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January 10, 2011

John and Betty StamIt was a dreary December day in the city of Tsingteh when John and Betty heard a rumor that Communist soldiers were drawing near to the city. The Communists were battling for control of the country and, of course, hated Christians or anyone else who would bring Western influence to their country. At the time the missionaries were not concerned; since they had moved to the city, just two weeks ago, rumors had been circulating but nothing had happened. They had been assured that government forces had come into their province to fight against the Communists. An hour later a man came running down the street shouting that the Communists were only a couple of miles away and would be upon the city in no time. Now the danger was clear. John and Betty grabbed a few supplies but they couldn’t find a way out of the city. Before they were able to flee, the soldiers surrounded the city, climbed the walls and opened the gates. There was no way to escape.

Very close to the city gate was the missionary home and it did not take long before the soldiers came upon it. The soldiers barged in and demanded to know the names of the people there; they demanded to know where they were from. Obviously two Americans would stand out in a small Chinese city. They took all the medicine they could find, all the money, all the valuables. John and Betty responded by brewing up some tea and serving each of the soldiers cake. But soon they were hauled off and put in the small local prison. They were told that they would be released only for a ransom of twenty thousand dollars. Read this letter that John wrote from prison—he wrote it to China Inland Mission, the missions organization that had posted them to China.

Dear Brethren,

My wife, baby, and myself are today in the hands of the Communists, in the city of Tsingteh. Their demand is twenty thousand dollars for our release.

All our possessions and stores are in their hands, but we praise God for peace in our hearts and a meal tonight. God grant you wisdom in what you do, and us fortitude, courage, and peace of heart. He is able and a wonderful Friend in such a time.

Things happened so quickly this a.m. They were in the city just a few hours after the ever-present rumors really became alarming, so that we could not prepare to leave in time. We were just too late.

The Lord bless and guide you, and as for us, may God be glorified whether by life or by death.

Here is a man captured by ruthless bandits, in prison with his wife and baby daughter. And his concern is not for life or for death, but only for the glory of God.

We’ll return to this most important day. But first let’s go back to the beginning.

December 22, 2010

Back in November I encouraged you to Enjoy Messiah This Christmas and I know that quite a lot of you did—you took in a performance of Handel’s Messiah. I’d love to hear about your experience. Where did you go and what was it like? Give me a brief report!

Let me tell you about the performance I saw last night with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and the Toronto Mendelssohn Choir.

First off, it was great to bump into several friends there. And it was interesting that for the second year in a row I bumped into a reader of this site in the bathroom at Roy Thompson Hall; that’s two times he and I have crossed paths, and in both cases it’s been in the bathrooms of Roy Thompson. Small world, I guess (and sorry—I didn’t catch your name!).

Messiah is an annual tradition for me, so I’ve seen quite a few performances of it. This year’s was entirely unique and utterly amazing. The conductor ws Andrew Davis—that’s Maestro Sir Andrew Davis to you. But he not only conducted Messiah; he also re-orchestrated it. This was a major 10-month project for him. His aim was “to keep Handel’s notes, harmonies, and style intact, but to make use of all the colours available from the modern symphony orchestra to underline the mood and meaning of the individual movements.”

This led to quite a few unexpected instruments being used: marimba, darabuka, bells and even tambourine (yes, tambourine). While the piece’s words and flow were unchanged, there were significant changes to the orchestration throughout. The performance kicked off with the Overture, as it always does, but it was led not by strings but by the woodwinds. So from the first notes I knew this was going to be very, very different. And, indeed, it was. But Davis made it work. Many of his changes to the orchestration were meant to illuminate the meaning of the different movements and in this he succeeded very well, whether it was in adding to the irony of the lighthearted feel of “All we like sheep have gone astray” (by which Handel meant to show how flippant we can be about our sin) or in coming up with a kind of echo effect for “The trumpet shall sound” which was meant to show that the trumpet is sounding far and wide. I found that I understood Messiah much more this year than I ever have in the past.

His explanatory notes in the program were very, very helpful. Here’s an example from immediately before the “Unto us a Child is born” chorus:

The orchestration for the chorus ‘For unto us a Child is born’ is robust, but when, towards the end, the militaristic tenor drum threatens to take over, the rest of the orchestra, embarrassed, fades away, leaving us with the thought that perhaps the most important of the Messiah’s names is ‘Prince of Peace.’

If there was anything about the performance that disappointed me even a little it would have been the “Hallelujah Chorus” where some of his changes seemed just a little bit heavy-handed (mostly related to bells ringing at otherwise quiet moments). Of course I feel ridiculous even taking issue with something done by Sir Andrew Davis whose knowledge of music is infinitely greater than mine, but I suppose I’m still entitled to my opinion. I also felt that the alto soloist was just a little bit weak compared to the other soloists, though the fact that she was on the far side of the stage from me must have contributed to that. And finally, the seats we had didn’t give us the vantage point I would have liked; we were very close to the stage and couldn’t see back to the percussion, brass or woodwinds. But that’s just because we didn’t want to spend the money to get better seats.

Nevertheless, it was an amazing performance and easily my favorite of all-time. I am hoping that at some point we will be able to enjoy a recording of Davis’ reorchestration of Messiah. It’s that good!

November 22, 2010

Seven hundred billion minutes. That’s how much time Facebook’s 500 million active users spend on the site every month. 700,000,000,000 minutes. Let that one sink in for a moment. Every month we spend the equivalent of 1.3 million years on Facebook; the equivalent of nearly 18,000 lifetimes. More than half of us login every single day; we average 130 friends. And we spend vast amounts of time on there.

Facebook now offers 900 million different objects or pages for us to interact with—groups, events, community pages, and so on. We upload over 3 billion photographs every month (which means we’re uploading millions every hour).

Do you know what really blows my mind about all of this? Facebook is only 7 years old. Most of us have joined in only the past 2 or 3 years. The growth charts are out of this world:

Facebook Growth

November 17, 2010

TSAWith the year’s biggest travel day fast approaching and with new airport security regulations in place, the media is buzzing about measures the TSA is imposing upon travelers in order to keep the skies safe. Popular news aggregators like Drudge Report are giving this extra attention, perhaps making it seem a bigger story than it actually is. Yet in recent days all of the major outlets have also been picking up on it. Everyone’s talking about what we have to go through in order to fly. Since the TSA was created in the wake of 9/11, it has gradually been clamping down, demanding more and more restrictions on how we travel, what we travel with, and how we will be screened before we do so. And sooner or later people are going to say, “Enough is enough.” It seems like the latest measures may have pushed people toward that tipping point.

It’s an interesting conundrum we find ourselves in. Most of us travel by air on a regular or at least semi-regular basis. And all of us want to enjoy peace of mind while we are cruising along at 550 miles per hour. And so we welcome some level of screening—the kind of screening that allows the 99.99% of us who have no evil intentions to pass through quickly, easily and conveniently, but at the same time ensures that all the bad guys will get caught. We know that there are millions and millions of innocent people processed through those lines in order to weed out the very few terrorists.

It’s the humiliation that most people object to, I think. Before 9/11 airport security was a slight annoyance, but by no means a major bother. But then the rules changed. They had to, I suppose. But soon we were taking off our shoes, then having to ensure we had only travel-size cosmetics, and then actually take those cosmetics out so the TSA could see them. And then came the infamous full body scanners, the machines that digitally remove your clothes so the agents can peer underneath to see what you might be carrying on or in your body. Of course it also gives them a pretty good view of the particulars of your body. The alternative, should you choose to opt out of the scanner, is a thorough pat-down, one that is quite invasive and involves hands rubbing over the inner thigh, the genitals and the breasts. I went through one of these last time I flew and it involved all of that, including hands inside the waistline. It was conducted professionally and by a member of the same sex, but it was still more than a little unnerving.

So what is the TSA to do? They are between a rock and a hard place, between their mandate to protect the skies and passengers who are ready to say, “Enough!”

October 06, 2010

Last week I had the opportunity to speak at a local event called Eighth Letter. I’ve been asked to describe the theological perspective of the event and I haven’t been able to do better than “emerging church.” I know this title brings all kinds of baggage with it and that not too many people want to be associated with it anymore. Nevertheless, it’s probably the simplest theological shorthand I can use. Which is to say that I was definitely not representative of the speakers who were there (a list that included Shane Claiborne, Leonard Sweet, Peter Rollins, and many others).

The format of the event was rather interesting. Each of the speakers was to bring a letter, no longer than 15-minutes in length, and read it aloud. The letter was to communicate our most urgent message to the church of North America. It was that simple. I spoke on the Friday night and immediately after my talk participated in a very brief panel discussion hosted by Andy Crouch (an editor at Christianity Today and the author of Culture Making).

My letter focused in on getting the gospel right. And if you are interested, I’ve been given permission to post the message here, though only for a limited time. So give it a listen and let me know what you think. What would your most urgent message be?

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The reaction to my message was a little bit on the cold side. I was probably something of a stranger to the audience at this conference and brought a letter that was quite a bit different from the rest. So while I was not booed off the platform and did not have anything thrown at me, my impression was that the message was not particularly popular.

If interested, you can buy my talk or any of the others at the Epiphaneia web site. You can also download (for free) the brief panel discussion.

Eighth Letter

October 04, 2010

WikipediaLast week I began writing The Truth About Wikipedia. In that article I shared a few of the things that the Wikipedia model does well. Today I want to share some of the things I think it does poorly. Remember, I’m using Wikipedia is a microcosm of the wiki model which says that truth can best be captured by relying on the masses; the wiki model allows anyone and everyone to create and edit information. Along the way I’m drawing a few inevitable comparisons between Wikipedia as the vanguard of the new model and Encyclopedia Britannica as the vanguard of the old.

It ignores human nature. The wiki supposes that humans are generally good and that they will work together to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number. This ignores what the Bible tells us, though, that as sinful humans we are predominantly selfish, looking out for our own good ahead of the good of others. While our individual actions may assist others, we are still inherently and essentially sinful. We are not good people who occasionally do bad things, but bad people who sometimes do good things. The wiki model has had to account for human nature and respond to it in different ways, even ways that seem to cast the whole model in doubt. As just one example, certain pages have become so controversial or have seen so much vandalism that they have been locked so only administrators can edit them.

It offers too little review. The sheer volume of information that tends to accumulate when this model is successful makes it impossible to patrol it all, to ensure quality and accuracy. As of a few weeks ago Wikipedia had just 1,742 administrators tasked with overseeing more than 3 million English articles; tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of articles may be changed on any given day. Though there are no set qualifications to take on this position, administrators have the final say over articles, determining if they must be locked down, if they must be changed or if they must be deleted. When we have a model that ignores human nature and combine it with too little oversight, we will inevitably run into problems related to the misuse of authority. Wikipedia admits the failings in its model when it writes “In particular, older articles tend to be more comprehensive and balanced, while newer articles more frequently contain significant misinformation, unencyclopedic [sic] content, or vandalism. Users need to be aware of this to obtain valid information and avoid misinformation that has been recently added and not yet removed.” And yet this warning is buried deep within the Wikipedia system. Very few people who use the site and read its articles are aware that newer articles frequently contain “significant misinformation.”

It is too subjective. In 2007 Virgil Griffith released a tool he called WikiScanner. The purpose of this tool was to link Wikipedia edits with the computer addresses of the people or organizations who had made changes to articles. The results were stunning, showing that many corporations and politicians, those with a vested interest in a certain topic, were constantly monitoring and changing articles within Wikipedia. Computers from within the headquarters of the Church of Scientology had removed critiques of the church from within the article on Scientology; computers from within the Vatican were alleged to have changed an article on Sinn Fein president Gerry Adams. The anonymity of Wikipedia and the way in which it allows anyone to edit articles necessarily means that people will seek to protect their own interests in the world’s most important repository of information. Some believe that as wikis are left to mature, objectivity will increase. I find this difficult to believe. As wikis mature their importance will increase and thus it will become ever-more important for each of us that they contain not necessarily what is true about us but what we want others to believe is the truth.

September 30, 2010

WikipediaGod is true. God is truth. God is entirely without error, entirely true in all he is, in all he knows, in all he commands. He is the source of all that is true and right. As beings made in his image, we are to reflect his truth, to value what is true and turn from what is error. Truth leads to God, error leads to Satan, for it is Satan who is the first liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). Wayne Grudem offers this warning: “In a society that is exceedingly careless with the truthfulness of spoken words, we as God’s children are to imitate our Creator and take great care to be sure that our words are always truthful.” Lying is an abomination to God because it mocks his truth. And while factual errors may not carry the same level of moral culpability as outright lies, while they may be unintentional, they are still lies, still pointing to a false reality. They still dishonor God.

I thought about these things as I was working on the manuscript for my forthcoming book on technology. I thought about how we encounter truth in the world today, how we determine what is true and what is false. And naturally my thoughts led me to Wikipedia. It led me to pour a lot of thought into Wikipedia and into the reality that Wikipedia may well now be our culture’s primary arbiter of truth. What does this mean to the Christian? Is Wikipedia a source of truth? And what does it mean that as a society we now believe that a wiki model is the best way to determine what is true?

Today and tomorrow I want to write about Wikipedia a little bit, seeing it as a microcosm of the way our society determines truth—truth by consensus.

Because of its popularity and the way it takes advantage of the elements that cause web pages to be most noticeable to search engines, Wikipedia is very often the first or second search result returned by search engines. I recently glanced at the pages of the books spread out before me, chose some words and performed a Google search for each. Knowledge, authority, and affair all showed a page from Wikipedia as the very first result. Truth, history and power all had the entry appear as the second result. Turning to words of theological concern I found that Jesus, God, justification, Christianity and baptism also all lead first to Wikipedia. This shows that Wikipedia is now the first to answer many of our most important questions, questions about truth, authority, knowledge, wisdom, power, God and salvation. Its 15 million articles draw in 75 million visitors every month. Wikipedia tells the world what is true.

Wikipedia’s success has spawned a long list of imitators, other sites that maintain a similar look and feel but, more importantly, the same wiki format (a wiki is a type of site in which the users create and edit the content; it depends not on a few experts but on an army of amateurs and enthusiasts like you and me). Because Wikipedia has cornered the market as a general repository of information, most of the imitators are more narrow in scope, catering to just one discipline, whether science or theology. Even dictionaries have become open, with the definitions of words and phrases determined by the crowds (For example, Wiktionary is a lexical extension to Wikipedia while Urban Dictionary is a collection of slang and hip terms). The wiki model is increasingly regarded as the best means of arriving at truth, at building a repository of knowledge.

September 21, 2010

Yesterday I wrote that Sex Isn’t Selling. I followed an article from Canadian Business magazine showing that the porn industry is falling upon hard times. It is easy to be glad that the industry is suffering, but it is suffering for all of the wrong reasons. One of the things that is destroying the porn economy is piracy. And as I thought about piracy, I had to admit that Christians are not a whole lot better here than unbelievers. The same piracy that threatens the porn industry is damaging Christian music labels and artists.

Some time ago Bob Kauflin posted some thoughts on MP3 downloads and copies (link). Bob serves as director of worship development for Sovereign Grace Ministries, and as a pastor and worship leader at Covenant Life Church in Gaithersburg, Maryland. Having just finished reading The Future of Music by David Kusek and Gerd Leonhard, Bob decided to reflect a bit on the book. The authors “think that increased access to music and freedom to distribute it legally will benefit consumers, companies, and artists alike.”

He provided a brief summary of the current copyright laws governing music. “Copyright laws still exist. Basically, the Copyright Office says:”

Uploading or downloading works protected by copyright without the authority of the copyright owner is an infringement of the copyright owner’s exclusive rights of reproduction and/or distribution. Anyone found to have infringed a copyrighted work may be liable for statutory damages up to $30,000 for each work infringed and, if willful infringement is proven by the copyright owner, that amount may be increased up to $150,000 for each work infringed. In addition, an infringer of a work may also be liable for the attorney’s fees incurred by the copyright owner to enforce his or her rights.

… The RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) site makes exceptions for personal copies:

Owning a CD means you own one copy of the music, and the U.S. record industry believes you should be able to make whatever personal use you choose. For example, you may make a compilation recording (on tape or on a CD) to use in the car or while exercising. But it’s a very different matter - and clearly neither legal nor fair - to make a copy of that CD or even one song available on the Internet for others to take.

Despite the clarity of the law, many people continue to ignore it. This is true both within the church and without. A Barna report (link) from 2004 showed that only 1 in 10 Christian teenagers believe that music piracy is morally wrong. This varied very little from the percentage of non-Christian teenagers who believe the same. I don’t think a lot has changed over the past 6 years except that more and more adults are now equally ambiguous about piracy. After all, everyone’s doing it, and when everyone does something, it is easy to think that we can do it too.