Tuesday, September 16, 2014

The Technology of Prayer: There's An App for That

The question we repeatedly ask of new technologies is always the same: Does it make our lives better, or intrude on them?

With phones, for example, we love the accessibility of cellular, the ability to make a call from the road side if our tire goes flat. We hate it when a phone rings during a movie, or interrupting an important face-to-face conversation.

Perhaps more than any other aspect of our lives, new digital technologies have disrupted, or at least dramatically changed, the space and time we give to prayer.

No one has quiet time any more. All moments that used to be pauses are now potential space to check messages, make calls. The ubiquity of always on communication, as much of a blessing it is in some instances, does change the approach we take to God as the one to go to when all else falls away.

So what if we attempt to develop a digital technology that enhances and deepens the life of prayer. This is what a number of app developers have undertaken, and wisely, they approach the development of prayer apps with the approach to prayer that is most widely experienced: We ask others to pray for us, and we promise to pray for them.

But do we? And how do we?

So I took time this past week to research prayer apps on iTunes. There are a variety of them out there. Some of them are painfully inelegant. A few of them are expensive, or include in-app purchases and advertisements, something I despise. But I did find one app that met all my criterion: it is beautiful, simple, and helpful. It's called Echo.

Here are some screen shots.

First add your prayers or pray

OLTT is our catechumenate: the app scrolls through your prayers

Expand and edit your prayer list on the fly

Set a specific amount of time for prayer, then scroll through the prayers

Title your prayers, and add descriptive information
You can also set alerts so your phone reminds you to pray at certain times. I've already noticed I'm using this app as much or more than my social networking apps, and am regularly migrating prayer requests I receive by e-mail, Facebook, or in person, into Echo. This app is going to change how I pray.

If you aren't an app person, there are some other ways to improve the shape of your prayer life. One of my favorites is the Daily Prayer Office resource. This dynamic web site designs daily prayer offices for you each day. There is also a page in preferences that allows you to insert your own personal prayers into each of the offices.

Prayer, in whatever way you practice it, really includes a variety of technologies. To pray at specific times, you need a clock. To remember to pray, you need lists. To pray with the wider Christian community, you need prayer books, and liturgies. It is not a huge stretch to incorporate prayer into the technologies we are now regularly using, but it is enough of a stretch that we have to be intentional in our transitions and engagements.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Signs of Life in Christian Publishing (and Good News for Lutherans)

Christian publishing is changing about as fast as the publishing industry more generally, and for similar reasons. Access to resources has shifted on-line, and although publishing new media remains a layered endeavor (think of the St. John’s Bible in comparison to the NET Bible, as just one example of how publishing continues to employ both ancient and modern techniques), figuring out how to be profitable in a shifting media market is anything but simple.

What’s the joke? There are three ways to make money in publishing these days, and none of them work.

The Christian Century recently included an appeal to readers for contributions to keep the journal afloat. In the same editorial, the editor analyzed its decision-making process for how much of its content to provide free on-line before a “gate” goes up for paid content. He writes,

We have thought a lot about a question that all journals, from the New Yorker to the New York Times, must ponder: How much of the magazine should appear online, without cost to the reader? Currently, readers can freely access any three articles per month from the print edition. Our hope, of course, is that this taste of the magazine will be an inducement to read more and to subscribe, either in print or online. 
The Christian Century is unusual among print publications in that subscriptions account for 60 percent of our revenue (with advertising bringing in 19 percent of the total). Other publications depend on a much higher percentage of ad revenues. Many publications also rely on institutional financial backing or wealthy benefactors. We rely on you, our readers, to keep this enterprise viable by your contributions over and above the cost of a subscription. http://www.christiancentury.org/article/2014-08/reader-supported-journal

In the midst of all of this, I was pleased to read this update from Augsburg Fortress:

A few weeks ago, Publisher’s Weekly noted that bookstore sales (all categories) were down 7.9% in the first 6 months of the calendar year as compared to the same period in the year prior.  By comparison, Fortress Press sales through June were approximately 17% up as compared to the same period in the prior year! This is truly remarkable performance against the general retail book industry.  While not all of our FP sales go through retailers (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, independent bookstores, etc.) the vast majority do.

Anything about publishing ends up being about Amazon, because, for example, Publisher’s Weekly estimates a whopping 41% as the share of Amazon in total US book sales! Fortress Press matches the national total fairly closely.  

The publishing industry knows that building community around what they publish is an essential marketing strategy in a digital, social world. Look up any book on Amazon, and you learn this, with reader reviews and stars prominently displayed next to the books. 

One strategy Fortress Press implements includes building relationships with their customers by creating community around their titles.  They gather people into conversation about shared interests like teaching and learning or religion and theology. If you haven’t explored them recently, take a look at some of these creative Fortress Press community-building endeavors (if you are an advocate for another Christian publishing house, share some links with us of community-building resources these publishers are implementing):

• Seminarium blog (http://seminariumblog.org/)
• Fortress Press Forum on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/fortresspress)
• An active Twitter account (https://twitter.com/Fortresspress)
• Video interviews with FP authors and editors distributed via YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuWmNDaNLLDYNFa2EOTZx-g)
• And, behind the scenes interviews with FP staff (http://fortresspress.com/neilinterview/)


These are not the only signs of life in Christian publishing. There are many more, although the level of profitability remains to be seen. Podcasting has really taken off, with spectacular programs out there like Homebrewed Christianity and White Horse Inn

Patheos has positioned itself as a leader in on-line religious publishing, while prominent traditional Christian journals like Christianity Today and First Things continue to roll out excellent on-line content that supplements, replicates or expands their print issues. 

Then there's the bleeding edge in Christian publishing, the global app market. It's hard to filter down to the best, but some favorites include Accordance bible software, the Youversion Bible, and Prayer Notes Free

The largest traditional Christian publisher, by a considerable margin, is Thomas Nelson. Some readers may find this surprising, as the "big" name in Christian publishing is Group. However, Thomas Nelson has a unique history of acquisitions in the last century (Word Inc. etc.), plus the development of a self-publishing arm, not to mention the release of incredibly popular books like Heaven is for Real: A Little Boy's Astounding Story of His Trip to Heaven and Back and Jesus Calling: Enjoying Peace in His Presence that put six of its books on the New York Times Bestseller list the same week early in 2012. 

Then that same year HarperCollins acquired Thomas Nelson. It is intriguing the extent to which developments in Christian publishing go hand in hand with larger shifts in the industry as a whole (remember, for example, that Zondervan is owned by Rupert Murdoch, who also owns HarperCollins). 

A development somewhat opposite of these mergers is the spin-off of subdivisions of publishers to create space for diversified creativity and to reach new markets. Two of my favorite publishers of this type are Sparkhouse, and Brazos Press. Sparkhouse, part of Augsburg Fortress, publishes faith formation resources for children, youth, and adults, but in a way that sparks new life in Christian communities, especially through unique design and product development. Brazos, an imprint of Baker Academic, fosters the renewal of classical, orthodox Christianity by publishing thoughtful, theologically grounded books on subjects of importance to the church and the world. They serve authors and readers from all major streams of the historic Christian tradition, recognizing that the renewal of Christian orthodoxy transcends many traditional boundary lines and polarities.

One could argue the same is true of publishing more generally--the renewal of publishing will like transcend many traditional boundary lines and polarities. It's really a grand adventure.

Monday, September 08, 2014

Paul wrote love letters

I miss writing letters. Or maybe I miss receiving them. I've never been particularly great at the letter-writing genre. My hand-writing is lousy, and I think better while typing. So perhaps I should say I miss writing e-mails.

But mostly I don't even write e-mails anymore, except as the means to arrange meetings or send other basic types of information.

The kind of letters I miss are the ones my Grandma Johnson used to send me in college. They were long, loving, hand-written things, sometimes with newspaper clippings enclosed. There would be a breezy conversational opening, often something about the weather, that would then shift into something deeply philosophical, followed by a quote from a poem or Scripture, some words of advice, and expressions of love.

Very few letters from grandma were less than two precisely scripted pages front and back. I always learned something. Often I teared up. My grandma knew how to write letters.

I used to write e-mails that at least attempted something like the epistolary form. Prior to the existence of Facebook, thoughts and experiences would pile up long enough to warrant long letters home. One friend in particular, a former parishioner from Seattle and now a monk in Arizona, loved to write letters, and the two of us nurtured a close friendship over many years almost exclusively via letters.

A good letter is, above all, an act of love expressed at a distance.

I don't argue that similar things can't be accomplished with our new mediating forms. I've had chats via text that arguably are as philosophical as the collected correspondence of actual philosophers. And I've had read enough status updates from friends to know that we can really experience shared life together in shorter, ambient snips.

But I still miss the letter, and perhaps what I miss the most is the chance to read contemporary examples of literature that parallel the part of Scripture that is my favorite--Paul's epistles. Whenever I sit down to read Paul's letters, I'm once again and over and over amazed that there were communities of readers, small little enclaves, in remote places all over the Mediterranean to whom these strange and beautiful texts made sense.

I like to imagine the people who carried the letter. I am astounded by the expense involved in the materials to simply write a letter. I wonder at Paul's careful thought and prayerful meditation that led to the composition of texts so white-hot and fraught with import and faith.

I love the analysis. I love how we can't tell if he wrote all the letters ascribed to him, or whether epigones wrote some in imitation of his style or in honor of his name. Did he take on different voices when he wrote to different communities? Did he think of these letters as forming, eventually, a collection? How are they connected? Are they each occasional?

Did Paul really steal the gospel away from Jesus, like some contemporary theologians argue? Or is it more the case that he deepened and applied it?

But more than anything else, I simply love the fact that these are letters, written by a real man (with an anamneusis in most cases) to real people, specific communities. I love the individuality of them. The breadth of Romans. The sharp focus of Philemon. The sharpness of Galatians. The spiritual depth of Phillipians and Colossians.

And I love that although the letters do include direct instructions, sometimes even news, they actually also trust that people we write to actually want us to think fresh things, and write them down, to find fresh ways to express ancient impulses, that we love, and are beloved, and these pages between us are illustration of that.

If you're interested, we begin a series on the Letters of Paul at noon Wednesdays at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church here in Fayetteville.

For further reading:





Thursday, September 04, 2014

Hearthstone, Sentinels of the Multiverse, and Play: Faith is in the Cards

It started with Hearthstone. After a lengthy (twenty year) hiatus from role-playing or video game play, I've been back at it a bit. A friend sent me a link to the new strategy card-playing game that Blizzard, creators of World of Warcraft, had launched. Reminiscent of wildly popular deck-building games like Magic and Android Netrunner: The Card Game, the attractions of Hearthstone were many. It is free (although to move forward with better decks you have to grind a lot of games if you don't want to pay for upgrades); it is social, with opportunities to play against other live players; it is connected in concept to World of Warcraft, without requiring the same length of game-play and immersion.

After playing a few games, I was hooked, and pretty soon the kids were sitting on both sides of me encouraging us to play a Taunt, or cast a spell, or save a highly strategic card for a later hand. Suddenly, I had that dad moment when the kids are playing a dad game with dad!

So the son and I decided to port our strategy card-playing back into real life. We picked up a copy of Sentinels of The Multiverse Enhanced Card Game (2nd Edition) at the local gaming store, Gear, and spent an afternoon learning the rules. We spent a significant portion of our summer trip to Iowa playing Sentinels with anyone who would join us--my dad, my brother, other gullible souls.

Sentinels (http://sentinelsofthemultiverse.com) is what you call a co-op game. You play cooperatively with the other players against a common enemy or scenario. In this way Sentinels is different than games like Hearthstone or Magic or Netrunner, all of which pit players against each other. In the case of Sentinels, all the players play a deck of hero cards against the game itself, which has a deck of villain cards. One additional deck, the environment deck, creates the context or arena in which the heroes do battle with the villain.

So what is up with gaming? Why invest time and energy in it? Perhaps I have no better explanation than it is what a lot of us do in mid-life, we revivify interests from earlier in life. I played some AD&D when I was in high school, and loved Shadowrun when I was in college. I played a lot of video games, especially the role-playing kinds (Bard's Tale, anyone?). And I've always loved comic book heroes. So Sentinels is a modern day mashup of all of these.

Additionally, it's a way to play together that isn't on a computer, and isn't a first-person shooter. As fascinated as I am by the art and story-line of games like Bioshock or Skyrim, in the end all the grinding and killing bores me a bit. Card and board games are, in this sense, more capacious and enjoyable, at least for me.

My only issue with those early RPGs was the time involved. A session could last an entire Friday evening and well into the wee hours of the morning (like cricket).

Recent popular games from Germany and France like Settlers of Catan, Agricola, Carcassone, Ticket to Ride, etc. have acknowledged that most gamers don't have hours and hours to invest, so they design games that last, on average, about an hour to 90 minutes. Sentinels follows this pattern.

So, as much as I am keeping an eye on how games may emerge as the next great art form that can communicate faith and the depth of human life in the way other great art like cinema and music do (see, for example, http://www.gamespot.com/articles/having-faith-in-your-games/1100-6338734/), I'm genuinely more interested in simply playing games because I enjoy them, and I think they expand my imaginative horizons.

I should also say, my best friend gave me the assignment to play more, and to play more with others. This was a good assignment to be given. It's one of the reasons I've started trying to connect with the community gaming already happening here in Fayetteville. It's a fast-growing industry. We have at least three locations here in Fayetteville for cooperative and RPG type games, and additionally, Barnes and Nobles and other stores host regular table-top game nights. It's a very different sub-culture, and a chance to meet people in town I might not otherwise meet (full geek hipster confession, I've also started playing more disc golf, and for similar reasons).

I know that increasing numbers of philosophers and educational thinkers are considering the ramifications of game theory and "gamification" for education and business contexts. I'm surprised by the paucity of reflection on gaming as it relates to the life of faith. Perhaps we are all still recovering from the embarrassing period in the 80s and 90s when Christians erroneously conflated role-playing games with the occult (presumably said gamers listening to lots of Beatles and Led Zeppelin backwards while gaming).

So although there are plentiful resources designed to aid Christian reflection on film and literature, there is very little written anywhere that intentionally thinks through the faith aspects of gaming, video or otherwise.

This is problematic, for two reasons. First, it is a problem because gaming has now surpassed the music industry in its scope and size, and is on the way to being a larger industry than the movie industry. If there is considerable reflection to be done on film and music, certainly people of faith can and should have something to say about games.

Second, it is a problem because perhaps it indicates that faith communities have themselves forgotten that the life of church is like a game. It is a form of play. Like Sentinels, in worship each person takes up a deck of cards and learns their role. Ideally, everyone at the table is intrinsically inspired to be there, they take on the challenge of learning the rules, engaging the game, because they have imaginatively entered a shared world with others they desire to inhabit.

To pray, you have to role-play. There's no other way. It is a serious form of pretend. You talk to someone who doesn't talk back... and yet there isn't silence on the other end. The rules of engagement are not a burden but the context that creates the space for joy.

And so on. I need to invest some more time riffing on worship as play, Christian community as gaming, in order to get my mind and heart around the concept a bit more. In my admittedly limited experience, I find that the gaming community isn't necessarily the most engaged in church, and I almost feel like perhaps gaming is it's own kind of church, a sub-culture with its own liturgy and form of life.

In the meantime, I would love to gather more resources around Christianity and gaming, and hear from readers where they see God in games, or how they reflect on worship as play. And as a geek, I also just want to hear what your favorite games are, and why you play them!