Thursday, March 31, 2011

Bits and Tidbits, March 2011

Surreal: AlexaMeade's Photostream. Real people, placed in settings then painted to look like paintings.
Bargains: Best and Worst Dollar Store Buys from Kiplinger.com. A good survey of what is really a good buy from your local dollar store.
Beautiful: The Book Surgeon. Who says there won't continue to be a use for printed books after eBooks take over? (HT: Neil)
Insightful: What I don't look for in a church. This great blog post addresses just how (un)important the priority of a polished and exciting children's ministry really is.
Broken: "The Brand" by David Grann. This New Yorker article is an incredible look at the gang culture in prisons, and exposes just how broken people really are. It also makes me thankful for ministries like Prison Fellowship. Warning: caustic language.

Bonus Tidbits for March!

Funny: "It's Time to Play 'Sheen, Beck, or Qaddafi'" from New York magazine. Yes, it's a game, just as it sounds. Yes, it's funny.
NOT Funny: "World's Youngest Granny Is Just 23" by Brian Flynn. No, it's not a typo.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Fear of Technology

Every so often I bump up against fear of technology.

Not just ANY technology-- this fear will inevitably be of new/recent technology, and the verdict rendered by the fearful soul often will be either flippant dismissal ("These eBook readers will never approach the experience of a good old printed book!"), over-generalized accusation ("Now you've sold out to the gods of Apple and Microsoft!"), or naïve misunderstanding ("Is this going to destroy my vision and suck out my soul?").

Now, I'll admit that technology can be a little frightening at times. After all, as Arthur C. Clarke observed in his now semi-famous comment:
"Any sufficiently advance technology is indistinguishable from magic."
("Profiles of the Future," 1961)

But I want to challenge my tens of readers to a more tempered, logical view of technology-- first, with a declaration, then with three urgent approaches.

As I see it, most of us think of "technology" as that which has been developed in the memory of our lifetime. This is why some incredibly advanced technologies are embraced by those who quickly eschew others: think of the senior citizen whose grandchildren are unable to get him to use the computer they gave him for Christmas, and who is also fearful of the day when his children will try to take away his car keys. Never mind that the car he loves employs more diverse types of technologies (including several computers!) than the desktop computer he hates. The technology of computers is new, while he's been driving cars all of his life.

This also explains why some technological advances are more widely-embraced than others. Specifically, those that are more "evolutionary" than "revolutionary." Consider, for example, how easily many have adapted to mobile phones (a simple evolution of the telephone, which went from being a relatively huge, heavy appliance supplied by the phone company to smaller, sleeker models, then to wireless in-home phones, then fully mobile). Smartphones, on the other hand, do not see the same widespread embrace (they represent revolution, not merely evolution, in some senses).

In light of this idea, I would urge three approaches to technology:
  • Consistency: think about how your view of technology might be mitigated with a more consistent view of "technology." Some folks balk at the idea of using a video projector in worship, for example, because they don't want "technology" shaping their worship-- but they don't mind using electric lights, HVAC systems, or even sound amplification! Others are lamenting the "death of the book" because of the rise in eReaders and digital technology; don't you think similar questions and hyperboles were uttered at the invention of the Gutenberg press? Before scoffing at the guy two pews in front of you who is reading his Bible on his iPhone, consider how much technology went into producing your sewn (or glued), bound, printed copy of the Bible.
  • Discernment: the fearful are at least partly-right-- we DO need to be discerning about our use of technology. Most fears are grounded in some measure of truth, and this is no different. Certainly, it is possible for technology to be used inappropriately and even harmfully. On a TV show that Marcie and I enjoy, one member of the cast comments, "my generation really got gypped when it came to technology; where are our flying cars and jet packs?" His (younger) companion asks, "how about the personal computer and the internet?" "Oh-- a more efficient vehicle for junk mail and pornography? No thank you." And the point is clear. But the same technology CAN be used in a helpful way, and IS every day. So let's be discerning about the introduction of technology, recognizing that it might be a real tool and asset when used in the right way-- or it could be destructive and harmful. We must safeguard against the one while not eliminating the other. Abusus non tollem usit-- "abuse does not negate proper use;" or as someone else put it, "Light sabers don't kill Jedi-- Jedi kill Jedi."
  • Moderation: A corollary to discernment is also approaching technology with moderation. Just because we CAN develop a new technology doesn't mean we SHOULD do so. This is, of course, the foundational debate beneath the stem-cell research question that has been batted about over the last 10 years, but it is fundamental to many other technological advances, too. And, of course, it is possible to hold up technology as the solution to every problem and the answer to every question. We cannot overcome sin with technology! We need to exercise moderation in our very approach to technology, as well as in our embrace and use of it.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Endorsement for Grafted Into The Vine

T. David Gordon is Professor of Religion & Greek at Grove City College in Grove City, Pennsylvania; he is also the author of Why Johnny Can't Preach and Why Johnny Can't Sing Hymns-- two books that have skyrocketed in popularity due to their poignant critique of much of our church culture today. T. David is also ordained as a Teaching Elder in my denomination, the PCA.

He was gracious enough to offer an endorsement for my recent booklet, Grafted Into The Vine: rethinking biblical church membership. Here's what he said:

"This volume clearly, gently, and biblically addresses why believers should care about and be members of Christ's visible church on earth. It is convincing without being argumentative, and instructive without being pedantic. Thoughtful Christians will be rewarded for the small amount of effort it takes to read this good book."


Thanks so much, T. David!

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The ongoing advance of eBooks

I have a strong interest in books, eBooks, writing, and publishing (which I mention just in case it isn't self-evident!). Not only as a reader and bibliophile, but also as a writer and publisher, I continue to find books to be some of the most compelling media and certainly some of the best ways to communicate ideas broadly.

As I pointed out in a recent post, eBooks are here to stay. What may surprise you is that eBooks have a 40-year history! Here's a useful and interesting infographic describing that history (Facebook readers, visit the blog to see the graphic):

”"

via ebookfriend.ly



Do you read eBooks? What platform(s) do you prefer to read them with?

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Tom Hanks on children

Tom Hanks is hilarious, and obviously very talented. In this video, he manages to poke fun at himself and the "show business" world, while also exposing how ridiculous some parents act about their kids. Worth a watch (HT: Jonathan):

Thursday, March 17, 2011

St. Patrick's Day videos

More videos, this time in honor of St. Patrick's Day.

Let's start with some Muppets doing "Danny Boy":



Those "Leprechaun Brothers" remind me of this leprechaun in Alabama:


Which reminds me of this scene from Wayne's World:


That brings us to the (pretty awful) string of Leprechaun movies-- NOT one of Jennifer Aniston's career highlights:


And we'll finish up with John Mayer -- oddly enough, also not one of Jennifer Aniston's career highlights-- singing "St. Patrick's Day":



Happy St. Patrick's Day, everyone!

(Facebook folks, watch these videos on my blog: pastorblog.hickorywithepc.org.)

Satirical videos about pastors

These videos (brought to you by "TheLutheranSatire" channel on YouTube) are hilarious, making use of a website/technology that let's you input dialogue and choose a scenario, then it auto-generates a cartoon video.

Check them out for a really good laugh!

Ash Wednesday: How Do We Celebrate?



Things your Lutheran Pastor Totally Loves, #1: Quick Questions


Things your Lutheran Pastor Totally Loves, #2: Talking with Biblicists



(Facebook folks, see them on the blog: http://pastorblog.hickorywithepc.org)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

iPad apps I use

I was pleasantly surprised at the interest in my recent reflections on my iPad as a tool for presbytery and General Assembly. It seems like there may be some usefulness to further reflections, so here's a look at the apps I use regularly (which will give some insight into how I use my iPad as well, I suppose). NB: the links will take you to the iTunes page where you can get the app, or read more about it.

Bible Tools
ESV Study Bible ($14.99). I have loved this app as a great way to access the Bible. It loads quickly, and is very easy to navigate. It also has all of the content (commentary, notes, maps, etc.) from the full ESV Study Bible, which makes it a real bargain. This is my first choice for Bible apps in my iPad, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. Alternatively, you can get the ESV Bible without the study content, as a free app.
Accordance (free). I use Accordance as my primary Bible software on my Mac, and their iPad companion app is a super complement to it. I can open just about any module that I already have purchased/installed on my computer, so it is good for cross-referencing in original languages or in other translations (not to mention the other modules).It's also fast in loading, and the search/navigation is easy and quick. Because I already use it on my Mac, I can't offer any insight about which modules would be available to those who just want to use it on their iPad.
Others: I also have, and have used, the Logos app, which is a companion to the full Logos Bible software (much like Accordance in that way); it too is a good and usable app, and is free-- though again, I cannot comment on what modules/texts are available if you don't already own them in a desktop version. Those who want free access to just about any translation will appreciate the Bible HD app from LIfechurch.tv, but two limitations may frustrate: first, it loads somewhat slowly, and second, you must have a constant internet connection to access the texts.

"Presbyterian" Tools
Reformed Confessions. I have two apps for this, and they are both very good: iReformed Reference Library (99¢), and Christian Creeds & Reformed Confessions (free). Both have the same content, in somewhat different layouts-- the Westminster Standards (Confession + Larger and Shorter Catechisms), the Three Forms of Unity (Belgic Confession, Heidelberg Catechism, and the Canons of Dort), and three creeds (Apostles', Nicene, and Athanasian). I find the iReformed Reference Library slightly less-easy to navigate, especially because it requires a horizontal orientation. Otherwise, you can't go wrong with either.
Robert's Rules ($1.99). This is an app version of the book Robert's Rules of Order, and has a nice, hierarchical layout. If you're already pretty familiar with the content of Robert's Rules, this app will be quite useful; if you don't know your way around the book, though, you may have trouble finding what you seek. (The app needs a search feature to compensate for this.) Also, it is based on an older version of the text, so some of the wording may be slightly different from a current publication. An eBook version may be preferable to some/most.
GoodReader ($2.99). There are a LOT of PDF readers for iPad, and you certainly don't need to pay for one to read PDFs (Apple's iBooks reads PDFs quite well, and is free.) But I like GoodReader because it has some powerful options for making notes and adding bookmarks. I commented on these in my previous post, so I wont' re-hash it here.

Social Tools
Social. I use this as my main access for Facebook in my iPad-- I'm surprised, though, that I can't find it in the App Store any longer. It's either no longer available(!) or being updated.
Flipboard (free). I go back and forth with using this one-- sometimes I prefer it for regularly checking updates on Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and other sources. At other times, I ignore it for weeks. You might like this if you are primarily a consumer of social media, not an interactor; if you like to comment, respond, "like", etc., you might find Flipboard limiting. But if you want to take in a wide amount of social network information and process it quickly, Flipboard may be a good alternative to the standard options.
TweetDeck (free). I don't do a lot of Twitter on my iPad, mostly because it find it a more tedious interface for the way I use Twitter. On the occasions when I do want to read tweets, TweetDeck is a good solution for me: it allows me to have multiple accounts open in the same "window" at the same time, and check them quickly.
GoodReads (free). I use GoodReads on my iPad even less than Twitter, and I wish they would release an iPad app that was more full-featured. This is simply the iPhone app in a larger screen. Occasionally (maybe a couple of times a month, if that) I open this one up, and I'm glad to have it when I do.

Information Tools
The Weather Channel (free). I check this app (either on my iPhone or iPad) every morning, and sometimes during the day. The iPad version is awesome-- it gives easy access to several different displays simultaneously, making it really easy to get a sense of the weather now, over the next few hours, and in the coming days. This is a great addition to any iPad, in my opinion.
ESPN Scorecenter XL (free). I use the iPhone version for a long time, but didn't install this one until they made it a free app for iPad. Still, I've found it to be useful to check scores and standings. I wish they would work out an ESPN3 solution for iPad, and I assume that they are trying to figure that out. Meanwhile, this is a great way to keep tabs on teams that aren't of great interest locally.
Articles (99¢). This is a more recent addition, but I've found it to be a very approachable interface for accessing Wikipedia articles quickly, and marking those that are of interest.
Star Walk ($4.99). We got this last summer when there was a meteor shower coming, and we found ourselves in the backyard watching the sky a good bit. This is a really cool app, and a great guide to which stars are which. We'll get more use of it again when the weather is better, I'm sure.
iBird Explorer ($9.99). This is the iPhone version, but I have it in my iPad too. Think of a digital, interactive version of the green Audubon guides, and you've got a sense of what this app offers. We like it for identifying backyard birds, but I got the "South" version so that when we travel we can use it elsewhere. Lots of fun. I wish it had capacity for a list of which birds we have seen.

Reading Tools
InstaPaper ($4.99). Without a doubt, this is my most-used iPad app. I follow a lot of blogs and news sites by RSS, which I either scan, read quickly (if the article is short), or send to InstaPaper. Then I can read them offline on my iPad (or iPhone) whenever/wherever I want. One of my favorite apps.
Kindle (free). For reading eBooks, I spend most of my time in this app-- mostly because the selection is the largest. It's a very usable app, and easy to read in; I've probably read a dozen eBooks in my Kindle app on iPad.
iBooks (free). While Kindle may be my most-used eReader, iBooks is my preferred one. I like the interface better, and it loads faster. If I have the option, I'll buy eBooks in ePub format and drop them in iBooks rather than buy them in Kindle-- but I don't always have that option, or the price is often higher.
Others: I use some other reading tools on my iPad, as well: for news, I like The Daily (free + subscription), an iPad-only national daily newspaper, and Slate (free). I also like MacWorld's reader app. For eBooks, Stanza (free) offers a good reading environment and great selections that are harder to find (or get into an eReader) elsewhere. I have a couple of magazine subscriptions via Zinio (free + purchase/subscription), which is a great e-magazine option. There are also lots of great comic books available via iPad app, too!

Productivity Tools
DevonThink To Go ($14.99). I use DevonThink all the time, every day, on my Mac; it warehouses 75% or more of my digital information. So it's great to have an option to sync some/all of that information to my iPad and take it with me. This app has some maturing to do, but I have great hopes and expectations for it.
Bento ($4.99). A good bit of what I can't organize in DevonThink is managed by Bento. Here again, I like being able to sync them and take it with me.
MacGourmet ($4.99). Since I do most of the cooking in our home, I frequently collect and use recipes. MacGourmet is my desktop Mac solution for collecting recipes, and when I use them in the kitchen I usually do it via iPad. This is the iPhone version, which syncs great and works just fine on the iPad.
Pages ($9.99). I use the iWork suite all the time on my Mac; I really only need to work with Pages on my iPad, and even then not very often. This is a good app, though, and a solid solution when I do need to edit a document.
Parcel (free). I do just enough shipping to be grateful for an app that will help me track packages quickly. This one works well, and the interface is easy to use.
Calculator Pro (free/$1.99). I was surprised that the iPad didn't come with the great calculator app included on the iPhone. When I need a calculator, I'm perfectly satisfied with the free version of this app; additional features are available in the paid version.

Entertainment Tools
Netflix (free). This is a well-built app, and offers a lot of tools. I use it mostly to manage our Netflix queue, and I haven't watched any streaming video with it-- but I LOVE that streaming is available with it!
TED Talks (free). The folks with TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) regularly offer some of the most thoughtful and innovative ideas around, and the presentations are excellent. I love this app for the occasional dip into thought-provoking videos and new ideas.
Amazon (free). I manage all book recommendations, as well as other items of interest, through a collection of "Wish Lists" on Amazon-- so this app, which makes it a piece of cake to find and add books and other items to these lists, is a gem.
YouTube (free/included with iPad). There is plenty of time-wasting possible with YouTube, but it also has genuine usefulness, and I think the YouTube app on iPad is as ideal an environment for YouTube-looking as it gets.

That is the core list. I have another 5-6 apps that I use occasionally, plus about a dozen games that are regularly played-- but I won't go into details on those, other than to say that the iPad is a fantastic gaming platform.

What apps are YOU using?

Monday, March 14, 2011

A new book(let)

I have a new book-- a booklet, actuallly-- that is getting released this week: Grafted Into The Vine: rethinking biblical church membership.

Doulos Resources, a publishing ministry that I've been involved with for a few years, is releasing this booklet as a part of a new series, entitled Strengthen The Church. For more information about the booklet (and about Doulos Resources), visit this website: Doulos Resources -- Grafted Into The Vine

I have repeatedly encountered misunderstandings and unbiblical practices in the church today regarding membership. So many people in many of the different congregations I have served have held to a view of membership that was completely out of accord with Scripture! I wrote this booklet out of that need, and out of a desire for others to reach an understanding of what the Bible teaches about membership in Christ's church.

There are three basic principles that I put forth in this booklet:
All Christians need membership in the local church
Church membership is nothing less than your public profession of faith in the Gospel
Church membership is nothing more than your public profession of faith in the Gospel

Following that, I briefly address two hard questions that often arise when people are confronted with these three principles together.

It is my prayer that this booklet will minister to God's people, giving them hope, encouragement, comfort, and security.

Check out my new booklet, Grafted Into The Vine: rethinking biblical church membership!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Church as community

Mike Mercer "took over" the blogging duties at Internet Monk (a site which I stopped reading shortly after Michael Spencer's death last winter), and recently posted a great piece on church-- that is, on what makes a church, and whether many of the groups passing themselves as "church" today are really "church". (HT to Scot McKnight for pointing me back to iMonk.)

Mr. Mercer's points on what defines a church are poignant. He gently challenges the notion that church is about people of like age/stage, socio-economic status, affinity, or core values gathering together. In many ways, his post is simply a more pastoral version of the same challenge that Dr. Anthony Bradley is regularly putting before the PCA.

I love Mr. Mercer's closing points, which so neatly summarize what is and what isn't important in the identity of a church:

God is creating a community–a cross-cultural community—that is, a people that consists of folks who may be very different from one another, but who share a “common unity” in Jesus Christ. That is the NT vision of church. Our unity does not consist in the fact that we all have tattoos or like grunge music or meet in a pub. Nor does it consist in the fact that we are mostly conservative middle-class suburbanites. Nor does it consist in our whiteness or blackness or the specific ethnic culture in which we live. Nor is it about organs, hymns, robes, and pews.

Our only true oneness is in Christ. We accommodate to “where people are” to reach them in the world for Christ, making them disciples. But then, when we baptize them and teach them to observe all that Christ commanded us, we call them into the practice of cross-cultural love within the new family God is creating. What the world needs to see is faith communities made up of people vastly different from one another who have laid hold of that.

That’s church.



I highly recommend this post from Internet Monk, "Is It A Church?"

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Remembering Ordination Vows

A small handful of events and discussions recently have led me to re-read and remember the vows I took in ordination to be a Teaching Elder in the PCA. They are as follows:
  1. Do you believe the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, as originally given, to be the inerrant Word of God, the only infallible rule of faith and practice?
  2. Do you sincerely receive and adopt the Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures; and do you further promise that if at any time you find yourself out of accord with any of the fundamentals of this system of doctrine, you will on your own initiative, make known to your Presbytery the change that has taken place in your views since the assumption of this ordination vow?
  3. Do you approve of the form of government and discipline of the Presbyterian Church in America, in conformity with the general principles of Biblical polity?
  4. Do you promise subjection to your brethren in the Lord?
  5. Have you been induced, as far as you know your own heart, to seek the office of the holy ministry from love to God and a sincere desire to promote His glory in the Gospel of His Son?
  6. Do you promise to be zealous and faithful in maintaining the truths of the Gospel and the purity and peace and unity of the Church, whatever persecution or opposition may arise unto you on that account?
  7. Do you engage to be faithful and diligent in the exercise of all your duties as a Christian and as a minister of the Gospel, whether personal or relational, private or public; and to endeavor by the grace of God to adorn the profession of the Gospel in your manner of life, and to walk with exemplary piety before the flock of which God shall make you an overseer?
  8. Are you now willing to take the charge of this church, agreeable to your declaration when accepting their call? And do you, relying upon God for strength, promise to discharge to it the duties of a pastor?

These are beautiful vows, and they are weighty and convicting vows. They require a love and subjection to Scripture and its teachings. They include a commitment to accountability, zeal for purity, peace and unity, and a life of grace-filled, Spirit-dependent living. And they represent a call to pastoring God's church-- watching over the flock, exercising government and discipline, visiting the people, instructing, comforting, nourishing, and guarding them, praying with and for them.

Today I'm remembering my vows, and praying that God will make my commitment and devotion to them even stronger; that He will use them to fortify my personal piety and dependence on Him; and that He will continue to re-shape and make me into His own image, a new creation in Christ!

Monday, March 7, 2011

Happy anniversary!

Happy anniversary to my dear, sweet Marcie!

You are my true love, my favorite companion, and my heart's true friend. I love you with all of my heart.

Happy 13th anniversary-- I'm looking forward to dozens more.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

More thoughts on books, eBooks, and publishing

A while back I reflected and speculated about books, eBooks, publishing, and self-publishing. (Read those posts here, here, and here.) That was more than half a year ago(!) and, of course, things continue to progress. I've had some further thoughts, which I'll catalogue here in no particular order. (As much as anything, this is simply for my own use-- but you are welcome to interact with any of these ideas.)

  • There is no disputing that eBooks are here to stay-- in fact, they are doing quite well. Sales of eBooks have skyrocketed over the past year, with Amazon (who, I think we can all agree, is a pretty substantial source for such information) first reporting that eBook sales overtook hardcover sales last summer, then that eBook sales exceeded all print sales after the holidays. One could argue that the later figure is the result of a lot of Kindle readers as Christmas gifts getting loaded up, and that those levels will drop. Is that a safe assumption, though-- after all, if there were THAT many Kindle readers sold, shouldn't we assume that at least some of them will continue to be used after the first round? Keep in mind, too, that Amazon's Kindle is only one e-reader, and that they are probably more dominant in print book sales than in eBooks (at least for now).
  • "Independent" Publishing-- I'm really curious about the fact that the self-publishing community has elected to adopt the self-reference "independent publisher" instead of "self-publisher." On the one hand, this fits with other creative culture endeavors: a musician that hasn't signed with a record label, yet produces recordings for sale, is referred to as an "independent artist." On the other hand, this seems like a dodge, and an unnecessary one to boot. Inasmuch as publishing has ever been "self" executed (how long has it been since the norm in self-publishing was, start to finish, handled all by the author? I've never heard of an author who is also a bookbinder, for example), it still is; and yet, self-publishing is finally overcoming the bad wrap given it by the traditional publishing industry-- note this piece on this trend as an example. Why shirk the label just as it is regaining legitimacy?
  • "Obstacles" in eReading-- I have read so many people claiming that they like their Kindle more than their iPad as an e-reading device-- not because the iPad weighs more, or because the screen is too bright (either of these I'll accept), but because the iPad lets them do other things! They say, "I want my reading device to be immersive" and apparently the allure of checking e-mail or Facebook on the iPad is just too tempting. Phooey, I say-- and then I ask, what are these guys reading? I've been using my iPad as an e-reader for about six months now, and have read probably 8-10 books on it. I like that I can check e-mail on it too, but when I'm reading a good book, this doesn't matter: the book is the immersive part. The device is simply the conduit for the goods. This is about as convincing to me as the argument for printed paper books that goes like this: "I love the way the book smells!" (Which is to say, not convincing at all. What-- you love the smell of slightly mildewed wood fibers? Okay, but just try to convince the board of Borders that this angle would have made the difference in their recent bankruptcy.) You want your iPad to be immersive? Two suggestions: learn some self-control, and read good books!
  • Amazing progress in electronic publishing for iPad-- there really are some amazing things happening in electronic publishing. Magazines are reinventing themselves by way of the iPad-- check out this write-up about Martha Stewart Living. Rupert Murdoch's media conglomerate recently released the first-ever iPad-only daily newspaper, The Daily (I've got it, and have read it-- it's pretty good, but it crashes a lot). Some books are being released for iPad that are challenging the very notion of what it means to read a book. Don't believe me? Check out this piece on an iPad version of Alice in Wonderland. As someone involved in both writing and publishing, I find all of it very exciting-- and I can also understand how a large, traditional publisher would feel very threatened.
  • Prices will come down for eBooks-- Michael Hyatt wrote an interesting blog-post last fall, on why eBooks cost so much. He is challenging the conventional idea that there is a lot of savings found in not having to print books: no printing costs, no warehousing costs, no shipping costs. Mike is right that there are still lots of costs involved in publishing an eBook (he lists "acquisitions, royalties, editorial development, copyediting, cover and interior design, page composition, cataloging, sales, marketing, publicity, merchandising, credit, collections, accounting, legal, tax, and the all the usual costs associated with running a publishing house"). Plus, Mike lists three new costs involved in digital publishing: digital preparation, quality assurance, and digital distribution. But I have to challenge Mike on some of these. First of all, distribution isn't a new cost-- it just changes a bit in the digital context; plus, distribution is already more streamlined for eBooks than it ever has been for print books: it's more like the Amazon model (where the publisher sells direct to the reseller) than the local bookstore model (where a middleman distributor warehouses and sells books to resellers). As digital publishing matures, it will get even easier. As for the other two costs (preparation and quality assurance), these will also get easier and much less expensive. Right now, as Mike points out, there are a number of different formats that publishers must prepare if they want to fully saturate the market with their eBooks. But over the next couple of years-- I predict by mid-2012-- one or possibly two standards will emerge (there will be room on the market for one that is a static layout, like a PDF-- in fact, it will probably be PDF; and also room for one that is a dynamic layout, allowing the text reflow based on screen-size and other preferences-- probably the ePub), and this will make coding and preparation much more efficient. Furthermore, the tools for designing and laying out books are already beginning to automate the process of coding eBooks, and these will get much better (not unlike website publishing 10 years ago vs. now). Both of these factors will reduce preparation extremely: files prepared for print books will require little or no further action to convert them to eBooks, in both of the standardized formats. And it will also reduce quality assurance efforts, as only a single kind of file will need to be checked. The end result: eBook prices will continue to fall.
  • Paperbacks will suffer-- A lot of people speculate about how the rise of eBooks will mean the demise of printed-paper books. I disagree. Rather, I'm with Joel Friedlander, who thinks that the main casualty of the rise of eBooks will be the cheap, disposable paperback. There are basically three kinds of printed-paper books people buy: reference books that are never read, but are used in bits and pieces; books to buy and keep, or to buy and pass around-- these are a large portion of the printed-paper market (currently in both paperback and hardcover); and the throw-away paperbacks that are sold cheaply and by the hundreds in airports, grocery stores, and of course the few remaining bookstores. When I was a kid, my dad went through dozens of these a month; we would literally have five or six paper grocery-bags stacked full of them to give to Goodwill 3-4 times a year. These will be the victims of the rise of eBooks replaced by eBooks, and I say good riddance! Especially if it is still easy to get good trade paperbacks for keeping and/or lending, OR if hardcover prices come down. (I can absolutely see the latter happening when the printing industry begins to feel the pinch of eBooks closing in on their bottom-line, making it more affordable for publishers to offer low-cost hard-bound books instead of, or in addition to, high-grade paperbacks.)
  • Good self-published books won't be any harder to find-- one of the biggest concerns I hear/read about the rising tide of self-publishing-- ahem, sorry, independent publishing-- is that we will be awash in crummy books and it will be difficult to find the good stuff. Here again I say, PHOOEY! First of all, there is no shortage of absolutely lousy books being hawked by the traditional publishers; in fact, the percentage of really good books produced by big-name publishing houses seems to drop consistently every year. Second, take a walk through Barnes & Noble or a look at Amazon's website and tell me that there aren't already thousands of books to sort through-- and there were years ago, before the latest wave of self-publishing began. But third-- and this is the big, "they are missing the point" idea-- the good books are getting easier to find, not harder. The "Information Age" began a better way to find and access good books, and the "social media" age is elevating both the access and the knowledge about them. I'm never at a loss for what books to buy next, because I get book recommendations almost every day via Facebook, Twitter, blogs, and newer sources like GoodReads.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

We're only as presbyterian as we want to be, part 3

In part one of this series on how "we're only as presbyterian as we want to be" I considered the fruit of the problem; and in part two I discussed some of the root of the problem. Now I'd like to look at the rooting out of the problem.

So, how do we root out the suspicion, mistrust, and haughtiness that I named as a significant part of the problem? We take them in reverse, and their antidotes are humility, relationships, and benefit of the doubt.

One of the manifestations of these root problems, as I mentioned in my last post on the topic, is that we look at others with the assumption that their sin-nature and fallenness is preying on their capacity to think and act with integrity. I pointed out that this stands as a major obstacle to presbyterianism, and represents a posture contrary to being presbyterian. So how do I overcome my mistrust of others, and extend hospitality to them (and their perspectives) instead of suspicion?

Christ, helpfully, spoke of how this might be accomplished: the one I am to trust the least, it seems, is myself! Remember how he required accountability (for ideas, actions, attitudes, and the rest) to be exercised:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.
Matthew 7:3-5


The reason why I am only as presbyterian as I want to be-- why suspicion and mistrust reign in my heart with regard to others-- is because I fail to understand Christ here. I must suspect myself first and foremost. I must trust myself, and my own understanding, less than I trust others whom I seek to hold accountable. Only when I recognize my own susceptibility to error will I see clearly the errors that others are fallible to.

This leads to a surprising humility. Instead of a haughtiness toward others, looking at my own sin first is humbling and honest business. That humility tempers my approach to others, and causes me to deal with them gently, charitably, lovingly.

Of course, we don't have so much trouble in acting gentle and loving toward those we already know well and care about. It is the stranger, the one we don't know (or that we know only through peculiar circumstances, such as hearing their name associated with an idea that we are reticent to embrace, or reading words from their blog that we consider abrasive or caustic). This is a second rooting out that needs to occur: we need to build real relationships with others, especially those with whom we disagree.

I will testify to my own struggles with this. There have been several times at General Assembly when someone will rise to speak, and I will recognize them as someone whose blog I have read. I know nothing of them but what I read on their blog-- but the words and tone of their blog led me to conclude that they knew little of the grace and love of Christ, because so little of their words (and especially their tone) reflected anything like Christ's love or His grace. Thus, I immediately regard them with mistrust and suspicion in what they bring to the floor of the Assembly, even though both their words and tone in the Assembly are gentle, humble, and deferential. Which is the real voice of this person? I do not know, because I do not know them at all.

I'll also testify to the other side of this struggle. Through a series of providential circumstances, I have begun building a friendship with someone whose blog I have read, and whose tone and attitude has occasionally struck me in the past (and even in the present!) as being inappropriate for an elder in the church. Like the men mentioned above, my inclination might be to be cautious with my trust, except that my growing relationship with this man brings moderation and even benefit of the doubt into my understanding of his words.

This should be the easy part. We Presbyterians love to present our polity and system as "connectional" and all about the relationships inherent to our mutual union with Christ. Yet many presbyteries are notable for how quickly and efficiently they can dispose of the work of their meetings in a business-like manner; no attention is given to corporate worship, little time is allotted for fellowship, and there is no effort to create opportunities for relationships to build and grow.

Likewise, I've heard from several fellow elders that one way to cut administrative costs at the Assembly level would be to reduce General Assembly to a 2-day meeting where all we do is the mandatory business, and put aside all of the seminars, meals, prayer and fellowship times, etc. This would certainly cut costs; it would also drastically reduce any hope of relationships growing between those who disagree. I'm not a prophet, but in my estimation it would be only a matter of a few years under such an approach before the divisions in the PCA would become fractures, and the denomination would certainly split into several pieces.

General Assembly meetings need to be times where fellowship, mutual growth, and new relationships are fostered. Presbyteries must be giving time to worshiping together, ministering to one another, and fostering the growth of friendships new and old. Even Sessions must give time and attention to doing more as a body than just the "business" of the church, but should share in regular fellowship, times of prayer, and building of real friendships among the elders.

Finally, our faith AND our presbyterianism requires that we extend a great measure of benefit of the doubt toward our brothers. Rather than taking a default posture of suspicion, we must take a posture that is hopeful and even expectant of their motives, thoughts, and actions being godly and righteous.

I appealed to Martin Luther in my last post with regard to our inclination to sin. Yet, Luther himself (later in the same introduction to his commentary on Romans) exposes why we must persist in functioning with such benefit of doubt:
That is why faith alone makes someone just and fulfills the law; faith it is that brings the Holy Spirit through the merits of Christ. The Spirit, in turn, renders the heart glad and free, as the law demands. Then good works proceed from faith itself...

Christ's righteousness reigns in the believer! Consequently, believing faith results in thoughts, attitudes, and actions that are beautiful in their reflection of God's glory-- not mired in sin and fallenness.

Thought of another way, our demeanor toward one another as Christians should be the very model of love. This isn't simply for Presbyterians-- but it certainly should include Presbyterians! How does Paul tell us love looks? "Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things" (1 Corinthians 13:7).

Probably the best description I've read of this is from Walter Chantry's wonderful little book, The Shadow of the Cross: studies in self-denial, in which Chantry is discussing the tendency to be strict with others yet lenient with ourselves. To make his point, Chantry brings up the example of the food issues discussed in the book of Romans (chapter 14); this this he says:
Your brother desires to glorify God in his practice. That should keep the meat-eaters from sneering at the vegetarians. And it should prevent vegetarians from censoriously judging meat-eaters and declaring them unspiritual.
Now you do not really know that such a conclusion is true of your brother; for you cannot look into his heart and read his motives. But both of you bow your heads before a meal and give thanks to God. Both are professing to eat unto the Lord. Therefore you are bound to assume that all his actions are for the glory of God. He is not serving self or lust but the Lord.
In our society there may be a Christian who cannot go to the beach without lusting after women dressed immodestly. So he denies himself the right to enjoy surf and sand. If he loves the ocean, it may be like plucking out a right eye of personal enjoyment in order to keep his conscience clear. But he is tempted to measure all men by his own experience. He is inclined to suspect that a brother goes to the beach in order to indulge lustful thoughts. He is tempted to legislate that no Christian is to go to a public beach. Paul is saying in effect, 'You have no right to pluck out your brother's eye!' You are taught to deny yourself, but not to deny your brother. You must assume that his heart is pure, foreign as that may be to your experience. You must conclude, 'Just as I stay away from the beach out of devotion to Christ, he goes to the beach as unto the Lord, with a pure heart of thanksgiving to God. I am pleased that he can enjoy a part of God's creation that I cannot.'
But while you may in charity assume that a Christian brother acts from pure motives, you dare not assume that your own heart is upright. You must be more charitable to others than you are to yourself. You have no access to a fellow Christian's heart, no ability to test his inward devotion to the Lord, which is the all-important matter in using things indifferent. But you can scrutinize your own heart. You can examine your inner man to detect your own motives and aims for every act. Paul brings you back to this point. 'None of us liveth to himself.' All is 'unto the Lord.'
Walter J. Chantry, The Shadow of the Cross: studies in self-denial (Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 1989) pp. 39-41.

Chantry's principles apply to our presbyterianism. Whereas we cannot know our brother's heart, yet we are always tempted to be more strict with him and more lenient with ourselves.

The solution is to reverse the matter. We should be more strict with ourselves, more lenient with our brothers. We need to focus first on the plank in our own eye before addressing the speck in our brother's eye. We must take up humility instead of hubris, relational trust instead of indifferent mistrust, benefit of the doubt instead of suspicion.

Our presbyterianism must be real in its connectional nature if it is to be real at all. And while this is truly the hardest part of our polity, it is also the one that has the most grounding in Scripture, and the closest identification with our Christianity.

Let's stop being only as presbyterian as we want to be, and start being as presbyterian as we can possibly be! Surely God, in His mercy to us, will continue to increase the measure of our presbyterianism as we are more and more conformed to His image.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Books for February, 2011

These are the books I read, in addition to Tithing by Douglas Leblanc, which I reviewed here.

Covenants: God's way with his peopleCovenants: God's way with his people by O. Palmer Robertson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
We recently used this book for the basis of a Sunday School class. As with the other time I read it, I found it to be a very approachable, helpful way to get a sense of covenant theology. It is definitely written for a lay-level audience (not for academics or even for seminary-trained pastors), which is wonderful because there are far too few volumes of this nature written at that level.
There is a study guide available for this book, which is useful in suggesting ways to approach the teaching times; however, for teachers/leaders looking for fortification for the content, they would do well to employ Robertson’s Christ Of The Covenants, which is also a very readable text.

Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students (Design Briefs)Thinking with Type: A Critical Guide for Designers, Writers, Editors, & Students by Ellen Lupton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
As an introduction to typography and thinking about type and text in terms of page and book design, this is a fine book.

The author wrote the book as a text for her introductory level class on the subject. As a result, it is helpfully inclusive of history and even philosophy in addition to technical details, and yet it handles these concisely. It is far from an exhaustive volume when it comes to this subject, but it does offer a comprehensive look at the basics.

If you already have a solid sense of the various aspects of typography, this book may be a bit elementary for you. If you don’t know the difference between kerning and tracking, however, that may be a symptom that this book would be a great starting-point for a more informed use of type.

On Book DesignOn Book Design by Richard Hendel
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
This was a great book on book design and typography. The author, a designer for a major university press, invests the first half in sharing his own experiences and methods in designing books, and the second in dialoguing with other designers about their processes and decisions. It is well-illustrated, with many examples from actual projects and interaction about why they are designed as they are. This is a solid read for anyone involved in typography.

View all my reviews