christians and lovers of the KJV (King James Version) will especially welcome. This time I gladly received a review copy of The African American Catholic Youth Bible recently released by Saint Mary’s Press and the National Black Catholic Congress, who collaborated on this excellent project for several years.

Besides presenting readers with the New American Bible, Revised Edition (NABRE) known for its accuracy, the book includes numerous features designed to appeal to young readers and draw them to God’s word. For instance, you’ll find book introductions, “Know Your Faith” articles, info on people who remained faithful to God, background articles on biblical times, and “Take It to God” suggestions for letting the Bible assist your prayers.

This edition also includes a subject index, glossary, maps, and helpful lists of “Events, People, and Teachings” such as the parables of Jesus, miracles, and Bible prayers. A topical index on “Life and Faith Issues” provides a quick reference guide to what the Bible has to say about topics of special importance to young people such as fear, forgiveness, sexuality, and temptation.

Catholic youth will especially welcome the 3-year cyclical for Bible reading and other features that inform readers about the Catholic faith and history. In the back of the book, for example, several pages have been devoted to “A Black History of African American Catholics,” beginning with a brief word on the establishment of Saint Augustine “a town in present-day Florida” where “Spanish settlers included black men and women, both free and slave.” I saw no mention, though, of the birth place of the saint for whom the city was named, who reportedly came from present-day Algeria in northern Africa.

Despite the excellent resources in this highly recommended edition, I wish the study aids had placed more emphasis on the African locales mentioned in the Bible and also on the probable heritage of biblical people who, themselves, placed no emphasis on racial distinctions. A sidebar did mention that the Queen of Sheba was most likely black, but I had difficulty finding other such references. However, the nicely drawn artwork consistently shows dark-skinned people throughout instead of the typical illustrations of Bible people as blue-green-eyed blondes, which I object to, even though I am one.

More important, though, are not our racial differences but our heritage and shared beliefs as brothers and sisters in Christ.

For example, a “Be About It!” sidebar entitled “Leaders with Character” suggest we “Look in Proverbs 6:17-19 at the list of things the Lord hates. It reads like a description of a corrupt politician or business person!” But the mini-article goes on to suggest, “Now take the list and put it in the positive: humble eyes, a truthful tongue, hands that protect the innocent, a heart that plans good, feet that hurry to help, a truthful witness, and someone who brings harmony to families. That’s the kind of leader everyone wants!” Amen. Not only does such a leader have “the unique ability to inspire others,” those of us who aim for those characteristics will find ourselves looking less and less dissimilar and more and more like Christ.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

The African American Catholic Youth Bible, paperback

January 29, 2015

Essential Bible Dictionary

After reading and reviewing the Essential Guide to Biblical Life and Times last year, I was eager to see the Essential Bible Dictionary, also published by Saint Mary’s Press, who kindly sent me a review copy.

Similar to the layout, info-chocked pages, and volume slimness of the other offering, this “essential, written by Dr. Sheila O’Connell-Roussell, focuses on the themes, people, places, and events that essentially inform our faith.

As a blurb on the back of the book tells us, this slender dictionary includes more than 800 word entries, 10 charts and tables, 5 pages of color photographs, and 4 colored maps. But even with all that info, once again, I found myself opening the book, starting to read, and getting “hooked” as happens with readers approaching any well-written book.

Most of us don’t make a habit of reading dictionaries, but I recommend the effort. For one thing, it sounds weirdly cool (“What are you doing?” “Nothing much. Just reading the dictionary.”) But mainly, you’ll discover definitions for words you might not know to look up and check out. Or you’ll find words you’ve heard but aren’t 100% sure of their meanings.

Also, one word might lead to another that’s related, so as you look up entries for each, you’ll get a bigger picture. For example, the entry on “Apocryphal Books” leads you to “Canon” and “Deuterocanonical Books,” each of which has distinct differences but similarities too.

To give you an example of the definitions, the word “canon” comes from “a Greek word meaning ‘rule’ or standard.’… The canon of Scripture refers to the list of books that the Church recognizes as the inspired Word of God.”

Although various church denominations might not agree on the canon for the Hebrew scriptures (aka Old Testament), all agree on the books included in the New Testament, but how did they decide?

“When the Church fathers evaluated the writings that were presented for the New Testament canon, they used the following criteria to evaluate whether writings were worthy to be included…. If the manuscripts agreed with all three criteria, it was considered inspired text.

• Was the manuscript written by an Apostle or a student of an Apostle?

• Did the image of Christ and the theology within the manuscript agree with the Apostolic Tradition?

• Was this text well known and accepted by the community?”

Besides the importance of the inspired word of God in the churches, most honor biblical events by some type of ritual or sacrament. In the Catholic Church, you’ll find seven, each of which has an entry in the book: Anointing of the Sick, Baptism, Confirmation, Eucharist, Holy Orders, Marriage, Reconciliation (aka Confession.)

Looking up the word “Eucharist,” I was surprised to find no mention of “Communion” or “Transubstantiation,” but other related words have individual entries: Altar of Christ, Blood of Christ, Bread, Bread of Life, Last Supper, Passover, Sacrament, Unleavened Bread, Worship.

In addition to word links or cross references, some entries have their own charts or lists. For instance, look up the “Ten Commandments” and find a chart listing those God-given rules. Or look up, “Feast, Festival” and find info on Rosh Hashanah, Passover, Pentecost, Hanukkah, and other special dates on the Jewish calendar, which Jesus and His family surely observed. Or look up “Parables” and find the names and biblical locations of the parables of Jesus. Better yet, look up “Jesus Christ” to discover “The Titles of Jesus,” to Whom we look as essential for our daily bread and lives.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

Essential Bible Dictionary, paperback

January 23, 2015

My Keepsake Bible

As a poet and writer, I've discovered that the most difficult books to write and place with publishers are those for very young children. The content must be age-appreciate, the text honest, and the facts accurate with only a few words of one or two syllables used to create a lively, child-friendly tone. The artwork must be kid-appealing, too, with clear, colorful pictures that help a preschooler better understand what's said.

In My Keepsake Bible published by Tyndale Kids, author Sally Ann Wright and artist Honor Ayres beautifully accomplish all of the above, but that’s not all to consider!

A “keepsake” book for young children needs a sturdy, wipeable cover and a manageable size. Long before a publisher gets that far, however, the initial idea or concept for the book must have a unique perspective or a fresh approach to an old story.

Wright accomplishes this, too, by connecting each child's personal history to his or her Bible family.

With pages for a birth announcement, family tree, and individual progress of the child’s development, this edition combines key parts of a "baby book" with key Bible stories to show our progress and ongoing development in our relationship with God.

That unique approach appealed to me enough to request a review copy from the publisher, which Tyndale kindly sent, and I studied with special interest as I would love to write this type of book!

After including pages to record the child’s story, the book begins with “The Story of Creation,” told in an appropriately poetic style.

“Long ago, at the very
beginning, God was there.”

“God made silvery fish and buzzing bees, song birds and bright butterflies.”

Ending with,
“Everything in God’s world was good.”

Prayers of thanks follow with subsequent prayers expressed by the author or by scriptures chosen from the Contemporary English Version of the Bible. Those prayers, which can help to establish a precedent for praying regularly, intersperse the stories throughout the book.

Looking at those stories closely, we find the honest truth that people mess up and do wrong! Nevertheless, our loving God continues to protect, guide, and love us, which pretty much sums up the Bible message. Then, as these clear, concise stories come to an end, “Paul’s Thank-You Letters” bring this word to young readers:

“Paul reminded them to live as God wanted them to – to be kind and forgiving to each other and to share what they had with others. He told them that the most important thing they could do was to love God. Then they would begin to act like him, loving other people too.”

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

My Keepsake Bible, lightly padded hardcover

January 13, 2015

KJV Note-Taker’s Bible

Did you know that, if you have a blog or other outlet for reviewing Christian books and Bibles, you can receive free copies of titles published by Thomas Nelson, Zondervan, and Westbow? All you have to do is sign up (for free) and receive approval by BookLook Bloggers. Having done this some time ago, I’ve since reviewed a number of inspirational books, Bible storybooks, and other titles, and generally enjoyed the process.

As vow-swapping required, I agreed to post a review here on my own blog and do a brief word on Amazon, and therein lies the problem. Now that I’ve received my review copy of the KJV Note-Taker’s Bible, I’m in the unenviable position of having to give a Bible – the King James Version, no less – a low online rating. (Can you hear me sigh?)

To be as precise as possible, I’m giving the highest possible “score” of 5 stars to the KJV itself but only 1 star to the book at hand. Although I’d rather not star at all, Amazon insists, so the best I can do is average those ratings to a 3.

What I like about this edition is its handy, regular book size and a nice concordance in the back. The hardcover seems sturdy enough too, but sadly, this is not an edition for a serious note-taker.

My Bibles and I talk to each other. God's Word speaks, and I respond. Usually that means scribbling in the margins whatever insights God brings to mind or connective thought I want to investigate or phrases someone in our Bible study group says that I don’t want to forget. So when I saw that a review copy of a KJV with “Generous, wide margins for note takers” had become available, I requested it right away.

But, alas! According to the ruler in my desk drawer, the outer margin is slightly over one and a quarter inches but definitely less than 1.5 and less than the wide margin Bible I normally use. The latter also allows an interior margin of about three-fourths of an inch, whereas the KJV Note-Taker’s Bible has slightly more than a quarter-inch. This could be improved upon – and the regular book size kept – if the text were printed in a single, narrower column with a big, fat outside margin.

At present, the outer margin provides enough room to write tight or note a cross-reference, but personally, I’d rather have cross-references printed throughout the Bible. The one I use and have previously reviewed includes that feature and also has pages sewn (not glued) into the sturdiest possible binding of high quality leather – a necessity for those of us who do not want to transfer notes from one Bible to another in years, hopefully, to come. If, however, you just want a reader’s edition to sit down and read straight through, as you would any book-sized book, this non-intimidating, no-frills choice would work very well.

©2015, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

KJV Note-Taker’s Bible, hardcover

I review for BookLook Bloggers

December 20, 2014

Sweetest Story Bible for Toddlers

As a fan of Diane Stortz, I would recommend her work even if I hadn’t received a free review copy of The Sweetest Story Bible for Toddlers, published by Zonderkidz and kindly sent to me by BookLook Bloggers. Diane’s writing helps children to understand deep truths with minimal explanations on the part of parents, and she’s accurate and poetic too.

Artist Sheila Bailey also does a nice job, creating colorful kid-appealing illustrations, which help to expand the text with one exception. In the drawing of two angels announcing Christ's resurrection, both look, well, depressed, which made no sense to me as I suspect they were rather ecstatic.

Other reviews have already mentioned how this Bible storybook from Zonderkidz is ideal for little girls, and I agree but frankly would have preferred it to include little boys as the title does. But, since the emphasis is on little girls, I, too, wished the story of Esther had been omitted and substituted with one showing Ruth’s love for Naomi. For one thing, little kids can relate to a loving friendship more than bad law-making. Besides, I don’t think young children will have a clue about who a Jewish person is.

Giving this more thought, however, I realized that Bible stories for preschoolers seldom mention the Jews – the very people of God from whom we received the Hebrew Testament and from whom our Lord and Savior comes, which then made me glad about the decision to include Esther.

Whether we communicate bigotry or love, children learn early. So I’m now thinking that special editions of the Bible and storybooks for toddlers, preschoolers, early readers, teens, and beyond will do well to emphasize our Jewish heritage as Christians and as ongoing lovers of God’s Word.

©2014, Mary Harwell Sayler, poet, writer, and reviewer, is a lifelong lover of Christ, the Bible, and the church in all its parts.

The Sweetest Story Bible for Toddlers, padded hardback with board pages

I received my review copy from BookLook Bloggers

I review for BookLook Bloggers