What Moby Dick Can Teach Us About What We Click, Read, and Post

“Grand Contested Election for the Presidency of the United States.”
“Whaling Voyage By One Ishmael.”
“Bloody Battle In Affghanistan.” [sic]
— Moby Dick, Herman Melville

My wife is a literature professor – but not the typical read-a-few-texts-and-give-a-quiz kind. She’s that rare gift to the world who can give students an experience in class so profound that it makes math majors want become English scholars. She even inspired me to start reading the classics, and when I finally cracked open a copy of Melvin’s masterpiece, I was surprised to find the above headlines in the first few pages.

I’ve been told that one of the marks of a work of great literature is that it captures something universal about the human experience, and Melville certainly did that with these headlines. At this point in the story, the character named Ishmael creates these three headlines as a way of imagining his whaling trip being a part of the major headlines that one might read in a newspaper on any given day.

It’s amazing and a bit eery to see how similar the typical events of 1850 were compared to the big news of our day. There are always wars in the Middle East, and there are always presidential controversies. I’m not the first to notice how tragically evergreen these headlines are, but I think Melville also offers us a chance to see something about our relationship to media itself.

If we think back over the links we click every day, does it seem as if they mostly to take us to articles and videos that rehash things we already know? Every once in a while something new happens, but in between we’ll settle for a “fresh angle” or a “new spin” that temporarily satiates our media hunger. Sometimes we know we’re just looking for fun GIFs and listicles, but even when we click on something that promises a serious exploration of a current issue, it’s often just a repeat of the same old things that get posted every year and every century: “Why the ‘X’ in X-Mas is a good/bad thing”  “10 reasons the guy from the thing is wrong about the deal” “Why Easter isn’t really about the thing the other article talked about” and so on.

But Ishmael’s thought exercise isn’t just about media consumption. I think it also tells us something about the media we produce.  Ishmael is engaging in a mental exercise not unlike modern social media, imagining his life as equally important as international events. Like many people today, I enjoy posting photos of my children and places I’ve been, but when I step back and consider what’s happening, it seems strange that modern media puts the everyday moments of my life alongside world events — very much like Ishmael imagined almost two centuries ago.

This Saturday, it’s worth thinking about the media we’ve consumed and produced over the past week, and asking ourselves, “Have I enriched my mind and soul with what I’ve consumed?” and “How have I portrayed my life and the lives of others?” The deeper we are immersed the the world of media and screens, the more we are encouraged to consume articles that say very little that is meaningful and to post things that make us feel significant for a few moments.

I’m encouraged by Ishmael to know that these are not necessarily new struggles for humans, but I also realize that the technology we have access to today affords actions that were once only possible in a person’s imagination. In Moby Dick, Ishmael eventually abandons the fantasy and choose to go on the whaling voyage. While you’ll have to read the book to get the whole effect, the result is that it reconnects him with the incarnate life and gives him a story that just might make the headlines.

Perhaps if we are a little more careful with what we click, read, and post, we might find the same in our own life.

“The Bible”: A book or a category of things?

When you browse through the Christian section of your favorite  online or neighbor store and see a book with the term “Bible” (or its much murkier corollary,  “Biblical”) on the cover, what exactly does that term mean?

Over at Second Nature Journal, I explore this question looking at how various content creators use the term “Bible” and ultimately argue that it isn’t as clear as one might prefer. Here’s how it starts…

Tonight, after dinner, baths, and a lot of screaming, my wife and I will settle down next to our toddlers and attempt to inculcate them into the Christian mythos telling them the stories of Abraham, Rahab, Paul, Silas, and the rest. Sometimes we read from our own leather-bound Bibles, but most nights we use books with titles like the The Jesus Storybook Bible and The Beginner’s Bible, and yes even one called Princess Stories: Real Bible Stories of God’s Princesses.

Read on at “How the Christian Media Industry Made “Bible” into a Category Instead of a Proper Name

What Form of Video Best Addresses Phone Addiction & Isolation?

We all know the basic message: “put down your phone” “talk to a real person,” and “pay attention.” And we’ve probably all noticed the irony of people use social media to post videos that contain these messages and warn about  the dangers of social media.

As I’ve been watching these, I noticed that some struck me as quite powerful while others as predictable and even boring. Why is this? Is there a simple reason why some of these videos more effective than others? Why do some make us stop for a moment, but others are easy to dismiss?

Below is a small sample of a few of these videos representing the various ways they use video: direct speaking messages, some use infographics, and some are wordless stories. Watch them, and see which you think are most powerful.

Look Up (4:59) – Lyrical Presentation

The second half has a heart-tugging story element with a strong A/B storyline. It felt a little long and a tad predictable, but the lyrical style kept me interested.

Innovation of Lonelineness (4:20) – Infographics

The animations and graphics on this video are incredibly well done. They kept me watching even when I felt like the message was too strong and one-sided.

I Forgot My Phone (2:10) – Wordless Story

I think this video is the most powerful, because it was short, it told a story, and it avoided an omniscient narrator. To me, this made the message clearer and the emotional impact deeper.

Video as a Visual Medium

I appreciate each of these videos and want to thank the creators of each for their hard work. But I think the reason the final video seemed most powerful to me was that it uses video as a purely visual medium and communicates through images rather than propositions.

In the first two videos, the narrator tells the story, and he tells you what to think about the story. That means the visuals are secondary. The images, video, and graphics are only a supporting element to the statements the speaker is making. But if you didn’t have those statements, you’d still get mostly the same message. [tweetable]In the final video, everything essential is communicated visually, through the main characters eyes[/tweetable].

Even when there is a particularly powerful visual element in the first two videos, the narrator breaks in with statements and propositions, forcing your brain to enter into a more logical mode and making the video secondary. I think this is why the narrators chose a lyrical presentation rather than a more direct style of speech, because they intuited that they needed something more compelling that direct propositions.

And yet, I think [tweetable]the final video is still more powerful because the message is communicated entirely without words[/tweetable]. The power of that video is derived solely from its visuals, and the audio is secondary and supportive rather than the other way around.

Let me know if there are videos you find more or less powerful and how the medium itself contributes to that power (or lack thereof).

Starting a PhD at University of Durham, UK!

Durham Cathedral
Durham Cathedral

You might have noticed that it’s been a little quite here in the past few months.

In the background, I’ve been working on an application for a PhD in theology and religion at the University of Durham. My hope is to study how people understand Scripture and they activities they do with it as they transition from print media to digital media. My basic premise is that the shift from oral to print has introduced new emphases with regard to Scripture and new ways of navigating and understanding it, and we are in the midst of new shifts with digital media that will likely take some time to fully realize.

After months of preparation, I’m happy to say that I was accepted to the program and will begin studying in April. My employer, Dallas Theological Seminary, has generously offered a 4-month sabbatical for my family and I to move to Durham to begin studies and I will finish the remainder back in Dallas.

I’d like to thank a few people for making this possible including Tim Hutchins (who has already done much work in this area), Heidi Campbell (who has been a constant encourager and amazingly prolific writer over recent years), Andrew Byers (who treated me so well on my visit to Durham and continues to offer assistance in our transition), Pete Phillips (who runs the amazing CODEC group at Durham and allowed me to visit his office), and Matthew Guest (the advisor who agreed to take me on in the project). There are many others here at home who’ve been most helpful as well.

Hopefully, I’ll continue to use this blog as an outlet for research as it comes and for additional thoughts unrelated to digital Bibles.

Without the Printing Press, Would Inerrancy Be A Question?

Valentin - Paul Writing

A Bit of Background

Depending on your background, the term “inerrancy” might be a vaguely familiar idea that means something like “authority” or “trustworthiness” or, conversely, it might refer to an idea invented by fundamentalists that is at best unhelpful.

But whatever your background with the idea, you’ll likely be hearing more about it soon on the heals of Zondervan’s new book Five Views on Inerrancy and events surrounding its publication such as the Evangelical Theological Society’s recent debate (live blog) by the authors of the book.

We’ll touch on the meaning of inerrancy below, but first the point of this post is to propose that the development of the idea of inerrancy came about in part because of the printing press and the attitudes and expectations created by printed books.

What is Inerrancy?

For scholars, the term “inerrancy” comes with many technical definitions. Wayne Grudem defined inerrancy saying, “Scripture in the original manuscripts does not affirm anything that is contrary to fact” (Systematic Theology, 91) and more recently Al Mohler writes, “The Bible is ‘free from all falsehood or mistake’.” (c.f. The Chicago Statement on Inerrancy).

On the surface this doesn’t seem like a particularly difficult concept, but as Mohler says the devil is in the details. When a perfect God works through a fallen person, what exactly would it mean for Scripture to have a “mistake” or something that is “contrary to fact”?

For example, today we use the term “four corners of the earth” as an expression, but when the author of Revelation used the phrase (Rev. 7:1) did he think there really were four corners of the earth? If so, is that “mistake”? Or is it God working through the language and customs of the time? Or something else?

What about the ages of men in Genesis (any over 900 years)? Are those to be taken as scientifically accurate dates that are either chronologically right or wrong? Or was the author doing what many people did in the Ancient Near East which was to use “age” not as an index of time, but as an index of importance? If so, again, is this “contrary to fact” or  God working through the language and expectations of the original culture of readers? Or is the Bible just wrong on many factual matters but still correct when it comes to spiritual issues?

The examples could go on and on, but it is worth pointing out that in the last major “Battle for the Bible” which took place in the 1970s and ‘80s, some evangelical theologians took the position that they could still affirm biblical authority and infallibility, but not the technical idea of inerrancy. As Marsden tells the story in Reforming Fundamentalism many theologians essentially had the same basic view of Scripture, but struggled with the term “inerrancy” itself and all that it connotes. Today the debate is bubbling up again because of new concerns about what exactly constitutes an “error” and what can be considered the conventions of the literary genre.

While this is very interesting and will likely continue to be an important issue among evangelicals, its important to note that underneath the issue of “error” is an idea about “error” that can be traced, in part, from the move from hand-written texts to printed texts.

Gutenberg, Luther, and Erasmus

Gutenberg’s first printing press came online in 1450. When we talk about the printing press and Christianity, we often point out that Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg Door in 1517 and then later used the printing press to great effect when distributing his German translation of the Bible.

But what we don’t normally mention is that Erasmus published the first critical edition of the Greek New Testament the year before in 1516. (A critical text is one that compares several hand-written copies of the Bible and notes where there are differences. For example, the ending of Mark is not in many early manuscripts, and Erasmus’ critical text noted all such known variations.)

An interesting question is: why was Erasmus’ generation the first to think of creating such comparative editions of the Bible?

The Value System of Print

Before the age of print, a book was something decidedly human. Each copy and every letter therein could be traced to living, breathing, fallible human being. Books were written by humans, copied by humans, ready aloud by humans, and listened to by humans.

But in the print age, a book was a product manufactured by a machine capable of precision and perfection. Every letter was an exact replica of the one before it and every page in one book matched the same page in the same edition of the same text.

Erasmus was part of the first generation raised with this new technology and its value system founded on the idea that texts should not vary from copy to copy. So when Erasmus encountered differences among hand-copied Bibles, he looked at them differently than previous generations of Christians who never expected books to be perfect replicas of one another. That’s not to say previous generations of Christians were unaware of such changes – Origen, Augustine, Aquinas and others commented on textual variations – but Erasmus and the generations that followed him devoted much more attention to textual criticism, and this study was both influenced and supported by the printing press.

Doubts Arise

Most of the changes he and others found were minor, but they were enough to create an entire field of study (biblical criticism) that didn’t exist before. More importantly, these differences among copies of the Bible started causing some people to doubt the trustworthiness of the Scriptures themselves.

As the story goes, seventeenth and eighteenth century Enlightenment thinkers began to question the historicity of certain parts of the Bible, especially anything miraculous. Modern, scientific man need not and could not believe in things like parting the Red Sea and resurrection from the dead. And though many of these critiques were over the content of the Bible, it was also subtly about biblical media – silly, hand-copied legends could never compete with rigorous scientific data hot off the printing press.

Up to this point, all Christians had affirmed the authority, trustworthiness, and truthfulness of the Bible. The scribes who copied it did their best to copy every letter and every word with precision and care. And yet minor mistakes and human variations in copying were just a part of their reality and part of what made a Bible beautiful.

It seems clear that the reason people like Erasmus started taking more note of the differences is that using the technology of print inculcated the expectation of perfect texts. This is important because the inerrancy debate is primarily concerned with the perfection of the biblical texts. The Scriptures teach us that God himself is perfect, but it is the technology of print that teach us us to expect a kind of perfection from our texts.

Fighting Fire with Fire

It was in this context of biblical criticism that inerrancy emerged as a new way of re-establishing biblical authority in scientific and technological terms. Conservative theologians felt they couldn’t simply restate the historical view that the Bible is authoritative – they needed to do so through the lenses new media (print) provided.

Notice how Grudem’s definition is specifically concerned not merely with the content itself but with content respect to media. Instead of just saying that the Bible has no factual errors, his definition qualifies the lack of errors by saying there were none “in the original manuscripts.”

Grudem is arguing that some of the “errors” people find the Bible are really just mistakes in copying and if we had the original manuscripts, it would clear up what appears to be contradictions.

But notice that at its core this statement contrasts two forms of media: handwritten copies of the Bible and printed replicas of the Bible. What this means is that to understand, debate, affirm, or deny the concept of “inerrancy,” one must be familiar with print and its value system.

Put another way, inerrancy is a post-print doctrinal orientation.

Affirm, Deny, or Ignore?

Those who reject inerrancy often claim that it is a 19th century invention foreign to the early church. Conversely, inerrantists often claim inerrancy is the historical position of the church. I hope to have argued that neither position is truly accurate.

I am neither criticizing nor defending inerrancy (disclosure: inerrancy is one the seven doctrines students must affirm at the institution where I work), but pointing out that whether you affirm inerrancy, reject it, or simply find it unhelpful or unnecessary, these are postures only those familiar with printed books and the value system of the Print Age can take.

Again, this is evident in the way many definitions of inerrancy hinge upon the new realities created by print media and the kinds of things people today consider to be “mistakes” or “errors.”

The development of the concept of inerrancy doesn’t make it true or false, it simply means that answering the question of authority in this way was not required of pre-print Christians. And yet, whether we like it or not, it is a question we must to wrestle with today.

For those of us deeply concerned with fully affirming that, “All Scripture is inspired by God and useful …” (2 Tim 3:16), we must articulate what that means within our own cultural setting, even as that setting is again shifting media: this time from print to digital.

TheoMedia and Other Great, New Books on Technology

If you’re interested in the subject of media and technology there are several books toward which I’d like to point you.

TheoMediaFirst up, I just heard the news that my friend Andy Byers‘s new book entitled, TheoMedia: The Media of God and the Digital Age has just be made available for pre-order from the publisher. What I love about Andy’s work is that it’s not another “how to” book, another set of predictions, or another complainer’s rant. Instead Andy submerges readers deeply into the theological implications of media itself. He reminds us that it was God who created media and who used various media (which Andy gives the name “TheoMedia”) throughout the Biblical stories. He then urges us to think not about how to avoid media, but how to be constantly saturated in the media of God.

His argument kind of turns the typical discussion on its head – in a really, really good way. As a bonus, Andy is a truly gifted writer, a burgeoning New Testament scholar, and just an all around fantastic human being. I had the chance to meet he and his family recently in Durham, England, and they are simply some of the best people around.

shaping a digital worldSecond, I’d like to point you to a great little book called Shaping a Digital World: Faith, Culture and Computer Technology by Derek Shuurman, a computer science professor at Redeemer University College in Canada.

Rather than trying to tackle the entire subject of “technology,” Dr. Shuurman narrows his focus to computer technology, and raises some great questions about how Christians should think through them. He comes from a Reformed background so you’ll notice the influence of thinkers like Abraham Kuyper, but not so much that it isn’t applicable to a broad range of Christians interested in technology. I had the chance to meet Dr. Shuurman at the Christian Engineering Conference a few months ago, and he’s a great guy that I really wish could move a bit further south :).

word thousand picturesFinally, there’s an old, but a goody that I was reminded of at a recent trip to Gordon-Conwell for a conference. The Word is Worth a Thousand Pictures: Preaching in the Electronic Age by Gregory Reynolds is a giant tome whose title describes it perfectly. I didn’t get to spend much time with Gregory, but I could tell he deeply cares about Christian preaching and its direction and use in the digital age. His book will doubtless be a huge help to those researching approaches to media and culture in the church.

If any of you have read or come across great new books (or classics) on media and technology, be sure to note them in the comments.

 

 

Beautiful Collection of Ancient Bibles on Display in Dallas, TX

Last night, I had the opportunity to attend the opening of a fantastic new collection of Bibles on display at the Museum of Biblical Art in Dallas, TX.

Charles Ryrie with John Dyer
Charles Ryrie with John Dyer

Charles Ryrie, a former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary probably best known for the Ryrie Study Bible, has been collecting rare Bibles for around 50 years. To me, he is known as the man whose writings (such as Basic Theology) got me interested in studying the Bible and the theology of the church. Meeting him for the first time was a pleasure, and the exhibit was far more extensive than I imagined.

I’m still astounded that all of this is in Dallas. According to the website,

The Collection includes such masterpieces as a page from the Gutenberg Bible (1450’s); the first edition of the King James Bible (1611); the Wycliffe New Testament (1430); Genoa Psalter (1516) with its footnote about Christopher Columbus; Coverdale’s first edition (1535) of the first printed English Bible; early Greek manuscripts of the New Testament; one of the world’s few copies of Tyndale’s Pentateuch (The first five books of the old Testament, called The Torah or Law in Hebrew-1530); and Erasmus’ New Testaments.  Additional elements include Eliot’s Indian Bible (1663) in the Algonquin language – the first Bible to be printed in America – as well as a variety of Greek, Hebrew, Latin and other language Bibles.

Here’s a few of them:

Hopefully one day someone will followup with a museum dedicated to the Bible in digital form!

Awesomely Awkward Technology Poses

Curious Rituals, an new ebook from the Art Center College of Design (by Nicolas Nova, Katherine Miyake, Nancy Kwon, and Walton Chiu) does a fantastic job of illustrating some of the “new” poses we make with modern technology products. They start the book with gestures like swipe and pinch, but then quickly move into the social behaviors we’ve unconsciously adopted.

Download the book (PDF), and see the blog here.

Below are a few of my favorites:

 

Side-Laptop

I’ve never done this one, but now I must try it.

side-laptop

Nintendo Wisper

If you remember this one, you’re awesome.
nintendo

 

Baboon’s Face

I think we’ve all done this utterly useless one at Starbucks once.

mouth-cover

Share a Bud

The social commentary in Curious Rituals is spot on this one.
earphone-share

Tired Arm

Sometimes you just have to switch ears, but not hands…driving

Social Media

Sharing funny stuff is the new small talk.conversation

Phone Trace

Pacing around like you just don’t care.cell-trance

 

Download the book (PDF), and see the blog here.

Free Download: The Best of The Atlantic’s Technology Writing

tech-coverOver the last two or three years, some of the best writing on technology to be found on the Internet has come from The Atlantics technology section. Until the end of the year, they are giving away a 345 page ebook of the best posts of 2012 for free. Here’s their blurb:

The Best Writing From The Atlantic’s Technology Channel 2012 is an anthology that showcases the site’s kaleidoscopic approach to covering the tech scene. This isn’t a book merely about technologies—it’s one about the ideas that animate them, the people who create them, and the users who transform them. You’ll find everything from an exclusive account of the technology that powered the Obama campaign, to an investigation into what makes a stock photo; memes to space; drones to abortion; philosophy to animated GIFs.

So go run and grab it now: http://www.theatlantic.com/eBooks#tech

(HT: Dave Stearns)

Descartes on the Purpose of Technology and the Body

As part of her dissertation research, my wife is looking at how Dostoevsky viewed and critiqued some of Descartes’s ideas. In doing so, she stumbled upon the following passage in which Descartes tangentially addresses technology, saying that the mind can produce tools which will one day offer us a “trouble-free” bodily existence:

“knowing the force and action of fire, water, air, the stars, the heavens and all other bodies that surround us, just as distinctly as we know the skills of our craftsmen, we might be able, in the same way, to use them for all the purposes for which they are appropriate, and thus render ourselves, as it were, masters and possessors of nature. This is desirable not only for the invention of an infinity of devices that would enable one to enjoy trouble-free the fruits of the earth and all the goods found there, but also principally for the maintenance of health, which unquestionably is the first good and the foundation of all the other goods of this life, for even the mind depends so greatly on the temperament and the disposition of the organs of the body.” (Discourse on Method, 35 [1637])

In Philosophy 101, we all learned that Descartes distrusted the body and its senses so much that he concluded the only thing he could know for sure was that his mind existed (i.e. “I think, therefore I am.”). But that was always just a philosophical idea about the knowledge and knowing, right?

The reason I find this quote so fascinating is that it shows Descartes’s philosophical ideas trickling into what he thought about the real physical world. He doesn’t outright deny that the body is good, but he seems to tetering just a few steps aways from the real world kinds of ideas that futurists and posthumanists talk about today.

While Descartes is simply saying that our minds can produce technology that makes life easier (which is obviously true, see Gen 3:7), Ray Kurzweil sees the ultimate purpose of technology not in terms of helping the body, but as actually doing away with the body altogether so that we are exist as pure mind:

One of the key ideas here is that, as you mentioned, we’ll be able to capture human intelligence in a non-biological system–a machine, if you will. (NPR Interview, 2005)

So What?

I doubt many of us dream of uploading our minds onto eternal inorganic substrates. We don’t want to literally escape the body like Kurzweil, or even philosophically like Descartes. But this basic way of thinking – that the physical body’s main purpose is feeling ecstasy and helping the mind escape – seems to be deeply woven into many of our modern patterns of life.

In a world that has both technology which performs all of our physical tasks (cars, dish washers, tractors, etc.) and now our mental tasks (math, memory, etc.), we might again ask questions:

What is the purpose of the body?
What is the meaning of physical presence?

For some initial discusion, I’d like to recommend my friend Matt Anderson‘s book Earth Vessels which kickstarts quite a few conversations about the body. And, when it’s ready, I’d also recommend my wife’s dissertation to see what Dostoevsky had to say about the embodied life. For now, I’ll leave you with one of my favorite sections of his Brother’s Karamozov:

If all men abandon you and even drive you away by force, then when you are left alone fall on the earth and kiss it, water it with your tears and it will bring forth fruit even though no one has seen or heard you in your solitude. Believe to the end, even if all men went astray and you were left the only one faithful; bring your offering even then and praise God in your loneliness. And if two of you are gathered together — then there is a whole world, a world of living love. Embrace each other tenderly and praise God, for if only in you two His truth has been fulfilled.