Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Essential non-obvious albums of the 1980s

Joe Carter at the Evangelical Outpost asks "What are the essential non-obvious albums of the 1980s" You have to read his post to get his criteria and his picks. I agree with many of his picks and those of his commentators, but, If we're really going for nonobvious I'm going to have to add a few (in no particular order):

1. The soundtrack to the Musical Les Miserables (the musical that re-established the rock opera as a viable genre...This 1980 composition is now the longest running production in London's west end and has been an inspiration to countless theatre geeks)

2. Jimmy Buffett Songs You Know By Heart. This 1985 Best of Album marked a transition from a Bacchanalian Buffett of the 70s to the more contemplative Buffett of Floridays, Hot Water, and Off to See the Lizard (these three arguably his best later career work). For most Parrothead geeks, this was a landmark release.

3. Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back soundtrack. John Williams cements his position as THE composer for film orchestration for the decade...particularly with the all powerful empire march (Dum Dum Dum, Dum De Dum, Dum De Dum). Pride of place probably should go to his work in the 1970s (on the Star Wars Soundtrack)... but on this album, his music evokes the darker themes of the second film. Nothing less than brilliant.

4. Harry Connick Jr, Harry Connick Jr This self titled 1987 release brought the classic jazz of the 40s and 50s to a new generation. Fans said that the young Gen X Harry was positvely channeling Frank Sinatra at his best. Through Harry, Jazz became cool again for a young audience.

5. Amy Grant Lead Me On. Released in 1988, Amy Grant's album was a huge hit, particularly in the Bible belt. However its importance lies in the first hints of Amy moving toward a "crossover artist" from CCM to the mainstream. Several of her songs were not explicitly about faith, and she mastered pop vocal style. This transition was fully realized in her 1991 release Heart in Motion, a completely secular album. This album also was one of the portents of CCM moving out of being a weird subculture into being a massive media machine, as realized in the 1990s.

So that's my first pass... let me know what you think.


Monday, April 28, 2008

How to encourage your pastor

This gem merits special attention because it is right on. John Piper answers the question how to encourage your pastor. Don't give your pastor a Rolls Royce when they're 60 but rather "I want to see your life changed. I want to see you pour yourself out for others." "Prove by your life that I haven't wasted mine." This is right on. A must read for every church member who cares about their pastors.

Hat Tip to Tim Challies

Soli Deo Gloria

Isaiah 12:1-6 Sermon post mortem -- the one where he mentions South Park (and then makes us sing loud)

Starting this new tradition for our Sunday worship -- the sermon post-mortem. You can listen to the sunday sermon online (this week is Isaiah Ch 12:1-6). And here I'll dissect, give more backgrounders, links, and invite your discussion. I'll be going linearly through the sermon... jump to what interests you.

John Piper and the preview of end times worship:
In styling this as a preview of end times worship, I make reference to John Piper's statement that the end goal of all church activity is worship. This was one of those unplanned references....I hadn't thought of it during my prep time.... it came to mind in the midst of the sermon. I have an understanding that the Holy Spirit at times operates by dredging things up from the recesses of memory at the opportune time, and thus I have to make a quick discernment on whether this might or might not be the Holy Spirit leading (ie, judge against scriptural teaching, is this timely, is it needful for this congregation at this time). Obviously, in this case, I decided to go with it and use the illustration.

BTW, I came into the office this morning and looked up an exact quote ... right there in the opening sentences of Piper's Let the Nations Be Glad "Missions is not the ultimate goal of the church. Worship is. Missions exists because worship doesn't. Worship is ultimate, not missions, because God is ultimate, not man. When this age is over, and the countless millions of the redeemed fall on their faces before the throne of God, missions will be no more. It is a temporary necessity. But worship abides forever." (pg 11)

If you've never experienced Piper's preaching ... you must hear him firsthand. Here's a brief clip. He challenges me and stretches me as a preacher and a Christian.

While we're on the topic of worship, I wanted to share a few commentary quotes. My analysis of a passage is aided and informed by several commentaries (I'm using about 6 right now for Isaiah)...one of the most helpful is Ray Ortlund's. (see bio here). He has some wonderfully refreshing ways of capturing Isaiah's message in this passage:
“It is out of our delight in God that we find our prophetic voices. True Christianity isn’t primarily a matter of control; primarily it’s overflowing fullness. That is the triumph of grace.” (120)

“Have you transitioned from being frustrated with a reluctant God who isn’t cooperating with your agenda to being comforted by a God who is lavishing you with grace upon grace? How does anyone turn that corner? By going back to the gospel that made us Christians in the first place.” (120)

“The heart sings when we accept how little it matters that we are in control and how much it matters that God is in control for us, when we discover how little it matters that we are able and how much it suffices that God is able on our behalf.” (122)
That last quote was worth the cover price of the book....

Aspects of Worship: Praise for our Salvation (v1-2)
I linger a bit talking about how our praise shouldn't simply be about the glories of creation, but we're also called to praise for the glories of salvation. I don't mean to denigrate praise for the glories of creation....i'm really into God being praised through creation (Psalm 19). However, we cannot lose the praise of Christ for his distinctive work of salvation ... and thus I lingered on this point.

Aspects of Worship: Joy, the heart of our worship (v3)
Here was the controversial part of the sermon. I talk positively about joy .... and then I use a negative illustration for contrast. I chose for this negative illustration the creators of South Park: Matt Stone and Trey Parker (from a March Rolling Stone interview). I used this extended quote to show the poverty of their cynical worldview"

Parker says: “I spend shockingly little time thinking about real-world stuff…As far as I’m concerned, I’ve got a computer, the internet, an Xbox, and PlayStation 3, so f*** off.” and again “The only way to be more hardcore than everyone else is to tell the people who think they’re the most hardcore that they’re p******, to go up to a tattooed, pierced vegan and say ‘Whatever, you tattooed f******, you’re a pierced f****** and whatever.’ ......That’s hardcore”

Then the article author makes this observation "Like a lot of punks, he’s searching for that one pure thing in life but hasn’t found it yet.”

I quickly discovered that at least one person was highly offended by this illustration. Others were very bemused as to why I was talking about South Park. After the service, I approached the person who was offended to make sure we were OK. That person conveyed to me that South Park was totally offensive and it had no place in worship. We didn't end the conversation on bad terms. This person said their peace and they were OK (as near as I can tell). But plenty of others expressed their not understanding of the illustration.

I was a little confused because I made it clear that it's a negative example ... "It's a foul and profane show". Here's the thing .... I'd rather not talk about such things, but this is indeed the world in which we live. After worship, I spoke with at least 4 men who were under 40, all of whom watched South Park and thought it was hilarious. I really feel like my peers need to hear the worldview of the creators of South Park so they can understand the poverty...indeed the tragedy of that worldview.

And the church needs to hear it .... because if we simply get offended then we play into their game. They're trying to offend. They're trying to show that they don't care that they offend. However, by my perspective, it's easy to offend. Offensiveness doesn't require a lot of imagination....I do it plenty enough myself by accident (and I'm one who hates offending others). So, the only way to counter it is to rise above offendedness. After all, it's not like these guys are some outsider rebels anymore .... they've got a hit show, they're millionaires, for better or worse, they impact the culture a lot more than I do. They don't need me to be offended by them ... they need my pity. Because now that they've got everything they ever wanted, their lives are empty and void. Can you imagine looking at your dying day, thinking back over your legacy and saying "Yeah, I'm proud I created South Park....." It's pathetic....really. Our hearts ought to break for these guys .... for they have it all, and they know not what they're missing.

So I don't mean to dismiss the discomfort that some of our members may have felt. After reflection, I think I understand the discomfort. It's a little like someone showing up to your formal party with dungarees and muddy cowboy boots, only a lot more distasteful. It's like having something lovely (worship) marred by something ugly.

Aspects of worship: Worship carries the message to the nations (v4-6)
I meant to make the connection with the John ch 4 passage with the woman at the well. I mentioned it earlier when talking about the wells of living water. But the end of the story, the woman goes and tells her whole village and many come to faith. The wells of living water imagery goes hand in glove with telling the nations.

Aspects of worship: Worship leads us to break forth in song (v 5-6)
I mention Scott Dudley's presentation at the 2006 PGF conference. Here's a link to the videos available from that conference. The idea that group singing is one of the things that Christians do that baffles folks outside the church "why do you sing?".... and thus we all ought to sing with gusto.

Combox is open for questions, comments, thoughts.

Soli Deo Gloria.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Wednesday Sermon post-mortem

Ok, so in the spirit of going transmedia, I'm going to try to play with a new theme -- a sermon post-mortem. I'm thinking this is like a look at the cutting room floor combined with director's commentary and opportunities for follow up. The combox will be open for you to chime in with your comments and links and debates.

So for a trial run, I thought I'd quickly review this Wednesday's sermon
So our emphasis this past week was Acts 8:26-40.

Immediately after the sermon, I received a few smiling comments from our Baptist friends ... about Philip taking the eunuch down into the water for immersion. Honestly I didn't focus on Baptism because I don't think the mode is what's important in the text. Also, I'm a Presbyterian, and as we know, Presbyterians are Baptists who are afraid of water.

Early on in the sermon, I talk about the Ethiopian church that claims to house the ark of the covenant. I learned about this from Smithsonian Magazine's story.... In it we learn that the Ethiopian church (like the Egyptian church) also has mythology about Jesus and Mary sojurning there during the Herodian Persecution. The ark is supposedly housed in a secret treasury in Axum ... a lone priest is given the charge of guarding the ark...he's the only one allowed in, and he is never allowed out. Very much like the keepers of the holy grail in some grail lore (particularly in the Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade version of the story).

Then we get into the issue of the miraculous and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. In the sermon I shy away from the "Word of Knowledge" concept to prefer the idea of "Sanctified Intuition"....the idea that we personally receive a "Word of Knowledge" implies that we've received infallible revelation directly. "Sanctified Intuition" on the other hand implies that God works out his providence, and the more sanctified we are, the more attuned we are to seeing His hand at work. This article does a nice job of explaining what I'm getting at. However the point led up to this statement:

"Not every impulse is a move of the Holy Spirit" -- here's an illustration of that point that wound up on the cutting room floor. About 6 years ago, I had a great idea .... to host a Maximum Impact leadership simulcast here at the church ... but we were a small church and we needed to get some partnership to afford it and publicize it. I prayed it over .... it felt right. I sought counsel and received good advice. I approached the local business newspaper and they were on board. They hired a local event planner to make it happen. They publicized it. Two days before the event, I got a call from the publisher, a friend of mine. He told me there were 2 names on the registration list and he felt like he had to cancel. Blessedly it didn't damage our relationship, but I felt humiliated. Now I'm a little more cautious about how I read that inward compass. I understand that at times my own sin gets in the way of my intuition ... thus the need for it to be sanctified.

Then I speak to the Presbyterian/Reformed tendency toward Rationalism ... disparaging intuition at all. In illustrating our need to rely on the teaching work of the Holy Spirit, I reference the solo that was sung earlier in the service ... but the solo isnt on the audio sermon .... it was "Spirit of God Descend upon my heart" (text and tune here, though Phil sang a very different setting ... more melancholy and yearning). The key verse for the purposes of this sermon was: "Teach me to feel that Thou art always nigh;Teach me the struggles of the soul to bear.To check the rising doubt, the rebel sigh,Teach me the patience of unanswered prayer."

Here another illustration went to the cutting room floor -- I'm a big Jimmy Buffett fan (or was)... the song "Cowboy in the Jungle" has a great refrain "Roll with the punches/ learn to play all of your hunches/ make the best of whatever comes your way/ Forget that blind ambition/ and learn to trust your intuition/ plowin straight ahead, come what may" (Of course Buffett has a kind of hedonistic easy-breezy approach to this ... I'm not sure that he's thinking about the Holy Spirit .... even so, I like the song.... a lot.... just thought it would take too much intro to work this into the sermon).

Another illustration here that went unused -- Blink by Malcolm Gladwell -- mainly because I hadn't read the full book, just book reviews of it. In it he focuses on the idea of snap judgments and the way our brain works faster than our thinking.

Moving on to the next big point .... faith is not a lone ranger journey. We're not called to go through this alone. Scripture is sufficient in conveying the Main things .... I mention Alastair Begg's use of this phrase "The main things are the plain things". Even though scripture is sufficient, we need teachers to lead us and guide us. Alastair is one of the teachers I rely on .... here's a taste of his schtick and if you really like it, check out his church's website. For other good teachers, I suggest Mongergism.com...tons of resources from an abundance of great teachers.

I also mention the key qualifier for evaluating your teachers: "The teaching all points back to Christ" .... lots of illustrations wound up on the cutting room floor here... Mainly because they were personal stories that would malign the character of prominent Christian leaders. I thought it better to look at John the Baptist as the model "He must increase, I must decrease"

I discuss how we complicate evangelism with complicated methodologies rather than simply pointing people to Jesus. In that discussion, I talk about the history of the Second Great Awakening and some of the extraordinary technique used there that was spiritually unhelpful. For further reading, I commend Iain Murray's Revival and Revivalism, BB Warfield's work on Perfectionism, and the recent book A City Upon a Hill (see my review). The amazing quote from City Upon A Hill comes from Finney, reflecting upon his highly engineered and scripted revivalistic methodology, even he came to feel it was were “so much policy and machinery, so much dependence upon means and measures, so much of man and so little of God.” (115).

The closing hymn was Come Holy Spirit, Dove Divine (lyrics and music here).

So that's the post mortem... the combox is open (and John Jensen, I know you had some good comments, so jump in)

Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Hollywood's new Geek Elite

Can I call them or what? A mere week and a half after I lay out the need for the church to take a serious look at Geek culture, the latest Fast Company arrives, and within is an article on "The Rebel Alliance" .... Hollywood's new geek elite.

These are the creators of all the sci-fi hits that are taking the airwaves by storm: Heroes, Lost, Battlestar Galactica, etc. The article gives a fascinating insight into this creative aspect of geek culture ... it began back in the days of Star Trek and Star Wars .... it began with fandom.

All these uber-creatives were huge fans. Take Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Firefly: “I don’t understand creators who aren’t fans….My experience as a fan was, things that I loved, I loved very hard – Marvel Comics, science fiction, Dickens, Shakespeare, Sondhiem. The things I was a geek about, I was a serious geek about.” This kind of fanatical devotion is what Kevin Roberts analyzes in his book Lovemarks “Today the stakes have reached a new high. The social fabric is spread more thinly than ever. People are looking for new emotional connections. They are looking for what they can love. They are insisting on more choice, they have higher expectations, and they need emotional pull to help them make decisions. And finally, they want more ways to connect with everything in their lives -- including brands.” These creative elites intuitively understand that fans feel passionate about the imaginitive worlds, and they will want to play in them .... creators need to give those fans room in which to play ... and create and expand the universe. In the 70s and 80s this was done through fan conventions and fan fiction. Now it's done through transmedia storytelling.

Transmedia means telling the story across multiple platforms .... allowing multiple points of access into the imaginitive world. This is different from cross-promotion, the old marketing idea that when you made a movie, franchise the rights to McDonalds so you can have the happy meal. This is actually expanding the story in different places.

The article uses the TV show Heroes as an example. Beyond the weekly show, there are graphic novels that explore the lives of some of the minor characters, there are online games that allow you to experience some of the imaginitive world yourself, there are websites for the fictional companies that exist in the show, there are web extras that allow users to get into the commentary from the creators, there are official fan sites that allow fans to submit their own artwork. One could immerse themselves in the story as much as they want.

This really is no great surprise. Pine and Gilmore foretold this kind of transition in their work Experience Economy .... Way back in 2000 they posited that we were moving away from an economy based off goods and services to an economy that provided experiences. Their book detailed a taxonomy of the types of experiences people could enjoy and talked about how businesses of all sorts could transition to the experience economy.

And thus, the question becomes, what can we in the church learn?
1) from Fandom and Lovemarks, we learn something about the nature of committment. Many of the wars that happen within churches do not arise from apathy....they arise from Love. Take the worship wars for instance. The argument over traditional vs contemporary music is not simply an intellectual debate .... music has the power to stir deeply, and when they take "our" music away, they are messing with "our" world. Forget all the rationales one way or another and try to understand this from a fan perspective .... it's not much different than the which is cooler, Star Wars or Star Trek, debate ... The difference in the church is that we're expected to all get along and move forward together. We don't really have the option of saying "those crazy trekkies." and surrounding ourselves in a cocoon of our own preference. Perhaps understanding something of fan mentality will help us have a little more empathy for one another in the church.

2) Using transmedia. We in the church need to figure out ways to do church across multiple platforms. This doesn't mean we set up an "I-church" on Second Life and use that as our sole spiritual experience. that's not transmedia, that's replacing one media with another. Rather, we need to find ways that our multiple media complement each other. I believe that a physical presence in Sunday Worship is absolutely vital to our Christian growth and committment to a community of believers. But are there ways we can tell our story and bond together beyond that. Are there ways we can invite an "extended family" to continue to be a loose part of a congregation? Are there ways we can leverage technology to allow people to easily go deeper should they so desire? Transmedia is much more than setting up a static web-page ... it's creating online experiences that complement what is coming up.

so for instance .... we have a mission trip coming up this summer....to Waxhaw, NC. How could we use gaming technology, online experiences, etc, to help extend that mission trip to people who aren't able to physically be there?

Looking forward to your thoughts.
Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bodies: the Exhibition -- revisit

Back in February, I posted about my queasiness regarding the Bodies Exhibition at Cincinnati Museum Center.

Today, on the Cinplify Cincinnati News site, came this report about the resignation of the CEO of the company who put together the exhibit. Apparently, ABC News uncovered that the bodies were indeed illegally procured.

Score one for the professional investigative journalists! Score another for Web 2.0 (because I missed 20/20, and only found this story because a local blogger submitted it to the Cinplify).

Monday, April 21, 2008

Odds are against a Casino helping Cincinnati

The casino sturm und drang looms on the horizon for Ohio voters this fall. The MyOhioNow.com website uses slick advertising and scare tactics to seduce Ohio voters into approving the initiative: "Our tax dollars are leaving this state!" "Ohio is the only state in the great lakes region not to have a casino....can Ohio afford to stand alone?" "It's time to join the 21st century!"

Somewhere in this mix, city council is sure to jump on the bandwagon, saying that now more than ever we need to OK slot machines for someplace in downtown Cincinnati. When Kentucky legislators were debating allowing a casino in Northern Kentucky, Jeff Berding of the City Council was at the front of the Chicken Little parade, shouting "the sky is falling, the sky is falling." From a March 10, 2008 City Beat article:

The approval of casinos in Northern Kentucky is a direct economic threat to the city of Cincinnati and Hamilton County," Berding says. "The city of Cincinnati stands to lose millions of dollars in future economic development as a result of a casino across the river."

It's already a common site to see dozens of Hamilton County license plates in the parking lots of casinos in southeast Indiana on any given day, and places like Aurora, Lawrenceburg and Vevay have yielded a tremendous financial windfall as a result. Each year, Ohioans also take about $2 billion in revenue outside the state to gamble in locales across the United States, studies indicate. Berding believes the local drain would worsen if Kentucky joins the casino club.

"(We don't) propose to add casino gaming to all parts of the state, only those areas threatened economically by new neighboring casinos," he says. "Ohio currently loses $160 million in convention business that goes elsewhere in the region primarily due to nearby out-of-state casinos."

Berding's proposal has the support of a city council majority. His fellow Democrats Laketa Cole and John Cranley have endorsed the concept, as have Charterites Chris Bortz and Roxanne Qualls and Republican Leslie Ghiz. Council's Economic Dvelopment Committee will discuss the motion Tuesday, and it probably will be forwarded to state lawmakers by month's end.

Given this level of rhetoric, the Ohio Casino initiative is but another goad to the hysteria.

Freely, I admit that Ohio citizens fritter their dollars away in out of state casinos all the time. That still doesn't make it a good idea to have a casino. Indeed, the more places that have casinos, the less valuable it will be to have one. The market is allready well saturated, and it's unlikely that our city or our state will stand to benefit greatly.

These addle-headed proposals miss basic concepts driving a capitalistic economy ... division of labor, specialization, competition. Right now there is immense competition in the casino/gambling industry .... and our state/city would be entering into it like a rube in a 1950's musical wanting to make it big on Broadway. Quite simply, it would take a miracle for Ohio in general and Cincinnati in particular to effectively compete in a saturated market. It's not impossible, but .... well, let's say that the odds are against it.

Instead, we ought to focus on what already brings people here! Rather than wasting its time wringing collective hands about casinos, city council should look at how to promote our city's distinctiveness: rich arts, strong local culture, great cuisine, abundant green space, world class sports (well, major leage sports, anyway). City Council should look at how UC is driving technological innovation and health care in our region. City Council should explore how to leverage the existing business base in Cincinnati.

Who really cares Ohio license tags are at Casinos in Indiana? How many Kentucky, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Michigan, Illinois, etc license tags are at our sports events, kings Island, arts events, street festivals and the like? How can we use the abundant strengths we already have to draw more people here?

Casinos would function as a cancer, sucking precious resources away from these other economic generators. Please, City Council, don't jump on the bandwagon. Use your collective brains to build on our strengths, rather than spreading this city's resources thin.

See also: A Casino for Broadway Commons: Bad Idea


Thursday, April 17, 2008

Geek Epic poetry -- speculative fiction

Geeks love a good story. But their stories tend to come in fantastical packages complete with amazing powers, colossal fights, and cunning strategy. Yes, Geeks love science fiction and fantasy.

Indeed, the slew of blockbuster superhero/fantasy/science fiction films the past few years is testament to the ascendency of Geek culture: Batman, Superman, Spiderman (the original Geek icon ... Peter Parker the science nerd becomes the wisecracking friendly neighborhood spiderman), Iron Man, the X Men, Fantastic Four, Stargate, Battlestar Galactica, Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, Lord of the Rings, 300 (though loosely based in history, it is more of a sword and fire fantasy epic), Pirates of the Carribean, and on and on. All these hugely successful shows and franchises have several elements in common:

1) they are fantastical .... imagination is key ... amazing heroes, powerful villans, lots of action.
2) they are archetypal .... the stories echo the great epic tales of old, retold with new heroes for a new era. Deeper themes lay behind the action.
3) they are escapist ... because they are a break from the "ordinary world" ... they catch the audience up into the story. We leave this world behind for a time, and thus the themes hit home in a deeper place of our pscyhe.

In short, like any of us, the stories that we love are the stories that speak to us. These fantastical worlds are their epic poetry. I discovered this when we did our Gospel According to Star Wars study. The Geek Culture mavens at BoingBoing picked up the story, and we had thousands of hits from all over the world looking at our website. But many of the geek culture comments were pretty cynical ... I found one blogger (whose site I can't seem to find anymore) who quipped something to the effect of "why can't these Christians leave our stuff alone." Theres a feeling of proprietary ownership in that comment ... "these are our stories, they're special to us .... and you Christians have been hostile to them." is the sense I get.

But you see, I'm a Geek...have been since a kid. I was reading superhero comics and playing with computers since an early age. I was reading Harry Potter before Harry Potter was cool. I was a trekkie (minus the costumes) long before there was Jean Luc Picard. I even had the Starfleet Technical Manual. I played Dungeons and Dragons. I learned to program in BASIC on a TRS 80. On Friday nights, when my friends were out at parties, I was at home watching Dr. Who. These are my stories too, you, know?

But this is where many Christians go woefully awry. I remember the fundamentalist protests against D&D and Harry Potter. I learned all about the backlash against comic books that led to the Comics Code Authority. Is it any wonder that Geek culture feels hostility toward Christianity.

Now don't get me wrong, I dont endorse uncritical engagement with these literary forms ... we ought to be thoughtful about them however. Stories are powerful and rich and touch our hearts in special ways. And a really good story cant help but point us to gospel themes .... loyalty, sacrifice, good vs. evil, atonement, redemption. Good stories are powerful instruments of fostering and growing faith.

As for me ... after being immersed in these archetypal stories for so long, they helped me understand the true story of the living God who vanquished evil. Tolkien talked about mythology as simply pointing to the true story ... and that's what he accomplished in Lord of the Rings. As Christians, we need to learn to exegete these fantastical stories, see the redemptive elements in them. We need to learn how to tell good stories ourselves (and that doesn't mean facile stories where all the people convert at the end). And we need to let our imagination play a little bit in some of the realms of the fantastic .... for that is where the Geek mind often dwells.

Soli Deo Gloria

Monday, April 14, 2008

Off the Shelf: Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky

Pardon my enthusiasm. This is a must-read for those who would lead, influence, or work for any kind of group goal. Shirky looks at the proliferation of Web 2.0 technology ... tools that enable users to connect and generate content themselves. If Web 1.0 was the idea of a bunch of online articles that were hyperlinked so people could go and get information, Web 2.0 is the idea that we extend our social relationships online so that we can share, collaborate, and accomplish more together.

Shirky believes that these tools will bring about a fundamental change in society (and he's been writing about that belief for a while....see his extensive list of articles here). Even so, he's no doe-eyed utopian who uncritically embraces technology as a panacea. He gives some frightening examples of negative uses of online tools as well as thrilling examples of positive uses.

There are many who consider social media to be a colossal waste of time. It's easy to come to such conclusions...for so many waste their time amassing vast stores of trivia online (though, part of the genius of Web 2.0 is that anyone is able to connect with people who share their same interests...or as Shirky puts it "people who are odd in the same ways you are odd").

Shirky makes this an interesting tale by loading up with real world stories of how social media has been used to accomplish ends. He begins with the story of a stolen cell phone, and how one man was able to use blogging, news aggrigator sites, and online message boards to mobilize a veritable army of helpers who assisted in the recovery of the phone. Shirky uses this as a parable to point us to the truth that the rules are changing “When we change the way we communicate, we change society. The tools that society uses to create and maintain itself are as central to human life as a hive is to bee life.” (17)

He then backs up and does a little sociology...spending time talking about why heirarchical organizations fit a particular need. He explains how as a group grows, the complexity increases numerically. I wish I could find a visual representation of this online, but instinctively we know this. We understand that when a small group grows over 12-15 members, the dynamics radically change. When a congregation grows over 150 the dynamics radically change. This is because we're not only considering our relationship with each person in the group, but also each person's relationships with others in the group. If a group of 150 adds just one person, you don't just add one more point of complexity, you add 150 points of complexity (how does x person relate to y...do they know each other...are they mad at each other...etc). Centralized heirarchy allowed for levels of bureacracy to manage that complexity.

But with that bureacracy comes a cost. To accomplish the ends of the group, a significant amount of energy needed to be poured into managing the group. Therefore, certain tasks -- that might be interesting to a few -- were left undone because it just didn't make economic sense to do them...it would cost to much in terms of oversight and management for the organization to do them.

Shirky's thesis is that social media tools lower to the "management costs" of organizing people. “So long as the absolute cost of organizing a group is high, unmanaged groups will be limited to undertaking small efforts – a night out at the movies, a camping trip. Even something as simple as a potluck dinner typically requires some hosting institution. Now that it is possible to achieve large-scale coordination at low cost, a third category has emerged: serious complex work, taken on without institutional direction.” (47) From this vantage point, he talks about the different means of collaboration: sharing of information (like sharing photos on flickr); cooperation (synchronizing with people who share a similar interest); collaboration (a group committing to a particular undertaking together).


He then spends a chapter explaining the development of media....particularly interesting was his approach to the Gutenburg printing press revolution....it destroyed a scribal tradition that dated back for a millenia. Scribes solved a great problem, but the printing press eliminated that problem, and it created opportunities for new literature. In much the same way, social media is transforming our understanding of "news" and it is creating new opportunities for new ways of packaging events. But the most interesting change comes in the next chapter, titled "Publish, then filter." The concept here is that because of printing and distribution costs, old media institutions added value by deciding what was important ("all the news that's fit to print") and delivering it to us. Get that...the old media did the job of filtering.

Now that the costs of printing and distribution have virtually been erased there is still a need for a filter argues Shirky. He gives the illustration of taking a library, shaking all its contents out into a football field, and then randomly picking up a book and hoping it's Aristotle. Access to information still doesn't solve the problem of filtration. Shirky posits that new "communities of practice" arise that allow people to filter in groups. He believes that we as humans are wired to be social...we like creating and sharing things that we've found that are helpful. When we gather together around a common interest or common cause, we naturally share what we've found helpful. And thus, our community becomes a filtration system. (It's like all the hunter gatherers around the fire telling stories about the great hunts and great battles....they filter out information for each other so the group learns....only now that sharing can happen across great geographical distances).

Shirky then moves on to the more complex task of getting people to self collaborate. And he uses the idea of Wikipedia as an example. The core idea of Wikipedia was to facilitate editing. The original intent of the tool was to let experts quickly publish drafts of encyclopedia articles and then let the editing process happen quickly. The experts didn't want to give up control, so they loosed Wikipedia on the web and it became a quick smash...there are a few reasons why.

1) Simplicity of the idea. Everybody knew what an encyclopedia was already. They had a mental model. This lowers the amount of creativity required to take a first stab at something. Also “In a system where anyone is free to get something started, however badly, a short, uninformative article can be the anchor for the good article that will eventually appear. Its very inadequacy motivates people to improve it: many more people are willing to make a bad article better than are willing to start a good article from scratch.” (122)

2) A dedicated core. Shirky talks about the "power distribution" --- basically a graphical curve illustrating the old 80/20 principle. 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. That small group becomes the core who defends Wikipedia against the vandals and raiders. That small core makes it possible for the other 80% to submit their articles and have them be meaningful....having a small dedicated core actually empowers all the others to be able to come and make a contribution.

3) Quick reward. We all get a good feeling from sharing our knowledge (no matter how esoteric) and feeling like we've left a positive mark. When our contribution is out there, we're more bonded with the community and more likely to come back. Soon the project becomes a labor of love, not just for a dedicated few, but for a broader set: “We don’t often talk about love when trying to describe the public world, because love seems to squishy and too private. What has happened, though, and what is still happening in our historical moment, is that love has become a lot less squishy and a lot less private. Love has a half-life too, as well as a radius, and we’re used to both of those being small. We can affect the people we love, but the longevity and social distance of love are both constrained. Or were constrained – now we can do things for strangers who do things for us, at a low enough cost to make that kind of behavior attractive, and those effects can last well beyond our original contribution. Our social tools are turning love into a renewable building material. When people care enough, they can come together and accomplish things of a scope and longevity that were previously impossible; they can do big things for love.” (141-2)

Collective Action
Shirky then ventures into the most interesting arena: Collective Action. Joining forces to achieve some specific common goal. Here the stories come fast and furious. Voices of the Faithful using blogs and social media to keep the story of the priest sex abuse scandal alive. Airline customers across the country banding together to push for an airline passenger bill of rights. Activists in Egypt using twitter to give instant updates on police movements, and track their own movements through the judicial system. Dissidents in Belarus using cell phones and text messaging to organize "Flash Mobs" to protest governmental oppression. People using Meetup to develop all new social groupings and to facilitate face to face get togethers with folks of like interest.

Shirky draws a few lessons
1) the cost of failure with these groups is so low, that it pays to keep trying different things until they fit (again, back to the publish then filter model)....if something doesn't work, we have lots of leeway to tinker with it and try yet again.
2) there is a process that marks the successful efforts. Promise - Tool - Bargain. Your social group has to offer a promise that is enticing, yet attainable (We'll offer you a chance to contribute articles to a reliable encyclopedia; we'll offer you a chance to .....) - then you have to match your tool to your promise (see earlier point...not all tools fit all purposes....) and then you have to keep to the bargian ... you provide certain parameters within which people will operate, and they'll provide content/interaction.
3) Defend what you love. Shirky gives a great illustration .... utopian anarchists (who believe that people are basically good and can self organize) in Holland launched a White Bicycle program in the mid 60s. They distributed bicycles in Amsterdam for all to use for free. Pick up a white bike, ride it, and leave it for the next guy. It was an instant failure. Within a month, all the bicycles had been stolen or thrown into the canals. Other utopians have tried the same scheme "The cumulative results of these experiments are unambiguous: programs that offer unrestricted access to communal bicycles have struggled with theft, and most have ended up collapsing completely." (282)....the programs that succeed have registrations and ID cards and places to check them out and return them to. The point being....we need to consider human depravity when working through our social networks....and defend them, just like we would defend our property.

Lots of stuff there....lots of implications for how the church (or Christians) can take advantage of social media. More thoughts are going on at the Geek Culture Mission Project on Facebook. Feel free to chime in here or there.

Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, April 11, 2008

The Singularity --- the Geek Judgment Day

Since Geekdom is on the brain, let me spend a few posts exegeting the culture.

Starting with the Singularity. The term Singularity has many applications in many fields of endeavor, but when Geeks talk about it, they mean a technological singularity that will radically transform human existence. Geekdom looks at the rapid advance of technological change ... for now we can trace a reasonable trajectory as to where that change is going. But the change accellerates, and there comes a point on the horizon when the change accelerates to a point that we can no longer predict or control it. In other words, technology takes on a direction of its own...not guided by us. (see the wikipedia post on the Technological Singularity)

It's a technological Judgment Day. It's a vision that fascinates much of Geek Culture. Understand, this isn't a concept that is equated with Science Fiction. Star Trek, Star Wars...both are science fiction, but neither has anything to do with the singularity (unless you consider the Borg as a manifestation of the Singularity). I did some reading on the Singularity a few years ago .... Ray Kurzweil wrote the definitive text a few years ago The Singularity is Near. You can see some of the interesting topics in this Digg search on "Singularity".

The Singularity appears in many dystopian contexts such as Skynet in the Terminator Saga and
The Matrix in the trilogy by the same name. An early reference to the concept is in Harlan Ellison's horror classic "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream" (which gave me terrors for weeks) -- about a computer network that becomes sentient and is so powerful that it controls the very fabric of reality. It also plays into a fringe of Geek culture that actively wants the singularity to happen ... a fringe that advocates transhumanism (the idea that we need to embrace technological enhancement to such a way that we literally evolve into a new species -- a cybernetic species)

All this is very interesting b/c it hints at something ... that there is a technological judgment that will come upon humanity. Indeed, in the Terminator Saga, the term Judgment Day is applied to when the sentient computers begin their war to annihilate humanity. There's an understanding that humanity is dismally flawed (dare we say sinful)....and yet there is something of dignity that ought to remain on the other side of the singularity....something worth preserving. Those who advocate for the singularity might well see it as a kind of redemption of the human race; while those who view it in dystopian terms might well see it as a kind of judgment day. Yet the dignity/depravity conundrum is still there ... mankind brings wrath upon itself, yet it is still worth fighting for. We have theological concepts for these: Bearing the Image of God (to explain our inherent dignity) and Depravity (to explain the corruption of the human heart).

No matter how you slice it... the concept of the Singularity is a powerful force in Geek culture. Even Christian Geeks really enjoy the speculative fiction that the Singularity concept produces... and the concept can quickly lead to discussions about dignity/depravity; judgment; the purpose/meaning of life. However, facile responses won't really help here. Just throwing the Left Behind books at these folks won't cut it. Try A Canticle for Liebowitz as a good Christian sci fi thriller that might appeal.


Thursday, April 10, 2008

Geek Culture Wars..... how do Christians love on Geek culture?

As usual, American Christian culture is about a decade behind the rest of the nation. This article from the February 9 issue of World says it all:

If you think that secular humanism has become biblical Christianity's most threatening opponent in contemporary society, Peter Jones wants you to think again. He will tell you—politely but emphatically—that you're at least a decade or two behind the curve.

Secular humanism boasts that it is void of explicit spiritual content—and in a way, Jones says, it has lived up to that promise. But in featuring such emptiness, it has left a globe full of people with vacant hearts and minds craving even a little spiritual substance. And that hunger, in turn, has turned its victims into prime candidates for what Jones calls "neo-pagan spirituality." It is all the rage.

Secular Humanism? A decade or two? Think like three or four. The incredible irony is that "neo-pagan spirituality" is so firmly entrenched now that addressing it is like having a conversation about the Soviet Union. Seriously.... Buffy the Vampire Slayer signalled the ascendency of neo-paganism a long time ago. Christian thinkers need to be aware of neo-paganism, but not as the most "cutting edge" challenge.

I'd say that honor goes to Geek culture.

Geek culture is the subculture of high tech high flying programmers, developers, systems designers, and general tech-heads who basically rule the internet. These aren't the people who put up groups on Facebook....they're the people who build Facebook. They're a global community, connected more by shared values than by racial-ethnic ties. And they are flexing their muscle.

Geek culture is ruthlessly libertarian. "No whining" is a mantra in many circles. Geek culture thrives on a Do it Yourself approach to life: you're smart and savvy and nothing is stopping you from building the life you want, so get busy. Quit whining and get busy. However concomitant with that "get busy" attitude is a generosity with knowledge and willingness to help. For those who are looking to improve themselves, Geek culture offers abundant advice and assistance.

Wikipedia is the prime example. You want an article there...just get off your keyster and put it up.... and then other people will help you perfect it. However Geek culture doesn't just apply this ethos to online resources. There's a large movement within Geek culture of handcrafting clothes, furniture, and anything else in your life....mainly because you can and it's an expression of you. Again Geek culture is an ethos, not just an online activity.

The libertarian streak also entails a certain desire to be left alone. Slick salesmanship earns scorn and derision. The ethos is one of a meritocracy of ideas ... present your ideas honestly and be willing to fight for them ... in the end truth will out. Fools are not given much quarter (unless they are able make fools out of themselves in such an entertaining way that they merit repeat visits).

There's lots more analysis, but for more information, check out these key geek culture websites:
BoingBoing (a so called "directory of wonderful things")
LifeHacker (something akin to a Farmers Almanac for Geek culture)
David Allen's Getting things Done (something like the Geek code of living)
Make Magazine and Craft Magazine (emphasizing the Do It Yourself ethos)

The key thing I want to convey however is that treating these folks like they're "the enemy" is nuts. There's a lot of good stuff in the ethos. We need to get to know these people. We don't need to show them how cool Christians are (as though we high schoolers trying to ascend the ladder of hipness). Somehow, we need to embrace how unhip Christianity can be, and yet still find a way to get to know these folks and show them the love of Christ.

If you're interested in trying to figure this out, why not:
1) join the Geek Culture Mission Project group that I've started on Facebook. Post a few thoughts or helpful links.
2) Digg this article for others to see.
3) Blog about this yourself
4) Forward this article to your online friends (as a fun game, lets see how long it takes for Al Mohler to address this issue....if you think it's timely enough, lets see how many people will forward it to him).
5) Quit whining ourselves....and start figuring out what kinds of positive projects we want to work on that might be a blessing to these folks and other mission fields.

Comments away
Soli Deo Gloria

Friday, April 04, 2008

What is the church -- April Newsletter Article

Here's my cover article from this month's April church newsletter....for those who are interested, but don't receive it.

It’s a question that bears reflecting upon from time to time: “What is the church?” Some assume that the church is simply the building in which a collection of people worship, others think of it as one of de Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations”, much like a fraternal club or a civic organization. Some see it as an institution; others as a family. Even within our own congregation, there is a divergence of views.

I believe that God’s word gives us sufficient understanding of what the church is, and we can see a few major themes as we look at Scripture (though this is by no means an exhaustive catalogue):

1) The church is a Covenant People. Throughout scripture, we see God making covenant with his people as a way of expressing his special relationship with them. The call of Abraham in Genesis 12 is confirmed in a formal ceremony in Genesis 15 and later confirmed in Genesis 17. God elaborates and expands the covenant in Exodus, and we find the laws of Leviticus and Deuteronomy as expressions of that covenant. God further develops the covenant with his people in 2 Samuel 7, establishing an eternal kingly rule. And in Jeremiah 31, God promises a new and better covenant that is in Christ. Across the sweep of scripture, both Old and New Testament, we see that a grace-based personal relationship with the living God is foundational to understanding the church. Church isn’t just “a good thing to do”….it is committing to a relationship of trust and commitment to the living God.

2) The church is Universal. This term does not mean that every human who ever lives is a part of the church. Rather, it means that the church is not bound by time and ethnicity. Galatians 3:28 tells us “there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus”. By coming into covenant with the living God, each of us also establishes a bond with every one else who has been in that covenant. All the saints of the past are our brothers and sisters (as Hebrews 11 and 12 so glowingly illustrate in the image of the “great cloud of witnesses”). All the saints of different nations are connected with you in a special way by virtue of the covenant relationship we share. We may be divided by language and political borders, yet we are essentially one in our faith in Christ.

3) The church is on a Mission. This mission is quite simply to make God known through word and deed. Jesus gave his disciples the great commission at the end of Matthew: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20). Earlier in that same gospel, Jesus teaches “…let your light shine before others, that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” (5:16). This is not just a call for us to send resources and people overseas. It is a call for each of us to be used as God’s missionaries where He has placed us. Whether in physically blessing others through good deeds or spiritually blessing them with good news, we are acting as God’s instruments to make Him and His character known.

As we reflect together on the nature of the church, I hope you’ll consider that church is not so much where you go as it is who you are.
Soli Deo Gloria

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Learning more about Islam...

It has become quite clear to many that we need to understand more about Islam...
This not because we need to have some doe eyed vision of religious pluralistic unity (for that in itself is basically a new separate religion unto itself).

We need a better understanding of Islam because it affects us (the us being American Christians, us). Our friends and neighbors and loved ones in the armed forces are deployed in predominantly Muslim countries in which they are often viewed as hostile crusaders. Meanwhile, Islam is rapidly growing around the world, and in our own country. Islamic proselytizing and demands for cultural accomodation abound across Europe and are in the rise in the United States.

However, a xenophobic rejection of all things Muslim is counterproductive. We must seek to understand. Understanding is not the same thing as accomodation .... it is simply seeking knowledge ... seeking to know Islam as it understands itself (and us).

Robert Spencer of Jihad Watch is taking that imperitive to understand to a deeper level. He is by no means an apologist for Islam. And yet he would not have us be kneejerk opponents. He would like us to actually read the Koran and read what Islamic commentators on the Koran have to say about it. And so, he's blogging each sura of the Koran, trying to digest the mainstream teaching. It's enlightening, to say the least....and certainly worth a look.

Understanding Islam will help our mission efforts. Understanding Islam will help us better articulate our own faith (the critiques that Islam raises against Christianity do invite answers...and we've got some pretty good ones). I hope you'll take a look at Spencer's efforts. They are quite enlightening....and then, after reading some of the Koran, spend a lot more time reading the Bible.

Soli Deo Gloria

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

TechSoup -- a website for eligible nonprofits to get discount stuff

I was having lunch with our webmaster Andy Adams today...we were talking a host of technology issues, including the upcoming installation of new computer equipment in our church offices. He told me he was waiting for our ordered versions of Microsoft Office to arrive. "Yeah it was pretty amazing ...I got it down in price from $500 to $150 to $20"

This caught my attention. $20 for something from the Redmond Mafia? Could it be true? And it was. Andy had done some digging and found TechSoup.org, a website dedicated to helping nonprofits adopt and use the latest technology for the lowest cost. They arrange for big fish like Microsoft and Adobe and Intuit to share their software with nonprofits. TechSoup does all the vetting to make sure that only legitimate nonprofits make the grade, and they charge a minimal administrative fee (in the case of Office, $20) for providing the software. So we go from spending $500 per copy to $20. (I never did ask Andy what the $150 step was).

So all you nonprofits and churches out there....pay a visit to TechSoup to see if your technology needs can be met cheaply. They also have lots of instructional information about choosing and using technology solutions. Well worth the visit.