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

Blogs vs. Classics: The New Experience of Language

In order to get a handle on just how many words I see every day, I analyzed two of my favorite tech blogs and compared them to a few classics.

The Statistics

Awesome Blogs Words per Year
TechCrunch* 1,881,152
Engadget* 1,218,609

Classic Books Total Words
Homer – Iliad 168,599
Plato – Apology 11,472
Aristotle – Ethics 85,103
Old Testament 593,493
New Testament 181,253
Augustine – Confessions 137,505
Shakespeare – Hamlet 30,066
Melville – Moby Dick 210,997
Dostoevsky – Brothers Karamazov 349,272
Faulkner – The Sound and the Fury 96,709
Total 1,864,469

* These stats are estimates based on number of posts per week reported by Google Reader and an average number of words from the last 10 posts.

Dropping TechCrunch = Literary Scholar?

These numbers suggest that if I dropped just one blog, TechCrunch (I love you Mike!), I could conceivably use the leftover time to read all of the above classics in just one year. At 250 words/minute, it would take only 20 minutes a day.

And people say they don’t have time to read the classics.

What It Really Means about Our Experience of Language

In reality, this comparison isn’t apples to apples. I don’t read TechCrunch, I just scan it. I look at the titles and pictures, and only read the posts that relate to my field. But because I do this hundreds of times per day on several blogs and news sites, it says more about my experience of language than my chances of becoming an epic scholar. Here are some observations:

  1. We are exposed to an staggering number of words every day. Just scanning these two blogs adds up to 3 million words in a year. That’s not counting comments, advertisements, or the links out to other sites.
  2. We are see numerous fragments, but few complete thoughts – TechCrunch uses it’s 1.8 million words for 6,000 short, decontextualized posts. Compare that to 1.8 million words in 10 classic works each comprising major themes.
  3. We consume facts, but few ideasTechCrunch is a must read for the web startup world, but it is mostly just data. It doesn’t develop a person morally or discuss what ought to be, it only tells us what is.

This doesn’t mean TechCrunch is bad or even useless, but it does mean that our most common experience of words is a form of empty consumption rather than deep soul formation. It’s rather like choosing to eat a dozen 99 cent McDonald’s burgers instead of a slowly marinated, costly steak.

If you looked at your word consumption, what would you find?