Thinking Out Loud

January 17, 2017

Christians and Reading

bookstore-signThis is part two of two articles on the general subject of reading and language, especially as it relates to the closing of bookstores in the wider market, and Christian bookstores in particular. Click here for part one.

Times are a lot tougher than in the past. Millennials struggle to find jobs and wealth creation is not as it was in the days of double-digit interest rates. The R-word — recession — is occasionally mentioned; some say we’re moving into it, some say we’re in it, some say we’re in recovery. Christian bookstores could have reason to claim immunity for the following reasons:

  1. In full out economic depression, people turn to religion.
  2. Also in depression, people turn to entertainment. While the book industry doesn’t have the same profile as movies, music and television, it is most definitely a subset of the entertainment industry.

So why have so many Christian bookstores closed? As with yesterday’s article, I haven’t taken the time to cite studies and statistics, but trust me on some things I can offer anecdotally.

First, we mentioned the various time pressures, distractions, and diminishing attention spans. I would argue that this has led to decline in the traditional devotional reading time. Bill Hybels has tried to give this new life by christening it with a new name, Chair Time. I wrote about that in February, 2016. Curling up with a good book and building a personal library are becoming rare activities. The only way to ensure people have contact with books at all is sometimes to have small groups or home groups which are essentially book study groups. That doesn’t always happen however. Many house groups use church-provided outlines or small study guides related to DVD curriculum they are watching. I do like the traditional book groups, especially in the sense in which they provide accountability (to cover the chapters for the next meeting.)

Second, I think the problem is self-perpetuating. Focus on the Family did some studies a decade ago on the spiritual influence the Dad has in the home, citing things like church attendance over time. I would contend that a generation is arising that has never seen their fathers sitting in a chair reading and when I say reading here, I would settle for the Sears catalog or Sports Illustrated. Many homes no longer receive a newspaper; and I understand that, you can read it online. But online reading is very personal. I could be doing anything online now: Checking the weather, balancing my bank account, posting a social media status update, watching YouTube videos, playing an online game, reading a serious article, or writing for my blog. But when someone sits in a chair reading, they are very obviously reading. Kids need to see this modeled for them as a life component every bit as normal as brushing your teeth.

Third, I believe that leadership is not setting the pace. In the retail store where I hang out, we see Sunday School teachers, we see worship team members, we see small group leaders. What we don’t see is elders, deacons, board members. Sometimes I will visit other churches and I see the names of these people printed in the church bulletin and I don’t recognize any of those names. We even had an instance of a pastor who we were told on good authority did not use his book allowance in ten years. (The man was incredibly arrogant and probably felt he knew all there was to know.) There are a few exceptions to this, but many people are chosen to serve their church in this capacity because they are business owners or executives who are successfully managing the company they work for and are considered wise enough to run the affairs of the church. Maybe they’re too busy to work on their own spiritual formation. That wasn’t the case with Stephen however. When The Twelve needed to create another tier of leadership to do the everyday running of things, they chose, “a man of faith, full of the Holy Spirit.” (The solution to this is pastors who buy the books in bulk they want their elders to study and then give them out as required reading.) 

Fourth, the stores need traffic generators; they require a constant hit bestseller to pay the bills. The Left Behind series accomplished this. The Shack brought people to the stores to both discuss and purchase the book. The Purpose Driven Life did the same. (I know there are people here who aren’t fans of these three examples, but they make the store sustainable for people looking for a classic Spurgeon commentary, or something by Tim Keller, or an apologetics resource.) Even on the non-book side of things the Gaither Gospel Series DVDs provided that traffic. These days, whenever something takes off in the Christian marketplace, Costco and Barnes and Noble are quick to jump into the game. Conversely, it doesn’t help when major Christian authors experience moral failure. The publishers occasionally offer products exclusively to the Christian market, but they only do this for specific chains (Mardel, Parable, Family Christian, etc.) not the independent stores who so desperately need this type of support. You have to be inside the stores to see other products you might wish to read or give away.

Finally, we’re not presently seeing a spiritual hunger. People are not desperate for God in North America and Western Europe right now. We hear reports from Africa or South America, though it’s hard to really quantify what is happening when there are often fringe movements or revivals based on extreme Charismatic doctrine or a mixture of Biblical Christianity and local animistic beliefs. In my early 20s, I remember hearing a Christian speaker say (quite tongue in cheek) “We don’t need the Holy Spirit, we have technology.” There is a sense in which this is true. It does remind me of the adage, “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink, but you can put salt in his oats to make him thirsty.” We have to find ways to instill that hunger for reading in our local congregations. Pastor recommendations of books from the pulpit are the most significant factor driving customers to make purchases or place orders.  Another way the technology can be made to work is by providing chapter excerpts for people to sample; but publishers are very reluctant to do this, for reasons which escape me. 

In conclusion, all the factors mentioned in the previous article are impacting bookstores in general, these factors listed here are some things that concern me about the Christian market in particular.

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January 16, 2017

The Erosion of Language as We Knew It

giant_library_scene

Yesterday I provided a kind of soft intro to the topic I want to look at today which bears on larger issues than just why bookstores are struggling.

There are some widely circulating statistics suggesting that in North America, western Europe and perhaps Australia/New Zealand as well, for the first time ever we’re seeing a generation with a lower life expectancy than their parents and grandparents faced; in other words, after better nutrition and medical knowledge have allowed us to live longer for years, suddenly it appears the numbers have peaked for both males and females.

On top of that, we’re also seeing a major decline in economic expectancy. Millennials are struggling to find jobs and the prospect of amassing enough wealth to secure their retirement years has somewhat vanished.

I would argue that parallel to all this we’re also seeing a major decline in literacy, or at least literacy as we have previously understood it or measured it.

There are a number of reasons for this, but all related to the personal computer revolution of the past 20 years. This isn’t a technical revolution, because the technology has been around much longer, and it’s not really a computer revolution for the same reason. Rather it’s the effect of personal computers being a part of every home, or even every individual. In the Fall of 2009, Finland became the first country to declare broadband internet access a legal right and by the summer of 2010, every person was to have access to a 1Mb connection.

I’ve written elsewhere about how computers and the internet have accelerated social change and how we’ve basically lived 4 decades worth of shifting paradigms in just 20 years. Today however we want to focus simply on language.

The simple answer to the question, “Why aren’t people reading books like they once did?” is easy.

  • We don’t have the time. We’re spending all our free time with our devices, or more specifically, screens.
    • The small screen in our pocket associated with our mobile phone
    • The medium screen be it a desktop, laptop or tablet
    • The giant screen in the living room be it Plasma, LED or LCD
  • We don’t have the money. We’re using up all our discretionary spending money on the same screens.
    • monthly phone bill and data plan overages
    • apps
    • cable or satellite television
    • home internet connection
    • streaming services
    • software bundles
    • accessories, extended warranties, virus protection, etc.

That is all fairly obvious.

We’re also seeing some other things at play at the same time.

  • Spell-check – You don’t really need to know how to spell a word anymore since the computer corrects it for you. Grammar-check is also slowly improving.
  • Texting – This is the reduction of the English language in the extreme.
  • Emojis – This is the reduction of written communication in the extreme.
  • Acronyms and Initialisms – I hope you’re taking this article seriously and not ROFL or LOL.

But there are also other factors beyond what’s happening online:

  • The end of cursive writing – They don’t teach cursive script in many (if not most) schools now. I would argue there’s something different about what we write when confined to individually printed letters. But this is a moot point when you think about…
  • The end of handwriting, period – If you’re of a certain age and are right-handed, and you look toward the end of your middle finger, there’s probably a callus there from many years of penmanship. Today, most kids spend far more hours keyboarding than handwriting.
  • The increasing emphasis on numeracy over literacy – Your ability to process numeric data is increasingly more vital than your way with words.
  • The diminished need to learn – It’s no longer necessary to know anything as long as you have mastered search and can locate the information needed. Unfortunately however there is a less sense as to the expected answer one is looking for, or a healthy skepticism as to whether or not the source is trustworthy or accurate.

The technology has also inflicted more damage to traditional reading:

  • Shortened attention spans – I don’t understand the psychological ramifications and I’m sure much ink has been given to this in professional journals and forums, but simply put, there’s something about the technology that has made us restless resulting in the often-seen response, “TLDR” (too long, didn’t read).
  • Increased distractions – One person well when they said something along these lines, ‘The problem with the internet is there are too many off-ramps.’
  • Dependency on rich text – I am referring here to our inability to follow a sustained argument through a lengthy paragraph. Rather we have become dependent on the use of italics, bold face, subheadings, bullet points, pull-quotes, and even (horrors!) underlining, color and enlarged fonts. (Yes, guilty as charged here.)

Next, there is the particular challenge of eBooks:

  • When they were first introduced, eBooks were offered at a substantial discount. The problem with this is that when you only spend 99-cents, or get the book for free, you don’t really have any investment in it. Many people would read a chapter or two, figure they got their money’s worth and never finish reading. This concerns me on several levels:
    • It strikes me as cheapening reading, diminishing the value of the author’s worth.
    • For some, it was all about the downloading experience; loading the device with titles for which the person had no intention of reading
    • It grossly inflated eBook sales which signaled a death of print which never happened.
    • The side effects of sore eyes and headaches caused by the devices turned some people away from reading.
    • It made it more difficult, if not impossible to loan a book to a friend.
    • When someone really loves a book, they will tell five friends, of which only one (at most) will be another eBook reader; the other four will try to get the book in print. But to love the book they have value it and finish reading it.
  • The side effect of cheap eBooks and the introduction of the Amazon discounting paradigm created a perfect storm, wherein print books were more widely discounted, which cheapened the value of printed books and also resulted in a climate where people were not finishing reading what they had started.

Finally, as noted above the technology afforded the possibility of online sales which bypass the traditional brick-and-mortar store.

  • The Amazon paradigm — the company itself and various copycats — created a situation whereby books were shipped directly to a customer’s door, thereby creating a situation where people were less likely to interact with physical books in a retail store environment. Choices are made from a store which really has no filters and where obscure publishers can buy placement in ways unknown before the Amazon revolution.
  • Sometimes customers got burned. The book didn’t materialize as what was suggested in online.
  • Other customers took to using the traditional bookstore as a showroom for the online seller. They would check it out in a local store, but purchase it cheaper from the online vendor. This was (and still is) a source of great frustration for bookstore owners, many of whom didn’t need another reason to throw in the towel.

…Well, that about covers it, right? Not quite. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the particular issues which face bookstores more familiar to some readers here, Christian bookstores; the topic we originally set out to answer.

Feel free to engage the comments section to suggest things I may have missed. These notes are from many years of doing this extemporaneously and I may have omitted some things. If the omission is serious, I may update the text.

Borders - The End is Near

 

August 13, 2015

Prediction vs. Prophecy

Filed under: Christianity — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 8:12 am

Written very late at night…

I looked out the window at the morning sky as I stepped out of the shower stall. In the five minutes I had been in the bathroom, the scene had completely clouded over. Originally, I thought we were promised completely clear skies. Talking to myself out loud I said, “This is not the day that was prophesied.”

Of course, the wording is awkward. We tend to think of prophecy in religious terms. In a conversation today, one person suggested to me that the term was exclusively Christian or at least limited to deists; it was only prophecy if it came from God. I reminded them that the term is indeed associated with other religions, that in the broadest scheme of things, prophet is not limited to a handful of Biblical writers, and sometimes they got it right.

skipping stonesThe day’s weather was instead a matter of prediction, but by this point I was straining at the nuances of that word as well.

“Just save yourself all this, and use the word forecast when referring to the weather;” was my youngest son’s suggestion.

I think one variable is time. The meteorologist can predict tomorrows climate conditions, but we would hardly call it prophecy. Even if he offers a forecast for the same date, but twenty years from now, some would argue that this is projection based on climate data available to him or her.

But what we do see from the Biblical writers usually involves a very distant future, and involves parameters that exceed any current data available. There is usually a sense of a holy person having seen some type of vision. But even there the time frame is variable, as some prophecies have multiple fulfillment, not unlike the idea of stones skipping across the water.*

An internet search on this topic yielded over 600,000 results. Not all agreed. But it is interesting how people from a faith group, and Christians in particular, can appropriate a term as if it’s their own. We have no exclusive rights to prophecy — even if we believe that the only true or accurate prophecies can come from the author of truth — but we also have to remember that many times what we say is merely a prediction of human agency.

Any thoughts on this subject?


*A friend of mine taught me this skipping stones principle in terms of Joel 2:28 — among other passages — having multiple fulfillment. We developed this a little bit in this article:

Related:

 

 

 

January 18, 2010

King James English Leaves Computer In A Snit

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