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June 13, 2009

Here is a brief quote taken from John Newton’s A Review of Ecclesiastical History which was published in 1769. It strikes me that the words he wrote them are perfectly applicable today:

Whenever and wherever the doctrines of free grace and justification by faith have prevailed in the Christian Church, and according to the degree of clearness with which they have been enforced, the practical duties of Christianity have flourished in the same proportion. Wherever they have declined, or been tempered with the reasonings and expedients of men, either from a well-meant, though mistaken fear, lest they should be abused, or from a desire to accommodate the gospel, and render it more palatable to the depraved taste of the world, the consequence has always been, an equal declension in practice. So long as the gospel of Christ is maintained without adulteration, it if found sufficient for every valuable purpose; but when the wisdom of man is permitted to add to the perfect work of God, a wide door is opened for innumerable mischiefs.
September 12, 2007

Making an impact on the world of social media.

On Saturday I had 11,000 unexpected guests drop by. One of my stories got picked up by Reddit and StumbleUpon, two of the big social media sites, and it ended up on the front page of both sites concurrently. This caused about 11,000 people to drop by my blog in a matter of hours (on a Saturday, no less, when traffic to these sites is probably far less than it is during the week). I was out and about and busy for most of the day so didn’t really notice much happening, but a quick check of my statistics monitoring later in the day showed that about 1,500 to 2,000 people per hour were dropping by while the stories remained on the front pages. This is the first time one of my articles has been picked up by these sites. It was far less thrilling than I might have imagined, especially because it was just a silly story I wrote a couple of years ago that offered nothing at all profound.

I guess there is no real way of knowing if the people who poured in to read the article that ended up on these sites actually stuck around to become regular readers. I’m guessing none of them did, or certainly not many (though if you are the exception I’d be interested to know it). These social media sites have an amazing ability to drive traffic, but I’m not sure how adept they are at driving long-term visitors, especially to what is rather a niche blog like this one. I suspect that most people visit these sites to get a quick entertainment fix and are not looking for any kind of long-term commitment!

It got me to thinking, though, about how Christians might take advantage of social media. After all, it seems that if a story ends up on the front page of Digg or StumbleUpon or Reddit, people click and read. It is no doubt a safe assumption that the vast majority of people using these sites are completely disinterested in anything even resembling the gospel. Most of the stories that show up on Digg (the only one of these sites I tend to keep an eye on) that deal at all with Christianity are firmly opposed to it.

Digg is one of the ways information moves these days. The site has caught on like wildfire and has spawned hundreds of imitators. But none of them have the sheer power of Digg. The term “the Digg effect” refers to the site’s ability to send so many visitors to a particular site that the site’s server can’t handle the capacity and gives up the ghost, at least for a time. A whole mirroring program has been put in place to attempt to make links visible even after Digg has crushed the server. A single story on Digg’s main page can bring in tens of thousands of visitors in a very short time. If a story ends up on Digg and a few of the other sites, well, you do the math.

The concept is simple but brilliant. Wikipedia sums it up well: “News stories and websites are submitted by users, and then promoted to the front page through a user-based ranking system. This differs from the hierarchical editorial system that many other news sites employ.” In other words, individuals post links to stories and the user community gives these stories either a “digg” or a “bury.” The stories with the most Diggs make their way to the front page where they are seen by hundreds of thousands of visitors, producing a veritable flood of traffic. The other social media sites each have their own features, but they work in roughly the same way—users submit stories and they are democratically promoted or demoted.

It is an interesting system. The stories that are promoted are often well worth reading, though certainly they need to be read with discernment and the headlines must be read carefully to ensure the reader knows what he is likely to see when he clicks.

The biggest problem I’ve found is the unbearable stupidity of so many of the comments—and perhaps even the majority of the comments. Digg seems almost incapable of producing good, useful or interesting discussion. This article is a case in point. The article describes the “hero” of the Minneapolis bridge collapse and his efforts to avoid media exposure. His desire for privacy even led him to decline a photo opportunity with the President.

Mr. Hernandez was not available to comment on the offer; Ms. Schwartz said he left town for northern Minnesota late on Friday, overwhelmed by the attention and concerned that his co-workers were being overlooked. He spent the weekend fishing. When President Bush’s staff contacted him to request a photo opportunity, “He was just, like, ‘Nope,’ ” she said.

Here are some of the comments provided by the Digg users:

  • he should have taken him up on the opportunity and called him out on some **** when he was there.
  • He should have gotten an “I’m with stupid ->” t-shirt! :)
  • I’m guessing it was more of a ‘photo opportunity’ for Bush rather than for the kid.
  • Well good for him, coz BUSH IS AN IDIOT
  • lol. Owned. I wouldn’t want to be in a picture with that ******** either.
  • If he was a real man he would have taken the opportunity to speak his mind.

Enlightening, isn’t it? Unfortunately, this kind of discussion is endemic within Digg and other social media sites. And the people who leave such comments are the same kind who are involved in promoting stories to the main page. Needless to say, this means that stupid stories by far outweigh good ones and frivolous content outweighs serious content. A story bashing President Bush is on the fast-track to tens of thousands of visits; one supporting him may as well not even be submitted. Again, some of the stories are certainly interesting and worth reading, but one certainly does need to look for the diamonds in the rough.

And so I wonder if Christians could use Digg and other sites to try to drive people to the occasional good article. Say, for example, that a blogger wrote an article that refuted five of the most common claims of today’s most prominent atheists, or someone wrote an article showing why we can trust the gospels. Or what if there was a ten minutes video clip (with transcript) of John Piper sharing the gospel? Wouldn’t it be an amazing thing if these could be promoted to the front page and be seen by thousands or tens of thousands? It would require a coordinated effort, I’m sure, and might even be destined to fail (is it true that there are a very few people within Digg who have an outrageous amount of influence in demoting certain stories?). It would be nice to be able to promote just a few kernels of wheat amidst all the chaff.

For those who participate in social media, I’d be interested in knowing how such an effort might work. I’d be interested in knowing if it is even feasible. Can sites like Digg be salvaged, or are they destined to primarily only ever promote content that is unbearably light, inconceivably stupid? Can Christians hope to make an impact in the world of social media?

September 02, 2005

I have watched far too much coverage of the Katrina aftermath. In fact, I don’t think I have watched so much news coverage since 9/11. I do not have a lot of choice of what to watch, as CNN is the only news outlet in my list of channels that is constantly covering the event. This morning I did spend a bit of time watching coverage on some of the morning news shows.

What I began to notice yesterday and this morning is that the media is quickly and perhaps subtley changing their focus and are now desperately seeking someone to blame. They are quickly putting a negative spin on even good news. Note that the Houston Astrodome does not represent a great success in transportation, but a failure because it has already filled and buses are being diverted to other shelters. The headlines proclaim that victims are being “turned away” from the Astrodome. The media suddenly seem interested more in finding a culprit than in reporting the news. And in the media it seems that all roads lead to the White House. Here is my interpretation of some of the questions I heard the media asking various figures this morning.

Asked of Michael D. Brown, Principal Federal Officer for Hurricane Katrina response. “Thank you for taking the time to speak with us this morning. You must be a busy man, especially as you flail hopelessly in this putrid morass of your own making. You are clearly an incompetent fool and one unsuited for this position. Tell me, why are you doing nothing for the people of New Orleans?”

Asked of generic Republican politician A. “Millions of Americans who thought Farenheit 9/11 was the very height of journalistic integrity would like to know why President Bush has not yet toured New Orleans. Is it because he is preoccupied with satisfying his insatiable appetite for eating babies?”

Asked of generic Republican politician B. “For many years we have been told that New Orleans could withstand a Category 3 hurricane, but not a Category 4 or 5. For two days we knew this was going to be a major hurricane and yet President Bush, who was provided with powers of omniscience when he took this oath of office, did not adequately prepare the region. Why is this?”

Asked of Governor Kathleen Blanco. Last night you warned the roving gangs in New Orleans that the National Guard has been trained in the use of their firearms and that they may shoot to kill. Why is it that you intend to kill people who are only seeking to find food or water to feed their families?”

A reflection by a news anchor. “I make $8 million a year and live in a penthouse apartment in New York City. I earn merely $7,983,000 more than the average New Orlean. So I believe that I speak for the average victim of this disaster when I say, “When will it no longer be too soon to cast the blame for this disaster on President Bush?”

At this point I am beginning to wonder what good the media is doing. Are they really helping this situation? Isn’t there more they can do? Surely they can use their camera time a little more productively than searching around for someone (who probably works in an oval office) to blame. At least wait until the situation has stabilized!

Anyways, I think it is time for me to turn off the television for a while before I get a little too disillusioned with the Mainstream Media. Oops, it’s already too late!

July 07, 2004

“I didn’t expect the truth about the Spanish Inquisition.”

NOBODY expects the truth about the Spanish Inquisition! Our chief weapon is dishonesty…dishonesty and revisionism…revisionism and dishonesty…. Our two weapons are dishonesty and revisionism…and your reckless apathy…. Our *three* weapons are dishonesty, revisionism, and your reckless apathy…and an almost fanatical devotion to deception…. Our *four*…no… *Amongst* our weapons…. Amongst our weaponry…are such elements as dishonesty, revisionism…. I’ll come in again.”

“I didn’t expect the truth about the Spanish Inquisition.”

NOBODY expects the truth about the Spanish Inquisition! Amongst our weaponry are such diverse elements as: dishonesty, revisionism, your reckless apathy, an almost fanatical devotion to deception, and nice red uniforms…”

“You are hereby charged that you did on diverse dates believe that the Holy Church would reveal the truth about the inquisition. Now, how do you plead?”

“We’re innocent.”

“Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha! Ha!”

“Now — you are accused of naivety on three counts — naivety by thought, naivety by word, naivety by deed, and naivety by action — *four* counts. Do you confess?

“I don’t understand what I’m accused of!”

“Ha! Then we’ll make you understand! Fetch…THE EVIDENCE!”

Vatican ‘dispels Inquisition myths’

The Vatican has published a new study on the abuses committed by the medieval Inquisition and come to a rather surprising conclusion - that in fact the much feared judges of heresy were not as brutal as previously believed.

According to the 800-page report, the Inquisition that spread fear throughout Europe throughout the Middle Ages did not use execution or torture to anything like the extent history would have us believe.

In fact the book’s editor, Professor Agostino Borromeo, claims that in Spain only 1.8% of those investigated by the notorious Spanish Inquisition were killed.

Nonetheless, as the report was published, Pope John Paul II apologised once more for the interrogators’ excesses, expressing sorrow for “the errors committed in the service of the truth by the recourse to non-Christian methods”.

Hunting heretics

After the Roman Catholic Church consolidated its power across Europe in the 12th and 13th Century, it set up the Inquisition to ensure that heretics did not undermine that authority.

It took the form of a network of ecclesiastical tribunals equipped with judges and investigators.

The punishments meted out for wrongdoers ranged from being forced to visit churches and make pilgrimages, to life imprisonment or execution by burning at the stake.

The report is the result of six-years of investigation

A key component of the Inquisition was that it did not wait for complaints and accusations to be made, but actively sought out so-called heretics, who included witches, diviners, blasphemers and members of other sects.

The accused did not have the right to face and question their accuser and it was acceptable to take testimony from criminals and excommunicated people.

The Inquisition reached its peak in the 16th Century as it battled the Reformation, but its most famous trial was that of Galileo in 1633, condemned for claiming the earth revolved around the sun.

Death by burning

The Spanish Inquisition which became independent from the Vatican in the 15th Century, carried out some of the most infamous abuses under its “autos da fé” or act of faith, shorthand for death by burning.

They zealously tortured victims, held summary trials, forced conversions and passed death sentences.

“There is no doubt that at the start, the planned procedures were applied with an excessive rigour, which in some cases degenerated into true abuses,” the Vatican study simply says of this dark period.

But the Vatican report, the product of a six-year investigation, insists that the Inquisition was not as bad as often believed.

Professor Borromeo says for example that for 125,000 trials of suspected heretics in Spain, less than 2% were executed.

He says that often mannequins were burned to represent those tried in absentia and condemned to death and heretics and witches who repented at the last minute were given some sort of relief when they were strangled before being burnt.

Source: BBC News

What can we say? The Vatican is once again downplaying the inquisition. Until they admit to the full extent of the terrible acts done in the name of the Church and until they prove their sorrow in changed doctrine, their apology amounts to nothing. Their apology means as much as if a man beats his wife until she is black and blue and then apologizes for raising his voice at her. It means nothing!

We will, of course, never have completely accurate numbers for the lives lost in the various inquisitions and crusades. The Church continually persecuted Protestants (even in the pre-Protestant era - groups such as the Waldenses), Jews and Muslims alike. Traditionally, and based on some careful (though biased) research, the number of lives lost in the inquisitions was placed in the tens of millions. John Dowling who wrote History of Romanism did years of research and arrived at a number close to 50 million. In recent years the numbers have fallen from millions to thousands and in some cases even to the hundreds.

Do not allow yourself, your children, your church to lose sight of history. We absolutely must continue to allow ourselves to remain students of history.

July 06, 2004

This fall, Rick Warren will be encouraging thousands of churches to join his 40 Days of Community program. Warren descripes this program as “a next step in spiritual growth for your congregation, and we believe it’s a necessary step for deepening healthy, balanced, purpose-driven lives.” 40 Days of Purpose is a prerequisite to move on to Community.

On the surface, it sounds decent enough if you are a fan of all things Purpose-Driven. “The primary focus of 40 Days of Community is to encourage congregations to work together on fulfilling God’s five purposes by developing and deepening an authentic community within your church and reaching out to the community around your church.” Who can argue that deepening authentic community and reaching out to the community could be a bad thing? So what’s the problem?

The problem is that this whole program is Warren Driven. The campaign depends on six essential tools. “Our research from 40 Days of Purpose has shown that churches that use all six of these tools experience much greater results than churches who left out one or two of them.” So if you leave out any of these six tools your efforts are almost guaranteed to fail. Here are the six tools:

  1. The 40 Days of Community kick-off Simulcast.
  2. Seven weekend messages and worship plans.
  3. The “What on Earth Are We Here For” devotional book with 40 days of daily devotional readings and journaling pages. New to this campaign is the inclusion of the small group study guide in the devotional book, creating a complete, comprehensive campaign resource.
  4. Six small group or Sunday school lessons. These lessons will also be available as optional video curriculum in VHS and DVD formats.
  5. Six weekly scripture memory verses
  6. Multiple church-wide events designed to deepen the commitment of your members and move them into active participation in your congregation and community.

Essentially, what Warren wants is the ability to run your church for seven weeks. He will start the campaign with a simulcast where he will cast his vision for your church. Then he will either preach or tell your pastor what to preach for the next seven weeks. It seems he’ll even tell you what songs to sing (and probably what dramas to act out and so on). For forty days your congregation will study Warren’s writing through daily devotionals. During Sunday school or small group time they will study his curriculum. They will memorize Scripture verses, undoutedly in some awful translation and then participate in church-wide events he suggests.

Truly this man must believe he has the exclusive hold on some great truth. What pastor should be willing to hand his church to this man for seven weeks? Do pastors have so little confidence in their own abilities and in their own walk with the Lord that they will defer to Warren’s perceived abilities? I just don’t understand.

The registration cost for this program is roughly $1000 depending on the size of the congregation participating. That price does not include any additional resources you may order. Strangely, there is no indication what that registration fee actually includes.

While I am on the topic of Warren I thought I’d point out that The Purpose Driven Life won the The Evangelical Christian Publishers Association’s (ECPA) Charles “Kip” Jordon Christian Book of the Year Award for the second consecutive year, beating out Wild at Heart and The Case for Christ. The only other book to win this award twice is none other than that magnificent volume of exegetical excrement, The Prayer of Jabez. Past winners of this dubious distinction include: “Fresh Wind, Fresh Fire” (Jim Cymbala with Dean Merrill), Just Like Jesus (Max Lucado), What’s So Amazing About Grace (Philip Yancey), The Body (Charles Colson with Ellen Santilli Vaughn) and a whole lot more Lucado and Yancey books. Warren finds himself in some interesting company.