On Audio Books and Paper Books

Let all things be done unto edifying. –1 Corinthians 14:26, KJV

Each medium shapes the content it conveys. Or, more memorably, if overstated, “the medium is the message” (Marshall McLuhan). How, then, do paper books differ from and audio books? One can read a book G. K. Chesterton’s Heretics. The same content can be heard on an audio book, such as through Audible.com. However, the medium matters for understanding.

The book is in one place at one time. It is a token of a type. My copy of Francis Schaeffer’s The God Who is There is one of many individual books, all of which bear the same content and title.  It is not wafting in “the cloud” and cannot be downloaded to a portable device. It is portable, though; but the larger it is, the less portable it becomes. Try putting my book, Christian Apologetics (752 pages) into your suitcase. You won’t have room for much else. However, the tome can be used as a doorstop, for weight training, and for self-defense.

Books age. The pages yellow, tear, and fall out. Books can be annotated. Their pages accommodate and welcome your comments, cross references, highlights, underlining, and coffee spills. Books may be autographed by their authors. As such, books can be markers of memories. When I was a freshman in college, I wrote marginalia in my copy of Kierkegaard’s The Sickness Unto Death in the middle of the night after awakening from a strange dream. Next to a passage on the despair that resists God, I wrote, “This is happening to me tonight.” You see, the book was reading me. The Holy Spirit of truth was illuminating the words and apply them to the depths of my soul.

The copy of Pascal’s Pensées that I used for my doctoral dissertation was worn beyond what its spine could endure. Pages tumbled out and had to be stuffed back in, often not in the right place. It did not age well. But I could not dispose of the book. A student offered to give the book a new spine. A spiral binding (a kind of exoskeleton) now secures the pages for posterity and my further research.

Books can be objects of anger. In a fit of rage, you can throw a book across the room, as I have done—even in the classroom. (I have never thrown a book atanyone.) One projectile of shame has been Blue Like Jazz, which holds the record for most public abuse. Another is No Argument for God. I have left this practice behind, but there are surviving witnesses to my excitations. You can throw audio recorders, Kindle readers, and laptops across rooms, too. Of course, doing that is a tad more expensive.

Books are placed somewhere, since they are discreet objects in the external world. They are part of a physical environment and contribute to an ambiance. They also have a distinctive smell, which is immediately obvious when you enter a used book store (or my basement). Whether they are out of order or in order, they enter the visual, tactile, and olfactory senses. My dog, Sunny, sometimes rests his head on a pile of my books in my study. If he wants to be with me, he often has no choice.

Audio books are not books, but recordings of books. They were first recorded on vinyl records, then on cassettes, CDs, and now mostly on line. I have a magnificent set of speeches by Winston Churchill, which were recorded on several records, dating back many decades. This sounds better: Amazon also houses some of his speeches in the cloud. The Bible was recorded on vinyl to give the visually-impaired audio access to Holy Writ. It was later put on cassette, CD, and was later streamed on the Internet. I spent countless hours listening to Alexander Scourby (1913-1985) read the Revised Standard Version of the Bible. “Scourby has the greatest voice ever recorded,” said The Chicago Tribune. While listening in my car about twenty years ago, I heard his reading of Jesus’ fiery condemnation of the Pharisees’ hypocrisy, taken from Matthew 23. It gave me chills because Scourby captured Jesus’ disgust with pompously false religion so tellingly. His incomparable recitations are still available.

Literary critic, Sven Birkerts critiqued the audio book twenty years ago in The Guttenberg Elegies, finding the very nature of the medium problematic. When he wrote, audio books were limited to cassettes, which are bulkier and less easily listened to than audio books on line. But his comments are still apt; so, I will reflect on them.

Listening is different from reading, even if the intellectual content is identical. When you read, you may supply a voice to the text, especially if you have heard the author speak. I find this true when I read anything by Os Guinness, whose speaking and writing are distinctive, profound, and well-entrenched in my consciousness. But if you are reading Plato, there is no determinative voice to hear in the written words, although you could supply one—perhaps Charlton Heston. Or, y0u may simply read along with no voice in mind.

However, when listening to an audio book, a voice—the professional reader, or in some cases the author—is assigned. You have no choice in who reads it to you, but you may avoid certain audio book readers and be inclined toward others. Seeking Allah, Finding Jesusis read by the author, the late Nabeel Qureshi. This is fitting since he had a pleasant voice and because the book is the story of his own conversion. Things may get confusing, though, if a female reads a book by a male author or vice versa.  For example, Kate Redding reads Francis Schaeffer’s book, He is There and He is not SilentBut, perhaps, this should make no difference. Schaeffer’s own voice was a bit high-pitched and raspy, but always insistent. Redding’s voice is sure and authoritative. It seems to work.

As we try to comprehend ideas, we must often retrace our steps. In conversation, we may say, “Can you say that again?” or “Do you mean so and so?” A printed book (or a Kindle book) allows us to read at our own pace, to stop and ponder, and to go back and reread sections of the book. The book itself has no pace, no speed of exposition. The reader supplies that. The audio book sets its own pace, although it now gives us the option of speeding up or slowing down the rate of reading. At the extremes, the voice no longer seems human at all. Words are recited at speeds and with tones unknown to normal speakers. I occasionally speed up the speech because I want to get more information more quickly. But at what cost is this to understanding the content or to an aesthetic appreciation of the voice?

Audio books allow you to backtrack, but it is unwieldy in relation to what the paper book allows (and encourages). Of course, we often listen to audio books in settings—as while driving, eating, or exercising—in which our hands are not free to handle a paper book.

 

Television: Agent of Truth Decay

This is excerpted from Douglas Groothuis, Truth Decay(InterVarsity Press, 2000).

First, television emphasizes the moving image over written and spoken language.  It is image-driven, image-saturated, and image-controlled.   …When the image overwhelms and subjugates the word, the ability to think, write, and communicate in a linear and logical fashion is undermined.  Television’s images have their immediate effect on us, but that effect is seldom to cause us to pursue their truth or falsity.  …As Kenneth Myers stresses, ‘A culture that is rooted more in images than in words will find it increasingly difficult to sustain any broad commitment to any truth, since truth is an abstraction requiring language.’

Second, [television brings] a loss of authentic selfhood…the self is filled with a welter of images and factoids and sound bites lacking moral and intellectual adhesion.  The self becomes ungrounded and fragmented by its experiences of television.  …Postmodern illiterates live their lives through a series of television characters (better: shadows of characters), and changing channels becomes a model for the self’s manner of experience and its mode of being.  Moral and spiritual anchorage is lost.  The self is left to try on a pastiche of designer personae in no particular order and for no particular reason.

Third, television relentlessly displays a pseudo-world of discontinuity and fragmentation.  …The images appear and disappear and reappear without a proper rational context.  …This is what Postman aptly calls the ‘peek-a-boo world,’ – a visual environment lacking coherence, consisting of ever-shifting, artificially linked images. …Without any historical or logical context, the very notion of intellectual or moral coherence becomes unsustainable on television.

Fourth, the increasingly rapid pace of television’s images makes careful evaluation impossible and undesirable for the viewer, thus rendering determinations of truth and falsity difficult if not impossible.  With sophisticated video technologies, scenes change at hypervelocities and become the visual equivalent of caffeine or amphetamines. …This means that one simply absorbs hundreds and thousands of rapidly changing images, with little notion of what they mean or whether they correspond to any reality outside themselves.  …Habituation to such imposed velocities tends to make people intellectually impatient and easily bored with anything that is slow-moving and undramatic – such as reading books…experiencing nature in the raw, and engaging in face-to-face conversations with fellow human beings. …The overstuffed and overstimulated soul becomes out-of-sync with God, nature, others, and itself.  It cannot discern truth; it does not want to.  This apathetic attitude makes the apprehension and application of truth totally irrelevant.

Fifth, television promotes truth decay by its incessant entertainment imperative.  Amusement trumps all other values and takes captive every topic.  Every subject – whether war, religion, business, law or education – must be presented in a lively, amusing or stimulating manner.   …Even off the air, people now think that life (and Christian ministry) must be entertaining at all costs.  One pastor of a megachurch advises preachers that sermons should be roughly 20 minutes in length and must be ‘light and informal,’ with liberal sprinklings of ‘humor an anecdotes.’  Just like television, isn’t it?  The truth is that truth, and the most important truths, is often not entertaining.  An entertainment mentality will insulate us from many hard but necessary truths. …Jesus, the prophets, and the apostles held the interest of their audience not by being amusing but by their zeal for God’s truth, however unpopular or uncomfortable it may have been.  They refused to entertain but instead edified and convicted.  It was nothing like television” (p. 283-292).

Who we Lost and What they Gave

Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of his saints. -Psalm 115:16, KJV

As one year turns into another, much is made of those we have lost. Death has no victory for those who entrusted their lives to Jesus. Because of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Apostle Paul can taunt death itself by writing, “Death where is your victory? Grave, where is your sting?” We do not grieve our losses in the same way as those who have no true hope.

Still, we grieve, and we reflect. Two people died this year who gave me immeasurable assistance as a writer: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. Let me eulogize both with a literary focus.

James Sire was editor of InterVarsity Press for many years. He was instrumental in getting the likes of Francis Schaeffer and Os Guinness into print. No writers in recent memory have influenced me more than these two. They gave me knowledge and courage to defend and apply Christianity in the world of ideas, culture, and politics. I am grateful to Dr. Sire for this. He was not only an editor. His own books, particularly, The Universe Next Door profoundly shaped thousands of readers. Through five editions, it addressed the ins and outs of the Christian worldview compared with other worldviews such as deism, atheism, and existentialism.

Dr. Sire read a book proposal from a young campus minister in 1983, who proposed a book critiquing the rise of Eastern religion and the occult in American culture. That young man had few credentials beyond a philosophy degree, a few years of campus ministry experience, a smattering of graduate classes in theology, and a few book reviews. But the well-seasoned editor sensed a need for such a book and took a chance by offering Douglas Groothuis a contract. My book was originally entitled, The One for All: The Convergence of Pantheism in the West. This rather pedantic title was wisely changed to Unmasking the New Age (1986), although that phrase was never used in the book. It was my first and my best-selling book. It is still in print.

Jim and I interacted on book projects over the years. He would comment on my manuscripts and I would comment on his. We appear in each other’s footnotes often. The few times I was with him face-to-face were delightful.

When I received my contract for the book, I had begun dating Becky Merrill, who joined the same campus ministry with which I was involved, The McKenzie Study Center in Eugene, Oregon. Becky said that she would edit my chapters before I sent them to InterVarsity. I accepted, with more than a literary interest in mind. Although I resisted some of her edits at first, I came to learn that she made my writing and thinking better. She also made my whole life better. We were married in 1984.

Becky, or Rebecca Merrill Groothuis (her author name), came to write two superb works on gender roles and relations in the church: Women Caught in the Conflict (Baker, 1994) and Good News for Women (Baker, 1997. She co-edited a major academic volume called Discovering Biblical Equality (InterVarsity Press, 2004). She also contributed several chapters to my book, Christianity That Counts (Baker, 1995). We co-wrote a number of essays as well. She wrote many popular and academic articles, mostly on biblical egalitarianism. Arguably, she was the leading thinker on biblical egalitarianism in her prime.

Becky edited all my books up through my magnum opus, Christian Apologetics: A Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (InterVarsity Press, 2011), which was my tenth. She had an uncanny ability to get the heart of things; she clarified and beautified my writing. If anything was unclear to her, she would put the dreaded question mark in the margin. She also corrected not a few errors, bad judgments, and verbosity. There will never be another editor like her for me. My last two books have been written without her. My last book was about losing her: Walking through Twilight (InterVarsity Press, 2017). I read part of Philosophy in Seven Sentences to her shortly after it came out in 2016. After reading a passage I thought was clever, she looked at me with an expression I learned to recognize without any attending words. “It’s too cutesy, isn’t it?” I asked. “Yes,” she moaned. Her editor’s sense was there, but her words were not. I take some of her editorial sensibilities with me as I write and rewrite. “What would Becky think?” But it is not the same.

In 2018, we lost two superb editors and writers: James W. Sire and Rebecca Merrill Groothuis. I lost a friend and I lost a wife whose contributions to my writing were inestimable. Therefore, I give thanks and I grieve. And I will continue to write, God helping me.

 

 

 

Who Reads? Why Read?

“I should read. But I don’t have time.” I heard this while browsing a bookstore (as I often do on Sunday afternoons). His expression was sad and resigned—wistful. Here he was, bobbing in an ocean of books—perhaps to buy a gift—and wondered if he would read. Notice he did not say, “I need to read more.” I can say that.  A young person confessed to me that he doesn’t read at all. Sadly, I wasted a gift of one of my books to him before I knew this. This soul expressed no regret or longing in his declaration of ongoing illiteracy. In fact, this individual has a college degree. I guess that reading thing was now out of the way.

At the end of final’s week in the spring of 1977, I saw a student who lived in my apartment building walking down the hall carrying about two feet of books which he held in both of his cupped hands. I said, “What are you doing?” He replied, “I’m throwing them out. The term is over.” I countered, “No you are not. Please give them to me.” He did, thus sparing a walk to the dumpster one floor down. I’ll never forget the stupefied expression on his face.

In recent years, many bookstores are not primarily book-stores. The Barnes and Noble chain stores now have knickknacks, puzzles, games, and more. This is not true for The Tattered Cover bookstores in Denver. Their non-book items fit the feel of books—cards, pens, journals, and so on.

People do read. . . what is on their phones. Yesterday, I saw a man crossing a busy intersection while both walking his dog and looking down at his phone. I felt sorry for the dog. But reading a text message or a Facebook post is not the same as settling into a book, that ancient and low-tech object. Screens change words and images endlessly. They are restless. Books have one set of messages per page. They stay put so you can stay focused.

Books have an embodied history as objects in space and time. I treasure my first copy of The God Who is There by Francis A. Schaeffer, which I bought at the University of Oregon bookstore in the fall of 1976, shortly after becoming a Christian. Schaeffer’s intellectual courage and range of interests captivated me and helped chart my own calling. I own another edition and have heard the book on audio, but that is not the same. Books like this are part of the furniture of our homes and of our souls. My home decoration theme is books.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most.

Christians, of all people, should be readers. If we are going to outthink the world for Christ, we need to be knowledgeable about what matters most. As Vernon Grounds said, “We should be masters of one book (the Bible) and readers of many books.” Time alone with a significant book can transform you for the better by opening your mind to truths about history, theology, philosophy, culture, geography, painting, and architecture that you will not simply pick up on Facebook or Instagram.

Can you sit still long enough to make headway through a book? A teenager confessed to me that he could not do so. He had just heard me give a lecture at Summit Ministries. I said, “Get J. P. Moreland’s book, Love Your God With All Your Mind.Then sit in a quiet room by yourself for one hour and read the book. Just one hour. If you do this, you can develop a discipline of reading.” The young man warmed to this and said, “You are good at talking to people.” I relished that comment and hoped that he would become a reader.

God has given me more discretionary time to read and study than most humans. I do what I love. I have time to read. I have time to write. It is easy for me to say, “Read more!” Still, with only a few changes to your life, you can read more and read more deeply. Try an hour by yourself with no distractions. This time, take Philosophy in Seven Sentences in with you, and let me know what you think.

 

 

Philosophy of Technology in Six Ideas

As I prowl around bookstores, I find a gaggle of books on managing technology overload. One after another fall of the presses and make their way on the shelves and into my hands. Some, I buy; most, I pass over. Often, I think, “I noticed that twenty years ago.” I did not predict Google or Facebook or Wikipedia, of course; but in my unread book, The Soul in Cyberspace, I did exegete the medium qua medium, noted some of the internet’s strengths, but warned of ways it could diminish the good life that God wants us to live. Here are six words that capture some of the insights I find repeated again and again in these new books.

  1. More is often less. Humans can profitably interact only with a limited amount of data and sensory stimulation. We must limit our exposure to internet (and all) electronic media because, unless we are careful, it will addle and unravel us. It may even stupefy us, even as we twitch and click away.
  2. The medium is the message. As Marshall McLuhan wrote 50 years ago, each communications media shapes its message according to the dictates of the form of communication. An image communicates differently than the spoken word, the spoken word, differently than the written word, and so it goes. Attending a worship service cannot be translated truthfully by watching it on line.
  3. Efficiency is overrated and may be dangerous. Many good things come slowly, such as strong and vibrant relationships, handcrafted furniture, and skill in playing a musical instrument. All too often, modern technology accelerates without regard to quality. Downloading a PDF of a book can be done quickly; but perhaps finding a hard copy and enjoying its un-electrified slowness is what you should do. It is more efficient to use a program to put comments on students’ papers. However, writing with pen and ink is more personal and embodied. Yes, it is slower—and better (if you have the time).
  4. Resist quantification over qualitative concerns. Technologies trade on numbers. How many likes did your Facebook post receive? People may like it for the wrong reasons. How many people follow your tweets? How can you maximize exposure to your blog? What is left behind, too often, is the quality–the objective nature–of what is available online. What might God think of your essay, your poem, or your cartoon? Does what you put on line contribute to human flourishing.
  5. Virtuous engagement online requires abstention. We often give too much of our time to the on line world. Our very souls are shaped by its speed, its fragmentation, its instantism. Thus, we are wise to retreat, to unplug, to desist, to desert it. Leave your phone in the car when you go shopping or when you meet a friend at a coffee shop. Designate hours and days when you are off line entirely. You will gain a new perspective on your on line life by going off line. You will notice what slipped into the background: friends, pets, nature, the Bible, prayer needs, and more.
  6. Every new communication technology gives and takes away. There is no sheer advantage. The telephone and radio extend the voice, but take away the physical presence. Early users of telephones were rattled by a disembodied voice coming from far away. The internet opens up the world to us, but may separate us from the people in our midst. Hence, “the absent presence” of much of life today. How can someone listen to you when they are texting someone elsewhere? Electronic music files make music available nearly anywhere, but the sound quality is worse than a record. And when you can listen to music through your ear buds in public, you will not be as aware of the world around you. You may not see the tears in a stranger’s eyes or hear a sound of distress in your midst.

My miniature essay fails to address the evil algorithms out there, the good and evil of big data, and other empirical matters worthy of concern. Nevertheless, my six ideas cover much of what is being written about today, twenty years after I warned about the down side of technologies. My inspiration was and is thinkers such as Neil Postman, Marshall McLuhan, Malcolm Muggerridge, and Jacques Ellul. Take some time away from Facebook, Instagram, et al, and read them, please.

 

4 Reasons Why Leaders Should be Readers

Christian leaders need to direct and inspire through their knowledge and character. I here assume you are not reading romance novels or graphic novels. Leaders should be readers, among other things. Why?

1. Reading deepens your awareness of life. You can see things with other eyes and expand your awareness. God’s people need perspective.
2. Reading helps you not to be a sucker, to be sucked into superficial fads, bad ideas, and general stupidity.
3. Reading helps you love others better, because you have more meat to offer them.
4. You need to be an example of intellectual rectitude and studiousness.

How can this be done?

1. Limit time online. Kindle is good for some things, such as reading while traveling and for capturing text. However, the book affords its unique charms for understanding. See my chapter, “The Book, the Screen, and the Soul,” in “The Soul in Cyberspace.”
2. Find time alone and without distraction to read. Perhaps “a clean, well-lit place,” or in messiness (as I do).
3. Ask thoughtful friends what they are reading.
4. Haunt bookstores for books. Duh.
5. Check the New York Times Book Review.

What to Read

1. That which deepens your calling.
2. History: for perspective on today.
3. Philosophy: sharpen your critical thinking prowess and knowledge of worldviews and the history of ideas.
4. Psychology: better understand yourself and others.
5. Poetry: the kind you can understand.
6. Apologetics: learn to defend your faith wisely.
7. Ethics: for moral discernment.
8. Social commentary by smart people.
9. Everything related to the Bible.
10. Science, especially what is written from the Intelligent Design viewpoint.
11. Classic literature: Plato, Aristotle, Pascal, so much more.
12. Literature: enliven your imagination through story.
13. Spiritual writings: deepen your relationship with God.

That should keep you busy for some time, good time.

Book Review: Dynamics of Spiritual Life

Books grounded me during my early Christian life. Along with The God Who is There by Francis Schaffer, Pensées by Blaise Pascal, The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis, and The Dust of Death by Os Guinness, The Confessions by Augustine (and many others), Richard Lovelace’s Dynamics of Spiritual Life offered a historically and theologically rich charter for living the Christian life in all its dimensions: individual, church, and culture. To this day, I know of no other book in this category. How pleased I was a few months ago to find a student at Denver Seminary reading and lauding this magnificent book.

I was in campus ministry from 1979-84 at the University of Oregon.  During that time I read Lovelace’s book. Most of my ministry time was spent in preparation for teaching. During the early 1980s, I taught from Dynamics in a yearlong course for upper division credit in Sociology. It was called, a bit pretentiously, “The Twilight of Western Thought.” Given the fear of micro-aggression, the advent of “equality officers,” safe zones and trigger warnings for those fragile souls traumatized by ideas not their own, this course would never be taught today. You see, it was taught from a Christian perspective. Free of any discrimination against non-Christian students or their work, Dynamics explained the Christian worldview in relation to other perspectives. True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it does not avoid them at all cost. That is how the head of the sociology department saw it, so he sponsored the class.

"True pluralism respects and listens to opposing viewpoints; it dose not avoid them at all cost."

What a feast it was to teach through every chapter of Dynamics of Spiritual Life. My copy is decorated with color markings, underlining, marginalia and my own index placed on the inner front cover. As C. S. Lewis wrote in An Experiment in Criticism, the literary person rereads his great books.  In his introduction to Athanasius On the Incarnation of the Word, he says that the older books should not be neglected for the new. This work, now thirty-six years old, deserves to be read and re-read.

Dr. Lovelace approaches the theology of renewal as a church historian, who draws wisely from many movements and thinkers, of whom Jonathan Edwards features prominently. While Reformed theologically, Lovelace appreciates the best of the Protestant traditions and accepted the ongoing power of the charismatic gifts. His winsome and sane approach stimulated me to rethink and eventually leave behind the cessationism I had picked up from the Dispensational theology I was taught in a Baptist Church. I found one could be a Calvinist Charismatic, and so I have remained.

The book proceeds in a linear and systematic fashion by considering the nature of renewal in some depth. He is not writing about revivalism specifically, although he cannot ignore that. Rather, he addresses the conditions for renewal given what the Bible and church history tells us. In Part I, Dynamics of Renewal, Lovelace measures the current situation (1979),  for the church, looks at biblical patterns of renewal, the preconditions for renewal (knowing God and our sinfulness), primary elements of renewal (our status in Christ), secondary elements of renewal (mission, prayer, community, theologian integration, and disenculturation). Renewal in the Church is the second and longer part of the book, and offers a cornucopia of insight on “the sanctification” gap, how revivals go wrong, the nature of orthodoxy and ecumenism, the Christian and the arts, a biblical account of social action, and “the prospects for renewal.”

Lovelace’s reflections are deeply biblical, theologically rich, and spiritually heartening. Consider one example. His discussion of justification and sanctification is deeply biblically, clear, and cogent. Our theology of justification and sanctification is foundational to any Spirit-led renewal in the church and in culture. Twenty years after I taught this material, one of my students emailed to say how significant this was in forming her young Christian life. I often return to this reality in my Christian experience. I am accepted in Christ, justified by his righteous and am loved. That is the foundation. From that foundation, I seek to grow in grace and truth, depending on the Holy Spirit in all things. Francis Schaeffer’s modern classic, True Spirituality, makes these same points in a bit more detail.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more.

The American church desperately needs renewal and reformation, especially as our culture works out the sad implications of its increasing secularism concerning gender, human rights, and more. Dynamics of Spiritual Life, though written in 1979, can help chart the way. I cannot think of any book as profound, wise, and challenging on these matters. Yes, it is high time to reread this modern classic. Thanks to InterVarsity for keeping it in print all these years and thank you, Richard Lovelace for this work of love and erudition.

The Book That No One Read

As the editor of a series of cultural critiques on compelling issues, Os Guinness wanted my work The Soul in Cyberspace to be “a shot across the bow.” I earnestly took up the challenge. At the time, Thomas Moore’s The Care of the Soul was a bestseller, and publishers were offering a proliferation of books on the Internet. Published in 1997, my book combined these two themes. My hope was that the book would sell well and help the church be more discerning.

The book was a flop. My success publishing essays from it in various periodicals and an interview in Christianity Today notwithstanding, it was dead after one small printing. As David Hume wrongly referred to A Treatise on Human Nature, it fell “stillborn from the press.” (For literary archaeologists, the book is available as a reprint from Wipf and Stock Publishers, and used copies of the original print can be found on Amazon.)

Why, then, did the book fail to engage the Evangelical world? Are there any lessons from it that apply to us today, especially given my last twenty years participating in the churning and ever-changing world of cyberspace?

First, it may have not been a good book. Perhaps it was written too quickly (as one reviewer put it) and/or without adequate research and nuance. God knows. I don’t remember any bad reviews; but there weren’t many reviews at all.

Second, it was written by a young curmudgeon, a social critic who did not (and does not) typically look on the bright side of things. In the middle 1990s, most Evangelicals (and everyone else) were agog with the teeming and wondrous possibilities of “life on the screen,” as Sherri Turkle put it. (She is now more nuanced and worried in her approach, as seen in her recent books, such as Alone Together and Reclaiming Conversation.) Since Evangelicals yearn to reach as many people as possible with the gospel, we usually fall in love with whatever technology seems to have the broadest reach. Thus, we embraced radio to broadcast sermons, for example. I never denied the benefits of global connectivity—as much as I could glimpse of that in 1997. However, I pondered the unintended consequences that flowed from the nature of the medium itself, getting my chops and taking my cues mostly from Neil Postman, Jacques Ellul, and Marshall McLuhan. So, I was more of a nay-sayer than a cheer-leader. But, I was partly right. Let me explain.

All communication technologies amplify some human abilities and diminish others. They are, as McLuhan wrote, “extensions of man.” The radio and telephone extend the reach of the voice, but removes the embodied human presence from which the voice comes. It favors sound over image. Television extends and favors image over sound and rational discourse. Vinyl sounds better than digital, but is less portable. And on it goes. Trades-offs in meaning and knowledge are inevitable, but usually neglected or forgotten. Christians, of all people, should know this. God coming in the flesh in the person of Jesus Christ is the consummate communication of God to humanity, improving on (but not negating) all previous forms of revelation.

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word (Hebrews 1:1-3a).

The Apostles Paul (Romans 1:11-12) and John lamented that they could not visit the recipients of their Epistles.

I have much to write to you, but I do not want to use paper and ink. Instead, I hope to visit you and talk with you face to face, so that our joy may be complete (2 John 1:12; see also 3 John 1:13-14).

A 1993 cartoon in The New Yorker cartoon showed one dog saying to another, “On the Internet, nobody knows you are a dog.” Being-there was endangered by novel and prodigious forms of high-tech mediation. Fakery was easier, authenticity harder. You could craft a web page to make you look other than you were, and gain much attention in doing so, given the novelty of the form.

I also warned of the cyborg, the human machine combinations beginning to find identities. How far might enter cyberspace? Might we thereby become less human?

If I was partly right in warning of the depersonalizing aspects of the Internet and right in advocating unmediated personal relationships in friendship and teaching and in the church, what did I miss?

Even the savviest techno-wizards would be stunned by many of the cyberspace eruptions from the last two decades. When I wrote in 1997, personal computers were tethered to desks or put on laps. Cell phones were new, bulky, expensive, and alien to the fledgling internet. There was no “Cyber Monday” and no texting. My attention is drawn to only two giants, who emerged in cyberspace since I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace—Facebook and Amazon. Space does not permit me to expound on three of their giant siblings—Google, Wikipedia, and the omnipresent smart phone (which often outsmarts us).

Facebook did not exist in 1997 and no one knew of Mark Zuckerman, who was then thirteen-years-old. The social nature of the internet was largely exhausted by chat rooms, emails, rather static web pages, and discussion boards. I flirted with Facebook for a few years, and even spoke out against it on a BBC radio program. I now find myself a dedicated citizen of this digital place, which I find vexing, annoying, and nearly indispensable.

Like all electronic media, Facebook is not unmediated face-to-face communication; and, it should never substitute for it. (Although it tries hard through video calls). It should it become an obsession or addiction, which it easily can. Often, we denizens of Facebook are better off reading books rather than our newsfeeds. (I must get to that new translation of St. Augustine’s Confessions!) Our posted selfies may reveal less than virtuous selves. Self-promotion takes on new dimensions on Facebook and it is easy to forget what Proverbs counsels: Let someone else praise you, and not your own mouth; an outsider, and not your own lips” (Proverbs 27:2). I could go on. I hope you could you, too.

I did not know in 1997 that cyberspace might become, in some of its regions, a meaningful medium for insight, exhortation, commiseration, and prayer; yet, it can, indeed, carry existential weight. I have lamented on line, much of it on Facebook. Since my wife Becky was diagnosed with an uncommon and uncommonly cruel form of dementia in March of 2014, I have shared much of my grief before my Facebook “friends.” One long essay, written at the end of 2014, I called, “The Year of Learning Things I did not Want to Know.” The response was voluminous and heartening; it became a chapter in Walking through Twilight: A Wife’s Illness—A Philosopher’s Lament. Many offered prayer, Scripture, general concern, and tangible help for me and Becky. A friend set up a Go Fund Me account. I try to do the same for my siblings in suffering by posting my reflections on our journey into the darkness of primary progressive aphasia. No one can serve my wife communion on Facebook. That requires being there with her. But this social medium may be used as a conduit for genuine love and service. For that, I am grateful to God.

The Soul in Cyberspace said little about commerce in cyberspace. Amazon.com came into existence in 1994, selling mostly books and CDs. I went on line in 1995 and had not used Amazon until 1999, two years after I wrote the book. Like many, I was at first reluctant to buy anything on line. It was too dangerous, I thought. Amazon has made shopping quick, easy, and, all-to-often, irresistible. It eliminates the middle man of a physical store. The shopping is done on line; the ordering is done at home. The selection is vast and ever-increasing. Like Facebook, it is a staple of my life. But what should we make of this behemoth with “the largest inventory on earth,” as it says?

Customers of Amazon can become critics of Amazon through its rating system. This feature of customer evaluation was dubbed Internet 2.0 a few years ago. This, for me, has become a literary template for my hundreds of my comments, mostly on books and music. There are the obligatory stars (which are too reductionist), the headline, and the discursive comments, which may become essays. I have found essays worthy of academic publication—along with the emotive drivel, grammatical chaos, and sheer inanity. Nevertheless, the customer’s words can add understanding to the product. They can do more. My reviews usually contain an apologetic undercurrent. Granted, this is not like publishing in The New Yorker, and I do not have a category on my academic resume for “Amazon Essays.” Still, some souls might benefit from them and I benefit from some of the reviews. Moreover, those suffering from, or enjoying, hypographia (a form of literary hypomania) have their outlet. (You can write reviews on YouTube as well, but most comments are more sewage than salt, and it may not be worth the wading through.)

The arms of Amazon reach further and further into the world. The most ominous development is the Amazon Echo, called Alexa, the digital version of the ancient mystical oracle. This personal assistant (a title we once used for mere humans only) uses voice recognition to answer questions, order items from Amazon, and more.  Amazon advertises its magic.

Just ask Alexa to check your calendar, weather, traffic, and sports scores, manage to-do and shopping lists, control your compatible smart lights, thermostats, garage doors, sprinklers, and more

Alexa is always getting smarter and adding new features and skills. Just ask Alexa to control your TV, request an Uber, order a pizza, and more.

Your interactions are recorded and kept somewhere in the Cloud. To that, I say that the convenience is not worth the possible surveillance. And might we talk more to a machine than to the mortals in our midst?

There are many more souls in cyberspace today than when I wrote The Soul in Cyberspace. It is heartening to see a good number of serious evaluations of this medium appear in the last ten years. Nevertheless, we ought to be diligent in asking how cyberspace affects our minds, manners, and morals. Therefore, we must test the medium and how it affects us. As Paul said, “Do not quench the Spirit. Do not treat prophecies with contempt but test them all; hold on to what is good, reject every kind of evil” (I Thessalonians 5:19-22).

Let Books be Books

Many books today seem afraid to rely on pure text. They are books that seem to be embarrassed to be what they are: books, that is, orderly collections of words formed into sentences and paragraphs.

Too many books are filled with one-sentence paragraphs (usually a sign of poor style and impatience), call-outs that repeat what is in smaller print elsewhere on the page (annoying), stand-alone call-outs with little connection to the flow of the text. I find disorienting. When do I read these rude interruptions? That is their context? We also find lists, bullet points (the bane of orderly discourse, but the balm of PowerPoint), and font variations. They are more like the children’s books of old.

This is enough to send me screaming to acres and acres of pure, small, hard text: Augustine’s The City of God or any book by Kierkegaard or Dostoevsky or even Being and Nothingness by Sartre! (But Heidegger’s Being and Time…don’t go there, although I own it.) These books require concentration, fixation, and focus. One cannot breeze through them. These works have heft; they must be mastered; they cannot be skimmed. I say: Let books be books!

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