Writing Worship Music with AI – Recurrent Neural Networks

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been toying around with a type of Artificial Intelligence (AI) called a Recurrent Neural Network (RNN). Since they’ve already been used to cooking recipes, Bible verses, Obama speeches, Mozart Music, Image descriptions, and writing prompts, I thought it would be fun to see what kind of lyrics it would produce if I fed it some popular Christian music.

I’m not sure it could quite pass as contemporvent, but it seems like something you might see in a future Church Hunters episode, and I can guarantee that Challies won’t sing them :).

3 of My Favorite AI-Produced Worship Songs

I will My see in You Sound

When I am heart, I am free
Here’s my heart, You are life
Here’s the life, I am free
You are love is peak my heart, You are life

I am heart, You are life
You are love is love is true
Here’s the wait
I am free

You are life, I am heart, I am free
You are love is heart, You are life
You are love is love is love

When I Am

Here’s the life the reach strong to see
You are love is love is promise
You are life I am true

Here’s the life, You are life
You are life, I am heart, Lord
I am life, You are life

Here’s all the reaches the wait
You are life, I am free
You are life that is love

You are life, Lord
I am heart, You are life

With His Speak

You are love is life
With I am healed the life all the bled
You’re is love is way the life
I am all the dark my heart

I am bread on Your love is
We cry strong place the with merce
You are life is heart, Lord
And strong the life, With all the reach that is pore

Update: Markov Lyrics

After this initial post, I tried another AI/text library that markovify that uses something called a Markov chain to produce text. It doesn’t handle the punctuation (line-by-line) as the RNN libraries I describe below, but the lyrics are a bit more sensible:

What this world needs is not a human right
To see if they were yours all along
You are hope for justice,
Stand firm in the sand, temporary wealth

Walls are falling down
Now the walls are falling down,
storms are closing in
And here I am born again,

Woah, Let the river flow.

How majestic is Your love is moving,
moving among us So we give You all our strength,
With all our sin
The people sing Hosanna Hosanna

in the shelter of the Lord, my God saved the day,
When my world caved to nothing
You came from God above
The Father’s only Son
Saved my soul My Life

Here I am…
King of the world…
I’m famous in my mind
take my time to set me free,

Salvation is here and it is finished.
You can shine on You I can’t live all alone.

How Were These Created?

I’m not really qualified to explain Recurrent Neural Networks (RNN) on a technical level (this is one of the best explanations), but the basic idea is a programmer can feed an RNN some data (sequential information such as images, music, text, etc.), and then the RNN “reads” it all and stores the the patterns in the input source. Based on what it’s learned it starts to be able to guess what’s next. For example, you probably know the next word in “Praise the ____” and, given enough input, an RNN can guess that next word as well.

For this experiment, I fed the Torch-RNN library (using these two installation guides) about 500 songs from the top Christian artist according to Billboard which included Hillsong, Chris Tomlin, Lauren Daigle, Casting Crowns, Mercy Me, Christy Nockels, For King and Country, and a few others.

It took a few hours to process, and then it started producing output like you see above.

Of course, the output doesn’t actually make any real sense. It sounds kind of worship-y, but it’s also complete gibberish. That’s because the RNN doesn’t truly understand or feel what it processed. It doesn’t even know the basic parts of English grammar like subject or verbs or musical concepts like a chorus or a bridge. It’s only intelligent in the sense that it grasps the patterns in the input and, based on probabilities, can generate something like what you fed it.

In this case, it seems to think that the words “life” and “heart” and “live” have a high probability of being in a song.

Limitations aside, the output is tremendously fun, and perhaps more interestingly, RNNs do a good job of demonstrating the difference between the ability to perform a complex mental task (you might call this intelligence) and higher level concepts like understanding, wisdom, or consciousness.

What about the Psalms?

I also wondered what kind of words the RNN would generate if it were fed from another source of comparable Christian content, so I fed it the 150 Psalms from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Here are some of the passages it generated:

10 The LORD all the LORD with the man a saint of the LORD,
and the LORD in the LORD is for the peoples.
11 You have the will the seet the LORD,
and the said the hand of the LORD of the LORD
and string my state and the seard of the LORD,
and be the will the sound and the proins.
15 The LORD is his praise the come of the LORD,
and his sear the rebeath of the LORD will not be the waters,
and and came his stands the reap,
the LORD is a strong the earth of the LORD

and another with few parameters (temperature from .2 to .4) adjusted:

22 The LORD,
and the righteous have seek the LORD with the LORD,
and like of the LORD his praise the will sing and the will of the will from the pries of the will people.
13 He whise in the people in the LORD all the shall not of the LORD,
and the LORD,
and the for my righteous and of the will not the earth;
the LORD and do me who sea have not the will not of the earth of the fainter of the refut the land of the hand of the piens of the will be the righteouss of the LORD in the will not the will not and the revere the will be forther of the LORD with the ining to the word of the LORD,
and the will be are a same

Update: Markov Psalms

15 He sends out his word to Jacob,
his chosen one, stood in the morning. His holy mountain,
2 beautiful in elevation, is the nation whose God is a mere breath!
10 The LORD brings the counsel of the LORD, for the dead?
4 Have they no knowledge, all the ends of the LORD, our Maker!
May prayer be counted as incense before you,
our secret sins in the land; you do not get their fill.
78 Let the insolent oppress me.
14 Satisfy us in the way I should go,
for to you the fear of you,
and let no one to bury them.
4 Even though I walk in the heavens;
your faithfulness answer me, O God, do not get their fill.

Clearly, there are some differences in the patterns.

Remember, the RNN isn’t simply counting words and then spitting them back at the same frequency. Although it does appear this way, the RNN is actually using probability to generate the next most likely character. In this case, if the character is ‘L’ then from the Psalms dataset, the RNN thinks that “L” is  more likely to be followed by “ORD” while in the contemporary songs, it’s more likely to be “ife” or “ove.”

The Psalms also have longer lines. Statistically speaking, this is because the return character occurs less frequently, and the RNN then considers a return less likely after each word.

I hope you have as much fun with this as I did.

“The righteous have seek the LORD with the LORD”


Little House in the Prairie on Technology Dependence

I recently had the chance to speak down at the lovely Christ Church of Austin, TX. Afterward one of the attendees sent this to me this great little moment from one of the Little House stories:

“If only I had some grease I could fix some kind of a light,” Ma considered. “We didn’t lack for light when I was a girl before this newfangled kerosene was ever heard of.”

“That’s so,” said Pa. “These times are too progressive. Everything has changed too fast. Railroads and telegraph and kerosene and coal stoves–they’re good things to have, but the trouble is, folks get to depend on ’em.”

― Laura Ingalls Wilder, The Long Winter

Secure Your Online Life with the Bible (and Good Security Practices)

The New Year is a great time to take inventory of your online security setup.

We can’t control the (now commonplace) security breaches at companies that hold our data, but we can ensure that we don’t have any glaring holes that would make us an easy, vulnerable target.

It’s Not Just About Passwords

We’ll get to strong passwords in a minute, but by now I hope we’ve all learned that passwords alone can’t fully protect us. Here are a few things that can help offer additional layers of protection.

Things to Do Right Now

  1. Two-Factor Authentication – This is probably the most powerful and easiest security feature to turn on. Every major social network and credible banking system will have this feature which requires two things to login – your password and a second physical thing like a text message, device, or fingerprint.
  2. Avoid Debit Cards – If someone steals your credit card, you can simply decline false charges and not pay them. But if someone steals your debit card, the money they use is gone and much harder to get back. Racking up debt with a credit card is bad, but if you use your money wisely to begin with, then you’re safe with a credit card.

Things to Consider

  1. One-Time Credit Card Numbers – Bank of America, Citi, and others allow you to generate a one-time use (or multiple use with an expiration date) credit card number you can use for online transactions. For sites you plan to only use once this can be great. However, you might avoid it if you think you’ll return the item or if you’re reserving a hotel or rental card where you need to show the card in person to verify.
  2. Alternate Email Addresses – For a long time, I’ve used a common email address across a lot of accounts, but based on the recommendations I’m seeing creating additional less public emails for networks can make it harder to link all of a person’s accounts or use those addresses for phishing attacks.
  3. Alternate Phone Numbers – Again, listing the same phone number publicly in several accounts makes that number less secure. Having a secondary, less public number like a Google Voice account that you use for Two-Factor can strengthen your overall security.

Good Passwords Are Strong and Unique

What undergirds all the practices above is having a good system of passwords, and that means they need to be both strong and unique.

  • Strong passwords – A strong password is one that can’t be easily guessed by a machine, and a password becomes stronger when it either uses more characters (not just the 26 lowercase letters, but also uppercase, numbers, and symbols), or is very long, or both.
  • Unique passwords – Even if you have the strongest password in the world, if you use it for Facebook, your bank, and your email, once that password is lost, you’ll be out of luck.

One of the best ways to ensure that you have strong, unique passwords for each website or service is to turn off your browser’s default username/password use a tool like 1Password or KeePass. These tools can generate very strong passwords and manage them for you across websites and browsers.

The Problem with “Strong Passwords”

Even if you use 1Password, KeePass, or another tool, you still need at least one good, strong master password that’s not written down anywhere and isn’t recorded in another electronic tool. Further, whether or not you use a manager, the password requirements for many websites can sometimes cause more problems than they solve. Most websites attempt to help you create a strong password by requiring that your password meet the following criteria:

  • 8 or more characters
  • Upper and lowercase
  • At least one number
  • At least one symbol

In theory, these requirements are a great way to force people to make strong passwords. However, in practice, the past few decades have shown that there are several problems with these 8-letter strong passwords:

  1. It’s hard for humans to remember a truly random set of characters, so we often take a common word and replace a few letter with symbols (a => @, s => $).
  2. Because even that is hard to remember, we use the same password for dozens of websites and that makes us vulnerable.
  3. An 8 character password that meets the above requirements is actually not as secure as a longer password with all lowercase letters.

On the last point, this brilliant XKCD comic points out the vast security difference between a short “complex” password and a longer “simple” password


  • Tr0ub4or&3 = 28 bits of entropy, 3 days for computer to guess (1000/sec)
  • correcthorsebatterystaple = 44 bits of entropy, 550 years for a computer to guess

It turns out that 24 letters instead of 10 letters – even without uppercase, number, or symbols – is much, much more secure. And, it’s way easier to remember.

The problem is that many websites won’t let you make passwords like “ilovejesusandpumpkinpie” even if it is several orders of magnitude more secure because they still require uppercase letters, numbers, and symbols.

The Bible as a Strong Password Generator

So here’s a fun solution that can meet both the requirements of websites and manage to be more secure: A Bible reference.

Take a look at the following well-known reference:


It has (1) upper and (2) lowercase letters, (3) numbers, and (4) a symbol (see opening graphic). This means it (1) meets most password security requirements, and (2) it’s easy to remember.

You can have lots of fun thinking of references that are little inside jokes to yourself, such as “1Chronicles4:10” (for your bank) or “Leviticus3:16” (for your fitness tracker) or “Exodus34:35” (for Facebook).

But, there are two important caveats. First, common references like “John3:16” are probably the “password123” of bad Christian passwords, and the ones I mentioned above might be overused due to their inherent hilarity. So please  you avoid using anything that’s ever been written on Tim Tebow’s face or turned into a multi-million dollar empire.

Second, as some commenters pointed out (thanks fellas!), it is possible that someone could attempt to hack passwords that fit the Bible verse pattern, so it’d be best to also include a random word or two that will both lengthen the password and increase its overall entropy/security.

John3:16 – meets password standards, but is still hackable
John3:16pumpkinroof – meets password standards, plus more entropy

In summary, it’s always best to use long, random passwords from a generator, but for this few that you need to remember yourself, if you can meaningful but uncommon references and add one or two random words to it, then combined with the security practices above, you should be well on your way to a more secure 2017.

Special thanks to Robert Estienne for inventing the modern versification system :)

Technelogia, the Virtualization of Culture, and the Theology of Artificial Intelligence (Videos)

A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of delivering a series of lectures on technology for Dallas Theological Seminary‘s Arts Week. Arts week is one of my favorite times at DTS because there are art installations on campus, evening events with artists and theologians, and a series of talks on the arts. Normally, there is a fantastic outside speaker, but this year they took a risk on having me to it and trying to pull together theology, the arts, and technology.

Why Pastors and Theologians Need Artists and Coders

For the opening talk, I connected technology and the arts through the Greek term technē, which forms the root of our English word technology, but covered both the mechanical arts and the fine arts. I also introduced the basic concept of Social Shaping of Technology as a model for understanding the mutual shaping process between culture and technology/arts as well as the social meanings we assign to the things around us.

The Virtualization of Culture and the Need for Embodied Places and Practices

For the second talk, I drew a connection between the sense of placelessness that people often feel in modernity and in technological culture and the placelessness of Isreal when they wandered through the desert. To give Isreal a sense of place, God gave them an entire set of physical, visual, and linguistic cultural elements to ground them in the world and form them into the people of God. In our own placeless cultural moment, I think one of the greatest gifts the church has to offer to the world are our physical, embodied practices especially communion which evangelicals have tended to avoid.

Theological Reflections on Artificial Intelligence

For the third talk, I abandon the suit and tie to explain the emergence of Artifical Intelligence (AI) and lay out some of the opportunities it brings along with the unintended consequences, ethical issues, and theological issues that it will surface. I wish I could have gone deeper into each one, but I was grateful to be able to introduce these ideas in a setting like a seminary chapel. (Kevin Kelly recently gave a great talk on AI at Q Conference and there are some wonderful similarities in our approaches).

What Your Chapel Architecture Says About Your Theology

To end the week and reconnect theology, technology, and the arts, I discussed DTS’s coming project to build a new chapel space on campus with our VP of Campus Operations. We were able to briefly introduce the history of Christian worship spaces, some of DTS’s guiding values in past projects, and the kinds of considerations one needs to think through in building a worship space. Although we weren’t able to go in depth on these topics, I hope it introduced our students to the kinds of questions they may one day be asking in a ministry about how to embody their faith in the world alongside artists and technologists.

The History of Bible Software (Infographic)

Surprisingly, it’s fairly difficult to find a clear, chronological accounting of Bible software development. Wikipedia, of course, has some of the major applications organized by operating system, but it doesn’t include release dates or offer much commentary on how they fit together.

UPDATE: Initially this post had a graphic timeline and some commentary on the major waves of development, but it was far too incomplete. I’ve since converted this to a chronological list that should be a bit more complete.

Major Events and Releases

Academic Inquiry (1950s onward)

  • 1957 – The world’s first computer generated concordance for the RSV by John Ellison
  • 1963 – Andrew Morton’s use of computational models to challenge Paul’s authorship
  • 1920 – Yehuda Ridday’s analysis of Isaiah, concluding that there were at least three authors
  • 1971 – Transcribed Leningrad Codex (Francis Andersen)
  • 1976 – Launch of the GRAMCORD project (D. A. Carson, Indiana University, Trinity International University)

Desktop Era (1980s onward)

  • First Commerical Application
    • 1982 – Verse Search – First commercial Bible app (“THE WORD processor” family, Kent Ochel and Bert Brown, Bible Research Systems, Georgetown, TX)
  • First Wave (1980-1987) from Bits, Bytes, & Biblical Studies
    • 1984 – The SCRIPTURE SCANNER (Michael L. Brandex, James W. Collins, W. David Jenkins, and T. Vick Livingston, Omega Software, Round Rock, TX)
    • 1985 – compuBIBLE (Delmer Hightower and Chris Epps, SASSCO, Borger, TX)
    • 1985 – Bible Search (Thomas L. Cook, Scripture Software, Orlando, FL)
    • BIBLE-ON-DISK (Logos Information Systems, Sunnyvale, CA)
    • 1985 – COMPUTER BIBLE (Computer Bibles International, Inc., Greeenville, SC)
    • 1986 – The Powerful Word (Dewey Hatley, Hatley Computer Services, Springfield, MO)
    • 1986 – EveryWord Scripture Study System (Dave Sorensen and Jay Ekstrom, Echo Solutions, Inc., Provo, UT)
    • 1986 – GodSpeed (Brian Moore, Kingdom Age Software, Plano, TX)
    • ComWord 1 (Word of God Communication, Thousand Oaks, CA)
    • Wordworker: The Accelerated New Testament (The Way International, Knoxville, OH)
    • KJV on DIALOG (DIALOG Information Retrieval Service, Palo Alto, CA)
    • COMPUTER NEW TESTAMENT (The Spiritual Source, Manorville, CA)
    • INTERNATIONAL BIBLE SOCIETY TEXT (The International Bible Society, East Brunswick, NJ)
    • VERSE BY VERSE (G.R.A.P.E., Gospel Research and Program Exchange, Keyport, WA)
    • MacBible (Encycloware, Ayden, NC) – from Accordance founder
    • MacConcord / MacScipture (Medina Software, Longwood, FL)
    • New Testament Concordance (Midwest Software, Farmington, MI)
    • BibleWindows
    • Bible-Reader
    • Online Bible
  • Second Wave (1987 Onward)
    • 1987 – WORDsearch (James Sneeringer, acquired by LifeWay in 2011)
    • 1988 – ThePerfectWord – Later renamed MacBible (Roy Brown, went on to found Accordance)
    • 1988 – QuickVerse (acquired by LifeWay/WORDsearch in 2011) (history) Originally called Logos Bible Processor (Craig Rairdin, Creative Computer Systems), became QuickVerse in 1989.
    • 1988 – PC Study Bible
    • 1988 – The Bible Library 1.0 (Ellis Bible Library, archive.org page) [first to use CD-ROM?]
    • 1989 – CDWord (Dallas Theological Seminary) – Sold to Logos Research Systems
    • 1991 – Logos (Bob and Dan Pritchett)
    • 1992 – BibleWorks
    • ???? – Bible Windows – Microsoft forced a name change to Biblio
    • ???? – Ask God (Integrated Systems, Kirkland, WA) – natural language input, verse output

Internet Era (1990s onward)

  • 1993 – BibleGateway.com (Nick Hengeveld at Calvin College, acquired by Zondervan/Harper in 2008)
  • 1993 – Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) (Harry Plantinga, Wheaton College now Calvin College)
  • 1994 – Sword Searcher (first called Bible Assistant, Brandon Staggs, StudyLamp Software LLC)
  • 1994 – Accordance (Roy Brown, OakTree Software)
  • 1995 – Epiphany Bible Explorer (acquired by WORDsearch in 2004, become the foundation of WORDsearch 7, 2005)
  • 1996 – BlueLetterBible
  • 1997 – The Message for Apple Newton MessagePad (David Fedor, Servant Software). In 1998, David released Scripture for Palm OS, which was purchased by Laridian in 1999 and renamed MyBible.
  • 1997 – World English Bible (WEB) (Michael Johnson)
  • 1997 – Theophilos (Ivan Jurik of Bratislava, Slovakia, acquired by Laridian)
  • 1998 – OliveTree BibleReader (Drew Haninger, acquired by Zondervan/Harper 2014)
  • 1998 – Laridian launches PalmBible, forced by Palm, Inc. to remove “Palm” from name. Relaunched in 2000 as “PocketBible” on Microsoft’s PocketPC.
  • 1998 – SWORD Project (Troy A. Griffitts)
  • 1999 – iLumina (closed by Tyndale)
  • 2000 – e-Sword (Rick Meyers)
  • 2000 – New English Translation (NET) (professors from the Evangelical Theological Society, iLumina website)
  • 2001 – Digital Bible Society‘s first Treasures Library sent to China
  • 2001 – Zondervan Bible Study Library/PRADIS (closed in 2011)

Mobile Era (2000 onward)

Please add your thoughts and additional details to the comments.

Certainty vs. Risk – Why We Value Handwritten Notes and “Craft” Beer More than Texts and Budwieser

*disclaimer: I don’t really like beer.

Risk and Certainty

In 1968, David Pye, then a professor at Royal College of Art in London, wrote a book called The Nature and Art of Workmanship in which he distinguished between two modes of craftsmanship.

  • The craftsmanship of risk
  • The craftsmanship of certainty

For example, writing with a pen and paper falls under the category of risk because there are many potential points of device and human failure (poor handwriting, etc.). In contrast, pressing the print button on a computer produces an infinitely replicable result with identical fonts. Similar comparisons could be made with any handmade item which has a high degree of risk compared with a mass produced or 3D printed items.

Risk and Creativity

The point of Pye’s categories is not that mass-produced items have no value or are inherently inferior. On the contrary, they often save us money and give us security and stability.  Instead he is saying that the reason we tend to be attracted to handmade things is not merely that they are handmade or unique, but because in being handmade, we intuitively sense that they are imbued with the risk of their creator took. Handwritten notes, locally brewed beer and coffee, a child’s painting, or a quilt purchased from an Etsy artist all bear – to varying degrees – that essential quality of risk that grounds the objects and experiences more deeply in reality.

That’s not to say that texts can’t communicate deeply, or that reproductions of art don’t have the capacity to shape the soul, or even that a mass-produced drink can’t nourish the body. It’s merely to give us language – risk vs. certainty – to describe why we tend to feel a connection to things with with a few flaws and why a box of letters can bring a wave of feeling that searching one’s email inbox cannot.

Sadly, marketers have realized this and started slapping “handmade” or “craft” on everything way that they used to label mass produced cookies with “old fashioned” or “homemade.” But the fact that marketers have co-opted and trivialized the idea doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the original concept.

Risk and Love

This is more obvious when we consider that our deepest, most meaningful human relationships also bear this quality of risk versus certainty. When a relationship has a degree of certainty to it, such as neighbors or co-workers, they can still be meaningful and important, but they don’t require that initial risky step that we find in romantic and friendly love.

I remember practicing and practicing that first phone call with my future wife. There was so little certainty and so much risk: Would she say yes? Would the date go well? Would it eventually end the way all the others had, or would it be worth the risk of present rejection or future pain?

More than ten years later, I’m so glad that I took the risk and dialed those 10 numbers, because it has made all the difference in my life.

Similarly when we approach new potential friends or mentors, we are taking a risky first step toward building a relationship, unsure if the result will be rejection, indifference, or something unexpectedly wonderful.

The Christian story of the world also plays on the dynamic between risk and certainty with theologians differing on how an infinitely powerful God who could create with certainty also managed to build risk into his creative work, allowing humanity to embrace or reject him. The most risky communication proposition God could make would be to allow his son to become a fragile child who would grow to be a man and experience sorrow and joy, pain and resurrection.

Imbue Your Communication with Risk

All of this is to say that to create a more meaningful life that bears the image of God, we must learn to communicate love and meaning to those around us, and to do that we must intentionally accept and even embrace risk.

That might mean writing a note every now and again, even if your handwriting is terrible.That might mean inviting people over for dinner even if your dwelling (or cooking) isn’t perfect and could invite criticism. Or it could take the form of playing a game with a group when you know you’ll lose or be terrible at it.

And at the same time, we must learn to communicate a kindness and openness to others that says it’s okay to take risks around you. You might offer needed critique at times that makes your friend’s risk even more valuable, but this must be infused with grace and cultivated over time.

When was the last time you took a risk in your relationship or creativity?

Why Referring to “Screen Time” May Not Be Helpful to You or Your Kids

Recently, I had a brief, but eye-opening interaction with one of my kids:

“Dad, can I use the iPad?”
“Sure, if you want to create something or draw for a bit, that sounds great.”
“But daaaad, I just wanna watch a show. I don’t want to do anything.”

How should I respond? Is saying, “You have 23 minutes left of ‘screen time'” a sufficient response? Are there more instructive tools can I use to help my child grow and mature?

Worries about Technology and Screens

TIME Magazine recently name the iPhone the most influential gadget of all time, and yet a recent survey found more than half of teens feel they are addicted to their smartphone. But let’s not be quick to judge just our youth. Other studies show that its actually older Americans who the ones most likely to use their phones during meals. The studies go on and on, with researchers finding that up to 33% of people feel depressed after using Facebook (everyone else is having more fun), and even simply having a screen visible during a conversation can make people feel sad and anxious.

We obviously need help navigating this new world, so what should we do with these devices that appear to be causing us so much pain and suffering?

The common response has been to regulate the amount of “screen time” or to commit to going “screen free” for periods of time. While this response can be helpful to a degree (and as a parent, it’s super easy to implement), I think it can also hide a chance for more careful and thoughtful reflection.

How “Screen Time” Became Outdated and Unhelpful

The term “screen time” was created in an earlier era when “screen” referred to just one thing – a television – and “screen time” referred to how much time we spent watching TV shows. This changed in the 1980s, when the television grew an appendage – the video game console – and “screen time” expanded from referring exclusively to passive consumption to include some form of interaction and perhaps even social participation.

In the 1990s, as personal home computers became more common, “screen time” became even more ambiguous. Families now had a “screen” that was primarily suited for new kinds of creativity, writing, drawing, video editing, 3D modeling, and information gathering.

Today the passive consumption of television, the interactive nature of game consoles, and the utility of computers have all been merged into the portable, glowing rectangles of various sizes we now use for everything from communicating with relatives to filing our taxes to recording and posting our child’s first steps. Unfortunately, screens are also use them to bully classmates, consume pornography, and falsely glamorize our lives.

With all these activities collapsed into one device, the blunt force tool of “screen time” doesn’t really do much to help us avoid the damaging uses of screens or habituate us away from the tendencies toward vapidness and self-focus that are so common on screens.

Axes for Thinking about Screens

So if  “screen time” is no longer adequate, what should we use instead? Below are several categories or axes (plural of axis, not axe :) of thinking that can help us think more deeply about how we’re using our happy little glowing rectangles.

Creation vs. Consumption – This is what my child was getting at in the opening conversation. Sometimes you just want to passively consume something, and in moderation there’s a place for that. But in that moment, I judged that we’d had enough consumption for the weekend, and I wanted to encourage my kids to find something that would express their God-given creativity rather than sit passively and consume more. However, my criteria is not “on screen” or “off screen”; rather, it’s creating (with Lego, paper, iPad, playdoh, dolls, etc.) vs. consuming (television, YouTube, etc.). “Screen time” alone would limit both indiscriminately. (Note: you can see this breakdown in Common Sense Media’s four categories of teen screen usage)

As helpful as this first axis is, alone it is just as insufficient as “screen time,” because there are certain important forms of consumption that we shouldn’t deny, but should encourage. For example, quite a bit of what we do at church (reading scripture, listening to a sermon) are good, edifying forms of consumption. And this leads us to the next axis.

Entertainment and/or Enrichment – I want my kids to avoid harmful immoral material, but I always want them to think about how something shapes them. A history book can be enriching, but it’s not always entertaining, while a LEGO Star Wars book can be quite entertaining, but not very enriching. In other words, in screen or in print, a diet of Captain Underpants and Twilight (“At least they’re reading!”) is not the same as a diet of Little House on the Prairie and The Hobbit. But notice this one has “and/or” instead of “vs.” because some works like The Hobbit are both entertaining and enriching at the same time. (You might also use “edifying”)

Individual vs. Near Social vs. Distant Social – Screens can be used just by one person or by a group to do something together, but neither is necessarily positive or negative by itself. For example, when I read the Bible for personal devotion, whether its print or on a screen, it’s very much an individual activity and still a good one. Conversely, when I play a video game with my kids, we usually play cooperative games which have at least some social significance (that said gazing at a screen together is different than gazing at one another across a board game). We can also further delineate social activities to consider if they are with those physically near us (playing Risk on a tablet) or with those far away on another device (video chat).  The point is that individual activities are not necessarily bad and social activities aren’t always amazingly deep, but learning to recognize the difference can help us grow in our decision making and avoid either/or thinking about screens.

Bonus Categories

The three above are probably a great start for helping us and our kids think more clearly about the place of screens in our lives, but I’ll offer a few more just in case it helps.

Outward vs. Inward – This category is designed to help us consider whether we are using social media to promote ourselves vs. actually interact, uplift, and encourage others.  It’s easy to put Instagram in the “social” category above, but I often find myself using tools like Instagram to try to direct others toward me, rather than build them up. This category can also help us think about how screen use affects those physically around us. Recently, when I got home from work, I opened my computer to work on a plan to build a treehouse for my kids. This is creative (not consumptive) screen use that is “outwardly” focused, but I discovered that my screen usage was communicating that I didn’t want to help my wife with dinner or play with my kids during a prime time. One can’t always avoid this – work and taxes sometimes call – which makes this one of the trickiest categories, but it also gives us another tool to think about our screens more deeply.

Movement/Body vs. Stationary/Mind – This weekend I let son use my laptop to write something while my daughter and I went for a jog and recorded it with a phone. The first was a stationary activity of the mind, the second had movement and bodies. One of the potential dangers of using any media, whether creating or consuming, entertaining or enriching, is that we forget that being human means having both a mind and body. Our world of screens and pages tends to focus on us on our minds, so we need to compensate and reclaim our bodies (even if we use a screen as part of the physical activity).

Evaluating Screen Activities

So let’s see how various activities might fall on the scales above.

  • Playing Angry Birds/Watching YouTube
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Letting child use the Peppa Pig painting app
    creationentertainment, individual, inward, stationary
  • Listening to a podcast while running
    consumption, enrichment (maybe), individual or social, inward, body and mind
  • Reading a Bible app with kids
    consumption, edifying/entertainment, near social, outward, mind
  • Reading Macrumors.com on a phone in the bathroom
    consumption, entertainment, individual, inward, mind
  • Scanning through Instagram feed
    consumption, entertainment, individual or distant social, inward, mental
  • Using Facebook to find things going on in people’s life to talk/pray about
    consumption, enrichment, distant social, outward, mind
    (I’ve successfully done this about 1 in every 38,000 times I’ve used Facebook)
  • Looking up a recipe for dinner and making it
    creative, enrichment, individual or near social, outward, moving/body

So Let’s Retire “Screen Time”

I hope these categories and examples demonstrates that teaching our kids that “screen time is bad and should be limited” while “anything other than screens is good and unlimited” doesn’t really help them navigate today’s world.

Certainly, there are times when we need to unplug, disconnect, live in the moment, and hide the phone. But as screens become more and more ever present, we adults and the children in our care need to learn more complex forms of discernment.

I hope you find at least one of these axes useful and that you add your own (near vs. far?) as you think through how to flourish in this world, appreciating the wonderful tools at our disposal, while constantly evaluating how they shape us as we use them.

The Shocking/Sobering Reason There Are No Trump Supporters on Your Facebook Feed

If you’re anything like me, you probably have Facebook friends across the political spectrum, and over the past few months you’ve seen a range of posts from young idealists feeling the Bern to staunch conservatives who Trust Ted.

But there is one glaring exception: the bewildering avalanche of articles denouncing Donald Trump and the mystifying absence of a single pro-Trump post.

So what accounts for this? Why do many of us see people posting pro and con on all the other candidates, but only negative things about Trump?

Where Are All the Trump Supporters?

When you think about it there are only a few options

  1. Trump supporters don’t actually exist
  2. Trump supporters aren’t using Facebook or the Internet
  3. I’m not Facebook friends with any Trump supporters
  4. Facebook isn’t showing me any pro-Trump news

Yes, Let’s take these one at a time.

A few months ago, the first option might have seemed plausible. Surely this is all just a fun stunt for Trump, and he might have some supporters, but he won’t actually get votes, right? However, primary after primary has proven this to be yuuuugely wrong. Donald Trump has tens of millions of living, breathing, voting supporters. The are real, and they are making their voices and votes count.

So what if Trump supporters just don’t post on Facebook? That doesn’t seem likely because this map of candidate Likes (HT: Tim Hutchings) shows that there are indeed many, many Facebook users who support Trump. And they aren’t avoiding anti-Trump articles either. Whenever I click on a “Why Trump is Bad for America” post, I see dozens of pro-Trump comments below the article. As his support grows, it’s also apparent that some people are embarrassed to be supporting him and so they keep quiet about it, but that doesn’t yet appear to be a majority of his supporters.

Is it possible, then, that I (and presumably ‘we’) don’t have any Trump-supporting friends on Facebook and that’s why we don’t see any posts in his favor? In person, I’ve only heard one couple friend (or really acquaintance) of mine offer strong support of Trump, so it seems very likely that few of the Facebook friends I’ve accumulated over the years support him.

This all means its possible that there are Trump supporters among my 500+ friends, and that leads to the another possible explanation for why I don’t see their posts — Facebook just isn’t showing them to me. Is this a Zuckerbergian conspiracy, or is something else going on?

Your Facebook is a Mirror

No it’s not a conspiracy. If Facebook isn’t showing my any pro-Trump posts from friends, it’s because it knows I probably don’t want to hear that message from those people.

My patterns over the last ten years – whose baby pictures I’ve liked, whose articles I clicked on, who I “respectfully disagreed with,” what ads I’ve clicked, even the posts I scrolled to and paused on for a few moments without clicking anything – all of that has been recorded, analyzed, and processed in order to create something Facebook knows I’ll like.

That Facebook’s job. Figure out what I like, and keep it coming, so I’ll return again and again. This might be a time to trot out fun statements like, “If a service is free, you’re the product,” but in this case, I think something deeper is a work.

Who Are “Those People”?

In his article, A Message from Trump’s America, Michael Cooper reminds us the majority of Trump supporters come from a large, neglected group of Americans – working class white people. They don’t make a lot of money, they are struggling to put food on the table, and they are frustrated that no one seems to be listening and no one seems to care. He writes:

His supporters realize he’s a joke. They do not care. They know he’s authoritarian, nationalist, almost un-American, and they love him anyway, because he disrupts a broken political process and beats establishment candidates who’ve long ignored their interests.

When you’re earning $32,000 a year and haven’t had a decent vacation in over a decade, it doesn’t matter who Trump appoints to the U.N., or if he poisons America’s standing in the world, you just want to win again, whoever the victim, whatever the price.

What’s worse is that there is a popular narrative that says only working class people are racist bigots and can be dismissed easily. However, in reality there appears to be plenty of racists among the highly educated as well. So it’s easy to say those working class supporters are wrong, but the shocking and sobering reality of Trump’s rise is that it exposes how utterly cut off most of us are from an entire class of people in need. People in need of compassion and grace, not condescension and more anger.

When I read Cooper’s description above, it doesn’t sound like the kind of person I seek out regularly. And it certainly doesn’t sound like the kind of person who could entertain me on Facebook, post an amazing photo on Instagram, or have a super interesting Periscope channel.

We tend to see only what we want to see, and social media is very good and showing us what we want to see.

The media we consume is so good at regurgitating the story we want hear, that an entire nation has been caught off guard by the presence of a class of people so desperate for change that they would support anyone – literally anyone – who will listen.

Post script: As Trump amasses more votes, he also seems to be getting more vocal supporters who don’t fit the original demographic – Chris Christie, Ben Carson, a pastor in my area who seem to enjoy media attention, lots of embarrassed people, educated people, etc. It’s likely that this “Trump as pragmatic choice” will continue right up to the nomination and possibly election.

But don’t let that distract you from the strange truth that from July 2015 to March 2016, many, many people thought Trump didn’t have a chance, and they thought this because they (including me) weren’t aware of the feelings of a massive group of people, some of them hurting quite badly. And our media echoed that back to us so strongly that for a time we believed they didn’t exist.

New Year’s Technology Resolutions of the Internet Famous

You might have noticed that I spent very little time writing here last year. This was a conscious decision on my part to spend more time on things that I felt were priorities, one of the largest of which was the research portion of my PhD.

Since it is a new year, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting on other technology related resolutions that I’ve seen around the web as well as a few of my own.

Selected 2015 Social Media News and Resolutions

In the past few years, dozens of high profile celebrities who decided to quit social media (or who don’t use it in the first place). I think these are helpful reminders of how difficult it is to handle social media.

To me this doesn’t show that social media is inherently evil, but that it’s incredibly hard to moderate even for those who make a living at it. Just as our abundance of food and lack of physical work makes it hard to regulate our bodies, internet news and social media make information and social reaction challenging to regulate. And while I applaud those who make bold decisions to fully quit something, I am personally more inclined to look for small, but important changes I can make that will help bring my life back into balance.

A few resolutions of my own

Rather than start a bunch of things cold turkey on January 1, I started some of my 2016 social media resolutions in late 2015.

Facebook Changes – For the month of December, I decided I would not post anything myself, but I would check Facebook on occasion to like and comment on things from my friends and family. What I found was that I pretty quickly started feeling like I had really hilarious stuff that I wanted to post and see how many people would like it. Instead, I would tell my little jokes to my wife (and occasionally to twitter). I also found that I checked Facebook less often which tells me that a major reason I was checking it before was just to see notifications of responses. By focusing on responding, I was also able to notice when a friend who lost a loved one and respond to them off of Facebook.

Speed and Mindfulness Changes – In 2015, I’ve experimented with some mindfulness practices, using apps like Calm and Headspace to work on exercising my mind’s ability to focus and slow down. Although I’ve been inconsistent at it, I think doing this even intermittently helps me be more patient and less frenetic. I also find that when I do it in the morning before my family wakes up and then follow it with a brief scripture reading, and some daily planning, the day is much smoother.

Phone Changes – As I reflect back on my recent phone usage, what I am most embarrassed about is where I’ve wasted time. Downloading a little game to fill a few spare minutes turned into falling right into the trap of modern game design which is largely based on addictive patterns. I have also watched myself teeter into overconsuming certain feeds of information (Google News, funny meme sites, etc.). I had considered switching to a dumb phone but for now, I’ve attempted reset my phone to be primarily a tool that I use to perform tasks it’s really good at (podcasts in the car, depositing checks in the bank, directions and maps, workouts, air travel, etc.). This means removing any news type apps and avoiding web browsing. Also, I dropped and cracked my phone at Christmas so it’s become a bit more dumb all by itself.

Paper tasks – A common habit among key people I respect is that they have at least one area of their lives where the go more “analog.” Digital calendars are wonderful and powerful, but I know several people who find paper calender much more manageable. I personally have tried dozens of task apps, but I always come back around to sticky notes. At the beginning of each day, I transfer incomplete tasks from the previous day’s stick note to a new sticky note and then keep that on my laptop. Recently, I moved this all to a small moleskin-like notebook which I plan to use more of and use fewer sticky notes. There are lots of great techniques for this (GTD, Bullet Journal, StrikeThru), but I’m not quite disciplined enough to do any of them 100%. However, I do enjoy a walk to our local Starbucks (my phone tells me its 0.32 miles away) taking nothing but the notebook to work through what’s important.

If you have resolutions or small adjustments you find helpful, I’d love to hear them in the comments!

Declining Religion in America? There’s an App for That

Image: Hugh McLeod – http://www.gapingvoid.com/

This week, the Pew Research Center released a sweeping study tracking the precipitous decline in religious affiliation in the US since 2007. While commentators are debating the role of factors like theology, birthrates, and immigration, it’s also interesting to note that 2007 was the same year that Apple released the iPhone and Google announce Android.

Of course, it’d be silly blame the smartphone for the decline of religion and the rise of the “nones,” but it’s hard not to think that our collective worship of the glowing rectangles in our pocket doesn’t play at least some representative part in these broader cultural shifts.

Technology and the Secularization Thesis

To explain the decline of religion in Europe during the 19th and 20th centuries, sociologists of religion posited the Secularization Thesis, which argues that when education, democracy, and science spread, religion eventually loses its authority, and secularism becomes dominant. In other words, the more Europe modernized, the less religious it became.

However, for much of the twentieth century, the Secularization Thesis never quite worked in the US. Religious faith here remained strong, and the growth of Islam around the world and Christianity in Latin America, Asia, and Africa forced sociologists to reconsider just how secularization works.

And yet, while secularization doesn’t appear to work in a simple manner in all cases, it’s also important to note how deeply it is tied to technology. In The Homeless Mind, Peter Berger, wrote that modernization is essentially, “the transformation of the economy by means of technology.” In this understanding, it would seem that technology would have to play at least some role in the move toward secularization and the rise of the “nones.”

The One Perk No Googler Wants

I recently saw a visible representation of how technological progress can squeeze out religion, however unintentionally. A few months ago, I had the chance to tour Google’s main campus in Mountain View, CA, and a bright, articulate, young Googler pointed out interesting details such as the first servers Sergey and Larry ever used and the much talked about perks like free food around every corner, Octobikes, full service laundry, child care, nursing rooms, and on and on.

As we walked, it occurred to me that just about the only thing lacking from the Google campus was some visible, physical representation of faith. Of course, most employers don’t provide chapels in their workplace and in that regard Google certainly isn’t exceptional. But Google and other Silicon Valley companies are exceptional in the number of perks and benefits they offer to entice and keep employees. Other multi-cultural centers of commerce like airports and universities have interfaith spaces, so why don’t big tech firms?

I think part of the answer is simply that no one asks for a chapel. And no one asks for a chapel because it would be at odds with the central selling proposition of Silicon Valley—progress. Unlike an Octobike or a massage pod, which reinforce the idea that technology can solve problems, a chapel might remind us of long-forgotten needs that technology cannot meet.

The gods in Our Pocket

Today, the mythology of progress, long championed in the business and tech sectors, calls to us moment by moment from our pockets. As a culture, we spend enormous amounts of time discussing the growth of screen sizes, increases in Internet access, the development in apps—progress, progress, progress we tell ourselves.

At the same time, we fill nearly every waking moment with beeps, vibrations, and reminders, drowning out any chance that our soul might surface a needs no device can meet. The more we use our devices, the more we find ourselves inculcated with the idea that our primary needs in life are those things that technology can meet. “There’s an app for that” thinking is so ubiquitous that when there’s not an app for something, it seems like it might not even be a real problem. How many of us have tried to solve our business or lack of spiritual discipline with an app?

Perhaps in this climate, it’s not so much of a stretch to say that technological culture in general and the smartphone in particular was at least partially responsible for cutting off the vestigial limb of religion dangling from many Americans at the turn of the century. Now that progress-oriented technology is a permanent fixture in the life of nearly every person in the country, it’s not surprising fewer are finding a need for religion in their lives.

Does the Church Have Anything to Offer?

Cultural change always feels threatening to the church, but past upheavals have also provided a chance for the church to refocus on its core identity. In a world where many people already have their physical needs met by technological means, the church has to figure out what it uniquely offers the world.

Google will always have more information, Spotify will always have better music, and Starbucks will always (arguably) have better coffee. But information, music, and coffee are not the trade of the church. Ours is truth, worship, and communion which together offer us not a product we can download and consume with diminishing return, but an inexhausible encounter with a living being, the risen Christ.