Thinking Out Loud

November 9, 2017

The Essential Art of Concision

I debated between calling this “The Lost art of Concision” versus “The Developing Art of Concision.” First, a definition is in order:

Therefore, when I speak of the concision as a developing art, I mean the necessity of being able to put ideas across in a short-and-to-the-point manner; something you need in a world of soundbites. Last year I wrote,

It was Noam Chomsky who introduced me to the idea of concision. I’ve taught it as, “You’re selling your car through a media which is charging you $1.50 per word. How do you describe your vehicle persuasively, but keep the cost down?”

But when I speak of it as a dying art, I’m thinking specifically of the migration of many bloggers from what I’m doing now — typing/writing words — to podcasting; and to Twitter’s decision to gift everyone with 140 additional characters on Tuesday evening.

Twitter is obsessed with the number 140. (Originally videos were limited to 2 minutes and 20 seconds, which is 140 seconds.)  The new length, 280 characters, doubles this even though 160 would have been a nice gift in itself. Or 180 or 200. 280 seems long, it seems to rob Twitter of it’s basic character, heretofore. But I didn’t always feel that way. When I joined, I wrote:

I can’t say what I have to say in 140 characters.

In case you missed it, I tend to write long.

But the word concision has come up on this blog somewhat frequently. Earlier this year I wrote,

I have for a long time questioned how much time sermon has left.  With all due respect to those of you currently honing your homiletic craft at either the undergraduate or graduate level, I really think that this particular form is destined to go the way of the CD or the land line phone. I’m not saying there aren’t some great preachers out there; I spend my evening hours listening to sermon after sermon online. But that’s me. For others there are a host of reasons why sermon doesn’t work. ADD or ADHD comes to mind. Some sermons are simply too long. Some say it’s just not how they learn. Some claim that high profile Christian pastors have simply set the bar too high and average pastors can’t achieve the quality that is now widely available online. Others would argue that we’ve become accustomed to media bursts, sound bites, and increased concision.

The Bible itself is amazingly concise. Readers are often fascinated to learn how narratives they had heard about — Creation, Jonah, The Prodigal Son — when they actually got around to reading them, were expressed in a very limited fashion. In an article about Christ’s ascension the subject was raised (pun intended):

A reader wrote, “We’re told… at his ascension that he will come again in like manner as they have seen him go.” But what do we know about that manner? How long were the disciples staring as he rose into the sky? Was there a low cloud ceiling that day? The Bible’s tendency to brevity and concision makes me think that perhaps God didn’t just beam Jesus up, but his ascension may have have been more prolonged; a vertical processional to heaven.

It also came up in a piece on diminishing attention spans:

You see this in the way books and articles in periodicals are written now; in fact you’re seeing it in the piece you’re presently reading. Pick up an older book — say 60 years or more old — and you might find an entire page consisting of a single paragraph. You might even find several consecutive pages consisting of a single paragraph. (I’m told that some chapters of Paul’s epistles were often a single sentence in the original Greek, no doubt a weaving of dominant and subordinate clauses that the reader of that time would follow easily.)

Today we use paragraph breaks to keep the content flowing; to keep the eyes moving on the page; to force us writers to adopt a greater degree of concision. Our writing is also broken up by more numbered or alphanumeric lists, by bullet points, by sub-headers and by pull quotes. (We use them often at Christianity 201, where the devotions are by definition somewhat longer, and we want to make what would otherwise be an entire page of text more interesting.)

The trend towards podcasting is actually surprising, given the push toward brevity in a bullet-point world. Have you ever thought of what a full transcript of your favorite podcast would look like printed out? It would run for pages and pages. A blog post on a similar topic would be less than 2,000 words, and easily digested in under 7 minutes. (Or spoken in 15 minutes. Compare word length to spoken time at this speech minutes converter.)  We wrote about podcasts on an article on the trend from literacy to orality:

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

As Christian communicators however, we have to be careful when we try to reduce to mystery or complexity of the gospel to a concise motto, slogan, tag line or formula. In an article titled What is the Gospel, I wrote,

I also think that, when considered in the light of the Jewish appreciation of the scriptures as a great jewel that reflects and refracts the light in infinite ways each time we look at it, the idea of trying to formulate a precis of the Bible is to venture into an endless and perhaps even frustrating mission. What would Jesus think of trying to consolidate something so great, so wide, so high, so deep into a finite number of words?  Concision is great, but maybe it doesn’t work here.

Anyway Twitter, thanks for the extra characters; but I earnestly hope I have the wisdom to not overuse them. Readers, it’s a busy world out there; keep it short!


Yes, today I basically quoted myself throughout this article. To further embellish Chomsky’s teaching on concision would have made the article…well…not so concise.

For those mystified by the final graphic image, TL/DR stands for Too long, didn’t read.

For further reference in thinking about the difference between podcasting and blogging, this article is less than 1,100 words; you can halve the minutes in the above example.

 

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October 5, 2017

What You Don’t See Just By Looking at the Amish

I don’t know offhand if the Amish permit what’s called here “Agritourism” — in other words farm tours — but I have something that would be of greater interest than seeing the hay lofts or furniture making workshop. I’d like to sit down with an Amish elder and discuss the underlying faith, specifically their faith and how it informs their customers. It beats driving around Lancaster, PA and going, “Over there! It’s another one!” and then snapping camera-phone pictures of these precious people simply trying to live their lives in peace.

This week, I got a bit of an insight into the type of information I’m seeking. I work two days a week at a Christian bookstore that my wife and I coincidentally happen to own. When an audio book came in missing the shrink-wrap usually found on audio products1 I considered the idea of listening to a few minutes of it as, despite the various podcasts and sermons I listen to constantly, I have no personal experience with audio books.

Then I discovered the book was voiced by none other than Christian Taylor, one of the regulars at The Phil Vischer Podcast.2 I decided to see (or hear) what her vocational labor produced.

The audio was for the book Amish Peace: Simple Wisdom for a Complicated World by Susanne Woods Fisher.3 Interspersing Amish proverbs with anecdotal stores would make this a fun read, but it was probably a bit of a challenge voicing a reading of the book.

Putting it as simply as I can, there is a world here which, while it may seem strikingly different to observe as a tourist, is actually more different than you think in terms of the underlying principles which guide everyday life in an Amish family and an Amish community.  They live out an ethic which is certainly rooted in the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus, but in many respects almost goes beyond that high standard in terms of everyday life.4

Even if I could embed myself in an Amish family for a week, I don’t know that I could ever expect to fully get it without having spent a lifetime being educated and shaped by their community values, passed on from generation to generation. They live in a world without electronic media and yet possess a wisdom many of the rest of us cannot imagine. Their formal education ends at Grade 8, yet they have better literacy rates than in other neighboring rural areas. Their children are given responsibilities that would boggle the minds of parents who bubble-wrap their kids in the cities, such as driving a team of mules to plow a field.5 And their pace of life means they see things which the rest of miss while driving Interstate freeways at 70 mph.

I enjoyed the (audio) book, but I find myself wanting more; more than I can get from simply packing up the car and heading off to Amish country or Mennonite country to simply look at them.6

I want to take a month and be them.7


1To my readers in other countries: For years records, tapes and CDs in North America have come plastic-wrapped, as we don’t want to get to get germs, at least that’s what a record vendor in England told me years ago.

2As in “…We’ll talk to Skye and Christian, too, but we’ve got no guest this week for you…” (Show theme song.) Christian is a voice actor. christiantaylorvo.com

3Oops! Fisher wrote Amish Peace in 2009. In an earlier version of this blog post, I identified the book as The Heart of the Amish which she wrote in 2015. This appears to be a different book, not a title update. My bad.

4The stories about forgiveness will break you.

5Full disclosure: The book admits this freedom results in a much higher rate of Emergency Room visits due to injuries compared to other children in rural areas.

6Pennsylvania or Ohio or Western Ontario would be the destinations of choice for such an excursion. The book notes the Ohio Amish have a lower percentage of people living in farm communities.

7I would probably not be able to give up my phone or internet connection. Today, several houses share an outdoor phone booth of sorts which is for making calls, not receiving them. That would be somewhat insufficient.


Christian responds:

Related: A 2010 article I wrote about the Amish and the concept of being separated from the world.

Photos: Daily Encouragement by Stephen & Brooksyne Weber.

August 20, 2017

Google Now Provides the Information instead of Referring

Like many of you, I couldn’t help but notice that increasingly, Google was giving me the answers I was looking for right on their results page, without my needing to make a second click. Appreciating the convenience I didn’t really pay much attention to this, until publishing and media watcher Tim Underwood linked to a piece at Mashable titled, Google is Eating the Open Internet.

The rather opened my eyes to the present situation: Instead of being a site which refers you to people who have the answers, Google is now seen as provider of those answers.

But the affect on the websites from which the information is culled — the creatives and researchers who do the actual work — is devastating. Example:

…Brian Warner, founder and CEO of CelebrityWorthNet.com, understands perhaps more than anybody the power of Google’s wall-building.

Warner started to notice the content from his site appearing directly on search results pages in 2012. Two years later, he got an email from Google asking to scrape all of his data, which he turned down. Another two years after that, Google did it anyway, and the impact was catastrophic.

“It was extremely painful, it was extremely devastating,” Warner said. “We got to a point where our traffic was down 85 percent from a year or two earlier.”

Search for the net worth of any celebrity at random today—let’s say, James Earl Jones—and you’ll get the number ($45 million) and a short biographical blurb pulled from CelebrityNetWorth.com with credit and a link…

And later, the broader application:

…There’s also a steady stream of more subtle indications of Google’s inward pull appearing every day—features like on-site hotel booking, restaurant menus, spa appointment tools, and dropdown recipes to name just a few.

These tweaks might sound minor, but Google’s position as the web’s central nervous system means they can have a big impact on smaller businesses that orbit it.

In the long run, though, there seems to be a pretty glaring hole in this plan. That is, as Google likes to reassure wary publishers, it’s not in the content business.

The company ultimately relies on reference sites like Wikipedia, IMDB, Fandango, and the CIA World Fact Book to compile and update the information it uses.

If Google continues to choke these sites out, what incentive will there be for new ones to come along? …   (emphasis added)

   Then early this morning I caught up with my Saturday print edition of The Toronto Star and columnist Heather Mallick was saying the exact same things about Facebook in a piece titled, Like it or not, Facebook Owns You. For her it gets personal:

…We donate to the Guardian to keep it free for everyone, but remember that we do this because former editor Alan Rusbridger made the numbers clear. In 2016, Facebook “sucked up $27 million (U.S.) of the newspaper’s projected ad revenue that year.”

Facebook was the interlocutor, the middleman who slipped between readers and journalists and siphoned off the money. When I step onto the thing for even a moment, I make money for Zuckerberg. I work for him, not the Toronto Star.

I wouldn’t mind being followed for weeks by ads for the hand vacuum (designed in England, made in Malaysia, which is why I despise Dyson) I ordered five minutes ago from an online retailer with no discernible connection to Facebook.

But I do mind that my salary was effectively lower this year because Facebook knew this, its targeting having destroyed the print and online ads on which the Star itself relied.

I take a dim view. With less money, I’ll buy fewer things advertised on Facebook, but it doesn’t care. It’s in the business of attention, not retailing. Its hands are clean.

Of course they’re not. They’re loaded with lucre, and they’re taunting people individually and en masse, damaging quality of life and eating freedom. You are owned…

For my Christian readership at this page, this is important. Obtaining the “answers” or “results” one is looking for without clicking through to see the full context of the page from which the mighty search engine derived them could be devastating, especially as the field of material offered grows to include things of religious or theological interest. At best, all of our online sites are somewhat subjective, including this one.

But I’ll have more to say about that tomorrow.

 

April 18, 2017

How Do We Define Progress?

Filed under: Christianity, parenting — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:03 am

Driving a car isn’t fun. When I was young, I would borrow one of my parent’s cars and take off and return around 1:30 in the morning. They often had no idea where I was and had no idea to reach me. Their only concern was that I not make noise on returning home. I learned to close the driver side door so very quietly and literally stripped on the back porch so I could just slip in the back door and land directly under the covers of my bed.

Today, parents would be catatonic if their kids were out at that hour with the family car.

It’s interesting how driving has gotten complicated.

We’re better equipped now with driver training programs that produce, in theory at least, very capable vehicle operators. But as a culture, we’re our own worst enemies when it comes to making progress at road safety. Consider:

  • We run the real risk of air bag injuries in an accident, or an accidental deployment of them; but the only reason we have them in the first place was that American compliance with seat belt ordinances was shockingly poor.
  • We’ve addressed the problem of drinking and driving various ways in an effort to stop the carnage caused by inebriated drivers but then several states and all Canadian provinces have introduced legalization of marijuana.
  • Our vehicles are equipped with various safety features, but technology has also brought us the cell phone; handy things to have if you’re traveling, but we have no technology that shuts them off while the car is moving.
  • Many accidents are caused by people who simply don’t know where they’re going, but GPS devices introduce another potential for distraction.
  • We have state of the art sound systems that prevent us from hearing the fire truck or ambulance which is gaining on us, and somehow we miss seeing those emergency responders in the rear view mirrors.
  • In our haste to resolve some of these things, we’re introducing driver-less cars before the complete infrastructure is in place to support those vehicles’ knowing the intricacies of the routes we’ll be taking, or how to interpret visual cues, or how to master the human type of responses needed in a crisis
  • We have simply too many vehicles on the road. 
  • Many jurisdictions continue to require emissions testing for cars while operators of transport trucks and dump trucks are allowed to somehow skirt the requirements and end up spewing enough smoke to temporarily block visibility of the drivers in their wake.
  • We continue to license kids as young as 15, when specialists in neurology tell us the teenage brain isn’t fully formed when it comes to the consequences of ignoring safety as it would be if we only waited one year more.

So I ask, are we really all that smart?

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.

not_enough_shelves

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

 

June 9, 2016

“We Never Close”

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I remember as a teenager walking down Toronto’s Yonge (pronounced young) Street and seeing a movie theater advertising “24 hour continuous showings.” Mornings, afternoons, evenings and middle-of-the-night, there was always a movie playing because there were always customers paying.

we_never_closeAs a twenty-something returning to Canada from California, my fellow-traveler and I stopped at Las Vegas. That is probably best looked at as the subject of another blog post entirely, but one feature of the casino we visited — which I believe is common to all — is that there are no windows and no clocks. There are no visual indications as to whether it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon or 2 o’clock in the morning. No wonder that people keep gambling. Back home, months later, in a flashback to that visit, I realized that while I was nice and cozy under the covers, the casino simply kept humming; not open one day and then the next, but simply opened once and operating as one long continuous day.

In 1974, the band Emerson, Lake and Palmer described it best with the lyric, “Welcome back my friends, to the show that never ends, we’re so glad you could attend, come inside, come inside.” I was captivated by the concept of a place that never shuts down; not the idea of the radio station on which I first heard the song, but the idea of somehow being inside the radio, of having physical interaction with something that simply is with no hours of operation posted on the door.

My relationship to the “wee hours of the morning” continued when a friend got a job doing commercial carpet cleaning. Law offices, advertising agencies, and the halls of corporate power in the banking sector all were subject to our rotary shampoo machines. (We looked disdainfully at steam cleaning.) While the offices were as ghost towns after midnight, it amazed me the number of people working those hours, a kind of midnight infrastructure necessary to make the places function in the daylight hours.

Open All NightMore than one stand-up comedian has asked, “If 7-11 is open 24 hours a day, why are there locks on the door?” Okay, there are reasons, but once the stores are opened, again, it’s one ongoing day, with many locations not even pausing for Christmas.

Years later, working alongside people in the magazine industry, I proposed something called Night Owls, for free distribution to the people in Toronto who make up the all night workforce, an industry category onto itself. (In those days however, advertisers preferred to place their money with controlled circulation publications, so my periodical never launched.) I still think there’s a common thread that binds all these people and they would enjoy hearing of fellow travelers, not to mention who has the best burgers at 3:00 AM…

Today, I see advantages to the order of things that I believe is God-prescribed and clearly indicated by the way daylight and evening function; but I will admit that our present world requires people to be employed on the overnight shift, even though we know that continued ignoring of natural body rhythms can reduce lifespan…

Which brings us to…

…The internet.

I was thinking last night about the wonder that is the world wide web. Like the casino district in Vegas, its motto could easily be We Never Close. As you lie in bed snoring at night, people are still looking at your Instagram and Snapchat pages. Twitter followers are coming and going. People are friending and unfriending you on Facebook. If it’s 2 o’clock in the morning where you live, it’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon somewhere else. People are filling in contact forms, signing up for newsletters, checking their bank balance, and following a rabbit trail network of hyperlinks. Elsewhere online, people are making purchases from retail enterprises that would never dream (contextual pun intended) of having sales associates working those hours in a physical store. The gamers have lost track of the time, as have the people watching cat antics on YouTube, and like the theater in my teenage stroll down Toronto’s main street, there is Netflix which not only offers continuous showings, but allows you to pick your own start time. Strangers are talking to each other across chat rooms and forums; and trolls and marketers are busy leaving comments on blogs.

Open 24 HoursWelcome back my friends, to the show that never ends.

There are no breaks for national holidays, religious sabbaths or even natural disasters. Internet service interruptions do happen depending on where you live, but they cause people to experience withdrawal symptoms. Some people’s greatest nightmares have them landing in a part of the world without wi-fi.

Somewhere back in time, we plugged in the internet and it remains on. Close your eyes and sleep if you will, but not too far from you is a billion-lane highway moving megabytes around the world at the speed of light.

And the show never stops running.

 

 

 

April 9, 2016

Podcasts and the Migration from Literacy to Orality

Filed under: children, Christianity, parenting — Tags: , , , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 7:03 am

Keyboard from steampunkworship dot com

There was a pastor whose blog I enjoyed reading about ten years ago. About five years ago, I think his keyboard stopped working. The blog still exists, but only to post video clips from his sermons. Other bloggers are using their blog solely to post their weekly podcast.

Inherent in podcasting is the right to ramble. Listeners get the nuance that’s missing in a traditional blog post (and this is one of the great liabilities of email) but they have to take the time to wade through the host(s) stream-of-consciousness narration. There’s no concision, a quality that decades ago Noam Chomsky had predicted would be, moving forward, a key asset in communications. A great concept that’s probably a seven or eight paragraph blog post instead becomes a 53 minute podcast.  Andy Warhol’s comment that “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes;” might be modified to, “In the 21st century, everyone will have their own talk show or be the host of their own radio station.” 

Nobody writes, ergo nobody reads.

Our discretionary time is spent on our screens: The one we carry in our pocket; the tablet, laptop or PC; and the 42-inch one in the living room. Our discretionary income goes to the various service providers who make these devices possible. 

Books? The problem isn’t eBooks, the problem is that nobody is reading. Especially men. The time has been used up on screens. The money has been spent on screens.

Add to this the damage being done to the written word due to:

  • texting
  • spell check
  • predictive text
  • visual media: Instagram, Tumblr, YouTube, etc.
  • diminished attention spans
  • screen fatigue
  • reduced educational standards

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but if that’s true, a picture also replaces a thousand world.

Facebook, 2006: We just picked up a great deal on a used car. 5-years old. 4-door sedan. Only 40,000 miles. The body is in great shape, and we love the aquamarine color. Powerful 6-cyl engine. And we literally got it for a song.

Facebook, 2016: Look what we got! [posts picture]

English is eroding, and I suspect other languages in technology-infused countries in western Europe, Asia and South America aren’t faring much better.

Dads: When is the last time your kids saw you sitting in a chair reading a book?

I want to develop several aspects of this theme in some different ways over the next few days, we’ll consider this a brief introduction. Feel free to leave comments here or via email if you want to weigh in on this one.

 

April 8, 2016

You Have This Moment

The Set Free Summit taking place in North Carolina wrapped up last night. For an overview of what you/we missed, check out the hashtag #SetFree2016. We’ve devoted three of the five weekday posts here to this one topic, but when I started scrolling through old posts here and discovered the one I re-posted yesterday, I was also reminded of this one.

– = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = –

With the kids now older and facing high-school homework after supper instead of the early bedtimes of former years, Patricia donned an light jacket before heading out for her weekly Wednesday night coffee shop ritual with Julie and Deanne. Well, almost weekly; there were frequent cancellations in the past three years, but they tried to meet as frequently as possible.

“So when are we leaving?” her husband Rick asked.

“What do you mean we?” she responded.

“I thought it might be fun to crash your little group; as an observer or like those war reporters who are embedded with a platoon. Unless, of course it’s me you talk about every week.”

“No, we tend to talk about church, and politics, and raising kids.”

“So is there room for an extra body?”

“You’re serious?”

“Absolutely.”

Patricia texted the other two, “What do u feel about Rick joining us 2night?”

Julie didn’t answer, but Deanne texted, “Sure Y not?”

And so for an hour, Rick sat with the women and talked about church, and politics and raising kids.

On the way home, Patricia said, “You’re not going to want to do this every week are you?”

“No; it was a one-off thing.”

“So Rick, I know you, what was this about really?”

“Honestly?”

“Yeah.”

“Honestly? I didn’t want to be home for a full hour with the computer. When you go out, it never ends well.”

– = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = –

Isn’t it ironic that the very technology that offers you the option of reading Christian blogs like this one, downloading sermons, looking up Bible verses online, etc., also offers both men and women the ease and convenience of experiencing sexual temptation like we’ve never known before.

Knowing as I do the various search terms that will find you all manner of websites, I can honestly say that every time I approach the machine — and I do business online all day long, plus prepare three blogs — I am reminded that each visit represents a choice: Choose things that will strengthen spiritually, or choose things that will do spiritual harm.

Like the goaltender in a hockey game, we can’t always block every “thought shot” that is fired toward us, but I believe we can exercise self control on a minute-by-minute or even second-by-second basis. I am always reminded that:

You have this moment.

You may not have won an hour ago, and you might slip an hour from now, but you have this moment to make the individual choice that affects this moment.

Right now, it’s a rainy day as I type this. It was a weather cancellation nearly a decade ago that found me with idle time typing a random phrase into a search engine that led to a random chapter in the middle of an online erotic novel. That’s right, it was text, not pictures. It wasn’t pictures for quite some time.

Idle hands. The entire universe-wide-web at my disposal.

Even today, I admit that search engines permit all manner of random thoughts to be explored online with varying results. I often find myself like the guy who loves to join his buddies on fishing expeditions, but actually hates the taste of fish. It’s about finding the fish, but not necessarily enjoying or consuming the fish.

I suppose it’s different for everyone.

– = – = – = – = – = – = – = – = –

I think it’s interesting that Genesis 2:9 tells us that the original source of temptation — the fruit of a tree in Eden — was found in the middle of the garden. Not off to one side. Not hidden behind other trees.

In the middle.

For men men — and women — reading this, your tree is right in the middle of the family room or living room; or it’s a laptop that is in the middle of wherever you find yourself.

Maybe your tree and my tree are different, but the result is the same: Temptation never disappears.

I looked at this a different way in a devotional at Christianity 201. There’s a link to a song, and a specific point (about 70 seconds) in the song you can fast-forward to.

I’ve found it to be helpful.

Feel free to share what works for you.

You have this moment.

April 5, 2016

Set Free Summit: Confronting The Porn Problem

Josh McDowell - Set Free Summit 2016

…While doing research for one of my books on addictive behavior, I conducted a telephone interview with a leading expert in the field of sexual addictions. He told me, “I believe evangelical Christians have a greater tendency to fall into sexual addictions than any other sub-culture in the United States.”

When I asked him why, he said, “Because sexual sins are so taboo in the church people find them more exciting. Once they commit a taboo sexual act, they refuse to tell anyone. Their belief that they have done something bad creates guilt which leads to shame. This shame generates pain which they try to medicate with more sexually taboo activity. The deeper they fall into sexually deviant behavior the more closely they must guard their secret. The longer the behavior continues, the more addictive it becomes, and the more it destroys their core being.” …

…According to a May 18, 2010, survey conducted by Today’s Christian Women Online, 34% of their readers admit to intentionally accessing porn. The results of this are staggering. More women are getting involved in cybersex, more women than men convert online conversations into real-life affairs, and more women are accessing porn while at work.

If those stats didn’t get your attention this next one will. According to Family Safe Media, the largest group of viewers of Internet porn is children between ages 12 and 17. In spite of this staggering statistic, most of the Christian parents I speak with deny their kids have or would check out a porn site

~Bill Perkins, article “Porn in the Church: The High Cost of Silence.”


Last night around 9:00 PM I became aware of a number of people tweeting using the hashtag #setfree2016. (You don’t need a Twitter account to see the posts.*) I decided to check it out.

The Set Free Summit started yesterday evening and runs 3 more days in Greensboro, North Carolina and is hosted by Josh McDowell Ministries and the makers of Covenant Eyes computer software. Opening night speakers include McDowell, author Steve Arterburn, David Kinnaman from Barna Research, and author Michael Leahy.

Time Cover - PornPerhaps coincidentally, or perhaps providentially, the cover of the latest issue of Time Magazine has just released (April 11 issue) with the cover story Porn and the Threat to Virility, which chronicles the rise of porn-induced erectile dysfunction (PIED).  A sample:

A growing number of young men are convinced that their sexual responses have been sabotaged because their brains were virtually marinated in porn when they were adolescents. Their generation has consumed explicit content in quantities and varieties never before possible, on devices designed to deliver content swiftly and privately, all at an age when their brains were more plastic–more prone to permanent change–than in later life. These young men feel like unwitting guinea pigs in a largely unmonitored decade-long experiment in sexual conditioning.

The article is packed with research; budget about 10 minutes to read it all. (Some language might be considered edgy.) There’s also a short book excerpt from Peggy Orenstien’s Girls and Sex which again, coincidentally (providentially?) I had just heard about after youth ministry specialist Walt Mueller noted it in an April 1st blog post, along with an audio link (embedded) to an interview the author did with NPR.

While the Set Free 2016 event is not streaming live, and it’s not an annual event (so far), you can get an idea of what you’re missing by clicking on the 4-day tabs on the conference schedule. (I hope some videos are eventually posted.) Again, allow some time to scroll through to see what each presenter will be discussing; the short seminar previews are themselves a window into this issue.

Bill Perkins concludes:

Our strategy to achieve sexual purity has to be like a laser-guided missile. These weapons constantly adapt to the changing terrain as they zero in on their target. Because the moral terrain is constantly changing, we must be adept in adapting as we pursue our target: sexual purity.

 

 

*The link is for the “live” feed on Twitter. If you just want highlights, click the tab that says “top.”

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