On Tornadoes, Piper, and Godwin’s Law

Crash, Bang!

1964 SteepleIn case you missed it, there were some storms last week. First there was a tornado.

Then John Piper offered an interpretation of the tornado and a bigger storm hit. In a mere 24 hours, there were hundreds of comments, thousands of tweets, and dozens of counter-posts by pastors (Boyd, Jones), professors (McKight), and others (Spencer, Kinnon, Coker).

I have no desire to further the debate over whether Dr. Piper’s assessment was correct. Personally, I think John Piper has served the Lord well in his time on earth, and any critique I would offer of his ministry would amount to little more than a baby whale spouting next to an aircraft carrier. What I am interested in is what we can learn from the story of Piper and his critics about Internet theological discourse regarding contentious issues.

Godwin’s Law for Christian Discourse

When it comes to Internet theological debate on hot topics, there seems to be a sort of Christian Godwin’s Law at work. If you’re not familiar with it, Godwin’s Law was humorously submitted by Mike Godwin almost 20 years ago in the early days of the Internet. It states:

As a Usenet discussion grows longer, the probability of a comparison involving Nazis or Hitler approaches 1.

In other words, debates will inevitably end with one person comparing the other person’s views to Hitler. It turns out that if you replace “Hitler” with “heresy,” you’d describe about 86% of debates on Christian blogs and forums on hot topics. In the case of Piper, he made a similar argument about calamities previously, but no one seemed to notice since it didn’t touch a contentious issue. However, when he made a case that addressed the issue of homosexuality, the “h” word came out within hours.

Now we could dismiss this by saying that people argue on any medium. And that’s true – remember Cain and Abel? But I think that the Internet itself, for all its strengths and all the promise it offers, is uniquely suited toward pushing these controversial debates further and further, and below I offer three such reasons why this is almost always the inevitable result. Continue reading On Tornadoes, Piper, and Godwin’s Law

BibleTech:2009 – Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

The fine folks at Logos have posted the audio and slides of the BibleTech:2009 conference talks. Here is my presentation slides synced with the audio using slideshare.net. (note: the title is a nod to Shane Hipps’ book Flickering Pixels: How Technology Shapes Your Faith)

Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

Continue reading BibleTech:2009 – Technology is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith

Read the Bible: Greek and Hebrew Reading Experiment

Reader's Greek and HebrewFor my BibleTech:2009 presentation (“Technology Is Not Neutral: How Bible Technology Shapes Our Faith“), I created an example site to demonstrate what I like to call “technological minimalism” in Bible software. In my seminary Greek and Hebrew classes, I often relied too heavily on my Bible software during translations and my ability to actually read the text suffered. What I needed was some way to turn off all the cool features and only see the help that I really needed. In my case, I was supposed to have memorized all the Greek works which were used 50 times or more, so I only needed definitions for the more rare words. Unfortunately, there is no way to limit this that I know of in Logos.

Continue reading Read the Bible: Greek and Hebrew Reading Experiment

Google CEO on Internet Learning vs. Book Learning

Google CEO Eric Schmidt was on Charlie Rose Friday night (3/6/9) to talk about all things Google and technology. It’s a fascinating discussion (privacy, group learning, etc.), but I just want to point one thing he had  to say about the learning in the information age:

I worry that the level of interrupt, the sort of overwhelming rapidity of information — and especially of stressful information — is in fact affecting cognition. It is in fact affecting deeper thinking. I still believe that sitting down and reading a book is the best way to really learn something. And I worry that we’re losing that. (quote starts: 42:00 )

Continue reading Google CEO on Internet Learning vs. Book Learning

3 Stages of Biblical Technology

A few years ago, I noticed that the way I think about and interact with the Bible changed. It started when, as a youth pastor, I purchased a Pocket PC with Bible software on it so I could always search and find verses if students asked me a question.

It turns out junior highers don’t really ask seminary question, but later I found that there have been three major stages of Bible technologies, and I was swimming in the third.

1. The Oral Bible: Context

Public Reading of Scripture From the time Moses starting writing Scripture in 1500 B.C., Scripture was most often heard, not read. Every Sabbath, the Scriptures would be read aloud in the gathering of faith.

There were no chapter or verse divisions, believers simply memorized what they heard and referred to Scripture by author (e.g., Acts 2:16-17; Acts 2:25). When a short passages was quoted, the minds of the hearers would think of the surrounding context since they had heard it read many times.

Today, we have the same experience when we refer to famous speeches we’ve heard. When we say, “Martin Luther King, Jr. said, ‘I have a dream,’” we don’t have a chapter or verse number, but we all know the context of the words in history and their significance.

2. The Print Bible: Precision

bible-verses The advent of the printed Bible allowed much greater access to the Scriptures for individual believers. However, it also changed the way people interacted with the Bible because print enables totally new uses of language.

First, a person can have a “quiet time” of personal Bible study apart from a community, and second a reader can skip around and find passages rather than waiting for it to be read. To facilitate this skipping around, chapter and verse divisions were added so that readers could quickly and precisely find passages.

One of the results of this precision was that many believers only know and memorize individual verses instead of passages in context, occasionally missing the actual meaning of the passage. Consider Habakkuk 1:5 -  it sounds wonderful in isolation, but horrific in context. The modern equivalent of isolating verses would be if we said something like, “People have important dreams (King, Jr. 5:12)”.

3. The Digital Bible: Search

Bible Search, funny, eh?The digitized Bible now brings another new way of looking at the Bible. We can find read multiple versions in parallel, look up Greek and Hebrew definitions, cross references, and commentaries with great ease.

But again, as with print there are some downsides to this kind of “searching the Scriptures.” For example, I know that Abraham grew up in a pagan family, but I can’t seem to remember the reference for this. What I do remember is that I can search for “Abraham and father” to find that Abraham’s dad’s name was “Terah” (Gen 11:27), then search for “Terah” to find Joshua 24:2. My mind won’t seem to let me memorize it, probably because I always have a computer around, and I already know what to search for to find it.

Referring to Martin Luther King, Jr. again, we might find ourselves saying silly things like, “I wanted to find out about dreams, so I searched and found all these great quotes like King, Jr. 5:12 which says, ‘I have a dream.’”

Some Recommendations

The printed Bible and the digital Bible are amazing testaments to human ingenuity, and I am 100% glad we have them. However, we would still do well to recognize that these technologies influence us, and sometimes we need to work against their influence to be better Christians. Here are two simple suggestions:

  • Rather than always reading our printed Bible in isolation, we should read the Scripture aloud in context and in groups.
  • If we notice ourselves searching for the same passages multiple times, we should engage in the ancient discipline of memorization.