Review of Taste and See

Taste and See, by Margaret Feinberg, is a book about a topic near and dear to my heart–foods in the Bible.

Feinberg is a noted Bible teacher and speaker who has sold over one million books, including Fight Back with Joy and Wonderstruck. She’s a frequent speaker at Christian conferences. 

In this book Feinberg takes you through different food groups in the Bible: Fish, Figs, Bread, Salt, Olives, and Lamb. She writes about her travels to Israel, the Holy Land, and the Mediterranean where she tries to learn more about each food; how native people pick, catch, and prepare these foods, how many of them continue to follow ancient traditions and customs to this day, how these foods still influence the local culture and the world today. She talks about places in the Bible that mention the foods and reviews their spiritual significance. 

I admit, I was a little envious of Margaret, because this is precisely the kind of trip I would love to take. But I know realistically I can’t. So I’m thrilled that she’s taken the trip and has documented it so I can experience it vicariously. I also love how she’s included a number of recipes–the main ingredient of these recipes are the very food she’s talking about from the Bible. In some cases (like her recipe for matzo), the recipes are likely very close to what they would have eaten in Bible times; in other cases the recipes are more modern, but still delicious. (By the way, a few years ago, I became a bit obsessed with trying to a cookbook that let me cook food just like they ate in Bible times. The best I could find (and a pretty good one) was Loaves and Fishes by Malvina Kinard). 

If there’s one gripe I have about the writing, it’s that it seems that Feinberg is trying to do too much at once sometimes. This a book that seems to be many books in one. It’s a travelogue, a devotional, a history book, a Bible commentary, a nutrition guide, and a cookbook all in one. It’s all fascinating and all well done, but at times it seems that the topics and styles blend together. 

Still, that’s only one gripe in what otherwise is a fascinating read. When we read the Bible, when we get to the parts about food, we tend to visualize food as we know them (a loaf of Wonder Bread in a bag, a box of Fig Newtons, a plate of fish and chips, and so on going up and down the supermarket aisle). What I love about this book is that it helps you understand the culture and historical significance of the food, which helps open your eyes to more fully understand when the Bible uses food as symbols or metaphors. 

Review of The Gift I Can Give

Many people have opinions about Kathie Lee Gifford. On the one extreme, to many she’s been the face of the loud, shrill vapidity that is weekday morning television. On the other extreme, many people may not know that she’s a devout Christian, and not just in name only. She’s involved in many charitable projects, she uses her public platform to speak of faith in Christ, and she’s been through a number of very public and often humiliating trials, and somehow seems to continue to have joy in her heart.

The Gift That I Can Give is clearly written for young girls–all the illustrations center around a little girl observing the world around her and trying to understand what are the gifts that God gave her. As the father of a 3 year old, I appreciated this. So many “find your gift” messages seem to be focused on boys and “what do you want to be when you grow up” messages where the end goal is to make money or be successful in a worldly sense.

I like that the word “gifts” is (correctly) applied to many different things that can be used to help others–having a talent for things like art, music, or sports; having compassion for animals; being able to encourage others; helping those in need; or showing love to others. It reminded me of 1 Corinthians 12, which talks about how the Holy Spirit distributes different gifts to different people for the common good. It also reminded me of the parable of the talents in Matthew 25, where we’ll all be asked one day to give an accounting for what we did with the gifts we were given.

The book does mention God, but it doesn’t come off as “preachy”. I’m not sure when it became “controversial” to mention God in a children’s book, but in this book God is mentioned in the context that God made you special, God pours out a gift in your heart, you can ask God to reveal your gift, and that he wants you to use your gift to help others, and that the greatest gift is his love. All lessons that seem to be lost in our secular world, but all which hold the keys to real success in life. In fact, while this book was written for young girls, as a middle aged man I find myself still asking the same questions–what did God put me on earth to do, and when the time comes for me to show what I did with my talents, what will I have to show?

When I look at the negative reviews for The Gift That I Can Give on Amazon, I’m guessing that a lot of them made up their mind about this book without even reading it. For example, there’s one review that talks about how this book is about “adult career choices”. I had to re-read the book a few times to make sure that I was reading the same book because if anything, the book does the opposite (it focuses more on gifts like love and compassion than things like professions).

Overall, I highly recommend this book. I’ll be honest–I purposely avoided this book at first thinking, to paraphrase John 1:46, “Can anything good come out of Kathie Lee Gifford”. But I stumbled upon the book in the Amazon bookstore (hurray for brick and mortar), leafed through it, and found myself drawn to the surprisingly deep message and Julia Seal’s beautiful illustrations. Highly recommended for any parent of a young girl with dreams.

Review of You’re My Little Sweet Pea

You’re My Little Sweet Pea is a cute little book that’s perfect for a baby shower gift or for parents of a newborn.

It’s a hardcover board book that measures about 8 inches by 8 inches. Each page features an adorable illustration of an animal mother or father and her baby, including deer, cats, sheep, giraffes, bears, foxes, tigers, bunnies, and mice. Each is in a familiar anthropomorphic setting; for example, a bunny mother is singing and watching her baby put away toys on a playroom; a bear father is holding his cub in his lap while sitting in his easy chair.

The illustrations are soft and cute with bright watercolor painting. As with all great children’s books, there are plenty of background details to keep children engaged.

The words are reminiscent of books like On the Day You Were Born by Nancy Tillman or Guess How Much I Love You by Sam McBratney, in that they’re like a gentle love letter to a parent’s baby (“Your giggle always melts my heart / You changed my world from the start”). Personally, I find the words a little too babyish for my three year old, but I could totally see a parent of a newborn or a toddler who’s just learning how to talk reading it to their child. As such, it makes a perfect present for parents of a new baby.

Review of Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas

Stories Behind the Great Traditions of Christmas is the latest in a series of books that Ace Collins has written that contain short, digestible write-ups of historical subjects. In previous books, he’s written about the stories behind gospel songs, hymns that inspired America, and Christmas songs.

In this book, he moves beyond music tackles the history of many of the traditions of Christmas, including Advent, Boxing Day, Candy Canes, Christmas Cards, Christmas Trees, Gift Giving, Holly, Mistletoe, Santa Claus, and many others. Think of anything you can think of that has to do with Christmas and the Christmas season, and chances are he’s written something up on it.

Each subject has about 7-10 pages dedicated to it, written in a pleasant easy-to-read style. I didn’t read one subject where I didn’t learn something new. Did you know, for example, that Martin Luther himself started the tradition of lights on a Christmas tree? Do you know what the word “epiphany” means (I didn’t despite years of hearing that word). Did you know the candy cane was invented in 1670 as a way to get children who fussed in a choir to settle down.

As you probably know, many of the older traditions of Christmas have their roots in pagan origins. Holly, for example, was important in Celtic mythology, the tradition of bringing evergreen trees inside was begun by Vikings, and Aztecs used poinsettias in their idol worship. The book doesn’t gloss over these, but does talk from a historical perspective about how early Christian missionaries and adherents transformed these traditions to make them teach a lesson about the life of Christ.

Overall, like Collins’s other books, it’s an easy read. There are a couple block print illustrations, but mainly to illustrate a concept in the stories. It’s not necessarily a book you’ll read cover to cover, but it is handy to have at your fingertips to find answers about different aspects of Christmas.

Review of the Infographic Bible

Contrary to its name, the Infographic Bible isn’t a Bible. And for me, that’s a point in its favor. I’ve admittedly gotten a little weary of the dozens and dozens of Bibles that Zondervan has marketed that call themselves “The _____ Bible”, which end up just being a standard NIV or NKJV Bible interspersed with a few articles or notes.

How would I characterize The Infographics Bible? Well, you know how when you’re reading a great Study Bible or other Bible reference book, and a certain figure or table catches your eye, and you end up fixated on it for long stretches of time? Well, imagine a book of nothing but those figures and tables blown up to large, full-color 8.5 x 11 inch pages and that’s what this book is.

The word “Infographics” has been misused and misunderstood by a lot of people in recent years. A lot of graphic designers will just take words, organize them in pretty ways, and call them “infographics”. But true infographics are more than just clever design. The best infographics do something called “data visualization”–taking complex and perhaps esoteric information and concepts, and using great visual design to help you more fully comprehend and interpret that information. Put another way, you’re using both sides of your brain to get a fuller understanding of concepts.

While a handful of the figures in this book do fall into that trap of being visually clever but not particularly enlightening, I’m happy to say that there are a great number infographics that really do add unique and valuable context to your understanding of Biblical text. Some of my favorites:

  • Several pages are dedicated to listing out Old Testament prophesies, and showing visually how they were fulfilled in the New Testament. The results are visually stunning, but also drive home how closely intertwined the two Testaments are.
  • There’s are cool “blueprints” that visualize Noah’s Ark, the Tablernacle, and the Temple.
  • There are a few pages that help break down Jesus’ teachings; what were the top subjects he taught on? Who was his audience? Where did he preach?
  • There are some thought-provoking historical infographics. One page helps visualize the enormity of Solomon’s wealth. Another visualizes data about the fishing economy of Galilee.
  • I particularly like certain pages where they take a lot of historical information and distill it into an at-a-glance page. For example, they list out all the kings of Israel and Judah and identify what they did in their reign and whether they were good or bad. They take the events of Paul’s life and lay them out in a timeline that’s much clearer than the traditional “Paul’s Journeys” map you see in most Bibles. They list out all the letters in the New Testament and list, at a glance, the sender, the recipient, where it was sent from, where it was sent to, and the subject. The one sort of obvious missing opportunity was that I didn’t see any visualization of the minor prophets, although there are timelines dedicated to the Exile and the return from Exile where they reference the relevant prophets.

Something else I love about this book is that it just shows the visualization, but doesn’t provide commentary on how you’re “supposed” to interpret it. They let the data speak for itself, and it’s up to you, preferably with the guidance of the Spirit, to figure out what it means and its significance.

Overall, it’s a book that’s as beautiful to look at as it is enlightening to read. You probably won’t be reading it page-by-page, but if you’re preparing a Bible Study, you’ll definitely want to keep this book handy to give you just a little more context behind certain topics. The large, hardcover cloth book is a great conversation piece that goes as well on your coffee table as it does in your reference library.

Review of How Do You Say Good Night

How Do You Say Good Night is a new children’s book illustrated by Catalina Echeverri that chronicles the adventures of Zoey the Zebra as she visits different animals around Africa to learn how each group of animals says good night.

She visits a pride of lions, a sounder of warthogs, a herd of elephants, a flock of ostriches, a troop of monkeys, and a pod of hippopotamuses. In each visit, there’s a combination of real facts about the animals’ behavior, as well as some anthropomorphic tidbits thrown in that your youngster can identify with in his or her own bedtime routine (saying a good night prayer, having a snack, brushing teeth, etc.)

The illustrations of the animals are that unique combination of beautiful, cute and funny, and the background images of the African Savannah at sunset are beautiful.

I love that the book teaches about diversity–not “diversity” in the sense of the postmodern, politically correct definition of the word, but diversity in the sense that different animals (read: different cultures, races, ages, etc.) may have their own way of doing things which we can admire and learn from. But we can also take comfort and joy in what’s familiar to us too.

Overall, it’s a great book to add to your bedtime repertoire. It clocks in at just under 20 pages, and the paragraphs are short, perfect for setting the right tone before bed and even encouraging new readers to read. I do love how it reinforces in each visit the importance of thinking of God before going to bed, one thing you don’t find in secular books. But the illustrations and production quality rival any other board book out there.

Review of Let’s Get Ready for Bed

Let’s Get Ready for Bed is the second in a series of books by a dream team partnership: Michael W. Smith and Mike Nawrocki. Michael W. Smith, of course is one of the most prolific and successful Christian recording artists today. Perhaps an even greater achievement was that he’s been married to his wife for almost 40 years and has 14 grandchildren, all of whom I’m sure have been the lucky recipients of many bedtime lullabies from their Grammy and Dove award winning grandfather.

Mike Nawrocki was the co-creator of VeggieTales along with Phil Vischer. VeggieTales, of course, was and still is one of the best Christian children’s programs. I’m talking about the original VHS videos, of course, and not the version of VeggieTales before NBC took it and destroyed it (although NetFlix has done a decent job of bringing it back). To this day, Nawrocki is still the voice of Larry the Cucumber.

Nighty Night and Good Night was the first in this series of books. It was the story of a little boy named Ben, who says a simple good night prayer every night with his mother. But one night he can’t sleep. So his three little stuffed animals., Bear, Lamby, and Sleepy Puppy try different things to help him sleep, to no avail. At last, they form a little band and play a lullaby that helps Ben drift off to sleep (it happens that the lullaby is a Michael W. Smith song from his companion album, which you can listen to for free online). Overall, I loved this book–the illustrations by Tod Wilmer and Chuck Vollmer were beautiful but simple cartoon illustrations that look inspired by the style of A.A. Milne–down to the seams in the three stuffed animals who come to life, and the story was simple and sweet.

Let’s Get Ready for Bed is a follow-up book by the same authors and illustrators that features the same characters of Bear, Lamby, and Sleepy Puppy. Like its predecessor it has 20 pages. Unlike the first book, this one doesn’t have the character of Ben at all; instead, this one focuses on the character of Sleepy Puppy. His two friends observe the things he does before going to bed: taking a bath, putting on his jammies, brushing his teeth, saying a good-night prayer, and reading a book. After all this, he still can’t sleep, so Lamby and Bear sing him another lullaby (this time, it’s the animals’ adaptation of “Rock-a-bye Baby”).

Overall, I found the book to be adorable like the last one. The illustrations are in the same style. The words are simple and easy to understand. You can tell that they were written by a songwriter and a professional children’s author, as the rhyme and meter are smooth and not awkward like you see in so many other children’s books.

As for the storyline, the last book was intentionally a little chaotic as the little boy couldn’t get to sleep and his three friends tried different approaches to helping him; whereas this one is on the calmer side, with just the three animals focused more on the bedtime routine. It’s a great way to reinforce to your child (and yourself) the importance of having the same routine every night.

Like probably a lot of you, I’ve fallen into the trap of reading books at bedtime that end up being a bit too…exciting. Let’s Get Ready for Bed is a great book to help calm everyone down and get them ready to sleep for the night. It’s sometimes hard to find a Christian book that strikes that perfect balance between being “too preachy” and “too secular”, but I think this one does a great job. The quality of the book is as high as any other children’s book, but there are two pages where Sleepy Puppy is on his knees praying a beautiful good night prayer (which you can also pray with your child).  It’s a great book to have in your rotation of bedtime stories.

 

Review of My Christmas ABCs

My Christmas ABCs is a board book that goes through each letter of the alphabet. For each letter the book describes something about Christmas. The letter A has an angel, B has bells, C has a candy cane, and so on.

It’s a really beautiful book with lots of bright festive colors. Adding to this is that every page, as well as the cover, is adorned with sparkles covering the letter and accents on the picture. They’re fun to look at, and fun to touch and scratch (and thankfully, unlike with other similar books I’m not finding sparkles all over the house, despite my daughter’s attempts to scratch them incessantly).

The result is an amazing book that really puts you in the mood for Christmas and the holiday season. Each picture is lovely on its own, but simply beautiful with the addition of the sparkles, from a gingerbread man, to a poinsettia, to a pair of mittens.

I do appreciate that the book doesn’t shy away from having plenty of references to Christ’s birth (imagine that in a Christmas book!) For example, the letter N speaks of the nativity, the letter J stands for Jesus, and so on. There’s a good mix of references to Christ, as well as references to other things that evoke the season, such as stockings and ornaments.

Certain details in the book impressed me. First, there’s no reference to Santa Claus, elves, flying reindeer, or anything of that sort. I know different people have different opinions about Santa Claus, but bottom line, I found it refreshing because I found this really helped put the focus of the book on the real “reason for the season” (plus, there are plenty of Christmas books out there about Santa Claus for people looking for that).  I noticed other little subtle details–the cartoon images of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph have them with a slightly darker complexion which would be more historically accurate (but it’s so subtle that most people won’t notice).

Overall this is a great book to have for the holiday season, especially for a toddler or preschooler learning his or her alphabet.

 

Review of The Cow Said Neigh! Picture Book

The Cow Said Neigh! is a new children’s book by Rory Feek. Rory Feek is an accomplished country music writer who has written songs for a whos-who of country music stars, including Clay Walker, Blake Shelton, and Tracy Byrd. Country music fans might also recognize his name from the country and bluegrass duo Joey + Rory. They were were a husband and wife duo who finished third in CMT’s “Can You Duet” competition in 2008, and went on to popularity, producing eight studio albums. Two of these, Inspired: Songs of Faith & Family and Hymns that are Important to Us, consisted of hymns and gospel music.

In February 2014, Joey Martin Feek gave birth to a little girl named Indiana. Only a few months later in May she was diagnosed with terminal cervical cancer. She passed away in March 2016. You can watch a recent appearance on the Rachael Ray show here where Rory tells the story and the story of his remarkable wife (in addition to this book, Rory Feek recently released an autobiographical account of their story, which you can fine here–it’s a remarkable story that ). What makes the story even more poignant is that little Indy was born with Down Syndrome, and yet you can see how much love this father and daughter share.

This children’s book came out of that relationship–as Rory Feek found himself reading children’s books to his daughter all the time, he decided to write one of his own. And it’s good. The rhymes are natural without being simplistic, a reflection of Rory’s songwriting skills.

The storyline is very humorous. You follow different animals in a barnyard, but instead of your typical “the cow goes moo” or “the pig goes oink”, it seems that all the animals want to do their own thing (which might remind you of the little animal in your life). It’s a great story to read with a child who’s already mastered the basic animal sounds, and who will understand the irony of a horse saying “quack”, a duck saying “baa”, and a cat saying “hello”. SPOILER ALERT: The payoff is that at the end of the book it comes down to the farmer, who takes in all that’s just happened in his barnyard and lets out a hearty “Mooooo”.

I was expecting to see some kind of moral to the story–for example, how everyone should be happy with who they are, how everyone should accept those who are different from them, or so on. But there really wasn’t one. I guess if there’s some kind of lesson to be gleaned, it’s just not to take yourself too seriously, a lesson which a lot of grown-ups could stand to learn in this day and age. Otherwise, I’d enjoy it for what it is, just a silly story that’s a whole lot of fun to read with your child.

The illustrations by Bruno Robert are funny and colorful. As with most great children’s books, there are lot of things to see in the pictures which will keep them engaged.

This is definitely one on the short list of books that I’ll be reading with my toddler. It stands on its own as a great book, but knowing the back story make it all the more compelling a book to have in my library.

 

 

 

 

Review of NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible (formerly the NIV Zondervan Study Bible)

The NIV Biblical Theology Study Bible is a new Bible released by Zondervan. It was previously known for years as the “NIV Zondervan Study Bible”, but over the years Zondervan seems to have flooded the market with so many other “Study Bibles”–Life Application Study Bibles, Woman’s Study Bibles, Teen Study Bibles, Rainbow Study Bibles, Faithlife Illustrated Study Bibles, Quest Study Bibles, and dozens more.

To be clear, this is the original “study Bible”. As a study Bible should, it has exhaustive commentary and notes that seem to cover almost every verse in the Bible (over 20,000 notes). For the most part, I found the notes helpful when they provide extremely helpful historical context that you can cross-reference as you’re reading it (they’re a bit less helpful when they “state the obvious” or get a little too pedantic for my taste, but happily those are few and far between).

The illustrations, maps, charts and diagrams are in full color, and do a great job of helping visualize or organize what you’re reading. Each book of the Bible has a comprehensive introduction that covers all you want to know about the book, including its purpose, background, author, historical and geographical setting, structure, and theology, and provides an outline as well. There’s a concordance, but in this age of the Bible Gateway, such things aren’t really as useful as they used to be.

The list of contributors is an impressive panoply of theological scholars. For the most part, the commentary sticks to objective facts and doesn’t dive into “taking sides” on more controversial topics. There are also 28 articles including familiar names like Tim Keller, D.A. Carson, and T.D. Alexander, so in a way you’re getting some “bonus” content from these well-known authors as well.

If you already own the original NIV Zondervan Study Bible, you won’t see much different except for some cosmetic improvements, such as two ribbon bookmarks, an easier-to-read typeface called “Comfort Print”, and a layout that feels more “breathable” than the former edition. It’s interesting despite the improvements in layout this newer version feels lighter than its previous version (about a third of a pound lighter), so the typesetters did a nice job of making the layout more efficient as well as readable. Note that it is still only a 9 point font, so if you’re like me you may need to break out those reading glasses.

Overall, I’d say if you already own the NIV Zondervan Study Bible, there’s not a whole lot new here that you don’t already have. But if not, and if you’re someone who needs to prepare for Bible Studies or sermons, you won’t find many resources better than this book, at least not all under one cover. Understanding the historical background and context behind what you’re reading is one of the most important things you can do when you’re studying the Bible, and this Study Bible does a great job of giving you a comprehensive view.