Thursday 31 March 2011

We are all indebted!

We are all familiar with debt. All of us, at some time, owe something to someone. It may be money, respect, reparation, or a favour. We are all indebted!

In nations like Australia, financial debt is normal and expected. Most people, including Christians, take on debt at some point. Given its ubiquity, it is important to step back and consider debt and its place in our lives. Issue 26 of Case magazine tackles this tricky subject.

Our lead article, by Australian economists, Gordon Menzies and Susan Thorp, opens the discussion by looking at household debt and its impact on people’s life choices and opportunities. Drawing on biblical socio-economic principles, they ask whether Christians ought to have a different attitude to personal debt than that of the world. Godly wisdom is required to answer the question ‘How much debt is OK?’ We must recognise that God owns all of creation, that generosity is required in our stewardship of resources, and that we have a responsibility to work.

Paul Mills frames his contribution with two seemingly contradictory pieces of biblical advice. Are we to emulate the birds of the air who store nothing and are fed by their heavenly Father (Matt 6:19, 26), or the ants who slave away to store up provisions for a rainy day (Prov 6:6-8)? How do we reconcile these two pieces of advice?

Mills traces these two themes through the Bible, examining the warnings against the accumulation of wealth (‘the long-run return on worldly savings is worse than non-existent’!), as well as the recommendations of financial prudence. Neither extreme is feasible for the Christian at the expense of the other, yet some workable resolution of the tension must be reached. Through a study of the contexts in which the two streams of biblical teaching are found, Mills argues that a diversity of views may be exactly what God intended, and that the appropriate ‘attitude to wealth depends on the Christian’s situation and calling’. We should trust in God and show wisdom and prudence with what God gives us.

Development economist Catherine de Fontenay widens the scope from personal finance to the international sphere, as she considers the pros and cons of debt forgiveness for highly indebted poor countries. Drawing on the Jewish practice of the Jubilee year and Jesus’ teaching about giving, as well as the practicalities and politics of international finance, she considers whether debt forgiveness is something Christians should support, and if so, how? There is also an exploration of other avenues that may be effective in relieving the suffering of countries struggling with debts.

Ben Gooley provides us with an insightful article on the nature and impact of consumerism. Consumerism carries in it a radical individualism that runs counter to the character of God. The quest for self-identity through ‘things’ has no basis in our relationship with a God who created us in his image. He argues that while creation is good and consumption as part of it may be good, this goodness get twisted when it fails to reflect the plans and purposes of God. Advertising promotes discontent and a sense of scarcity despite the abundance of goods around us. True freedom, contentment and identity are ‘found not in autonomy, but in Christ’ and a life consistent with the nature and purpose God has given us.

While we typically think of debt as money or assets owed, it can also refer to moral obligations, such as the debt we owe God as a result of our sin. In our final article, David Höhne parallels this idea of moral indebtedness to God with the economist’s understanding of financial debt as exemplified in the five maxims of Stephen Levitt’s well-known book 'Freakonomics'. Höhne suggests that in each case a failure to acknowledge and squarely face our debts can lead to disaster – a global financial crisis (GFC) when we attempt to distance ourselves from financial debt, and God’s condemnation when we misrepresent our indebtedness to God.

Our 26th issue of Case is completed with two excellent reviews. Craig Josling reviews 'Jesus and Money' by Ben Witherington III, a book that offers a comprehensive picture of the Bible’s teaching on money. Its purpose is to challenge our self indulgent living and to critique the ‘prosperity gospel’ as unbiblical. Mark Lewis reviews Jack Cashill’s book ‘Popes and Bankers. A cultural history of credit and debt from Aristotle to AIG’. This book examines the Judeo-Christian opposition to usury and debt, the role it played in the creation of market-based economies, and how that opposition came to be replaced by acceptance.

Want to become a CASE associate?

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You can also purchase single issues of Case magazine from the CASE website (HERE)

Friday 25 March 2011

A Phone App to Help Students & Academics

This post is for anyone who ever has to write a paper or publication that requires references, or who wants an easy way to save book bibliographic information.  A new smartphone application makes it very easy to cite books.

The app is called 'Quick Cite' and costs 99 cents. It is available for iPhones and Android-based phones. The phone needs to have an inbuilt camera. For the iPhone all you need to do is point the phone at the bar code on the back of a book and once the camera locks in on the code it takes a photo, creates the bibliographic reference and emails it to you in one of four citation styles—APA, MLA, Chicago, or IEEE. You can choose the style you want and the email address to receive the reference.

The app was developed by a team of seven Canadian students who tried to develop seven apps in seven days at the University of Waterloo. They called their project 'Seven Cubed'. Quick Cite took them eight hours to develop.

The app has a couple of minor drawbacks.  First, the use of barcodes only became standard publishing practice in the 1970s, but most of the books we usually cite will have barcodes. Second, it doesn't seem to work that well with literature and some non-fiction books, particularly if they are more than 10 years old. In the case of children's literature, the barcodes often don't lead to a citation. A third minor glitch is that sometimes the place of publication is missing. Hopefully, the developers will iron out these problems, but they may just reflect issues with barcode use, particularly for older books.

The many uses for the app should be obvious. Students and academics can quickly scan the barcode and have the full citation in seconds ready to be copied and dropped into a publication.  As well, it is a perfect way to record the details of books used in libraries, new books seen at bookshops and so on.

At 99 cents this is amazing value. I've already been putting the app to good use. Now any time I see an interesting book I can scan the citation details in an instant.

You can buy the app via iTunes HERE.

Thursday 17 March 2011

Raising Boys Sights Above the Gross & Violent

In an article in the Wall Street Journal (24th Sept 2010) Thomas Spence suggested that if we want to teach boys to read, we should avoid "gross-out books and video-game bribes". We know that the difference between boys and girls in reading ability reflects an earlier start with language than boys and the fact that boys don't read enough. The question is why don't many boys seem to like reading as much as girls and what can we do about it? Spence lays the blame at the feet of video games and a diet of reading that is based on gross topics. He writes:
"One obvious problem with the SweetFarts philosophy of education is that it is more suited to producing a generation of barbarians and morons than to raising the sort of men who make good husbands, fathers and professionals. If you keep meeting a boy where he is, he doesn't go very far."

While, we can't simply blame the sins of a generation of boys on reading the wrong books and playing too many video games, Spence puts his finger on a key issue in the raising of boys. His comments resonate with some thoughts expressed by C.S. Lewis in his book 'The Abolition of Man'.

"St Augustine defines virtue as ordo amoris, the ordinate condition of the affections in which every object is accorded that kind of degree of love which is appropriate to it. Aristotle says that the aim of education is to make the pupil like and dislike what he ought. When the age for reflective thought comes, the pupil who has been thus trained in 'ordinate affections' or 'just sentiments' will easily find the first principles in Ethics; but to the corrupt man they will never be visible at all and he can make no progress in that science. Plato before him had said the same. The little human animal will not at first have the right responses. It must be trained to feel pleasure, liking, disgust, and hatred at those things which really are pleasant, likeable, disgusting and hateful."

The comments of Spence are probably a little unfair to the many authors who seek to engage boys with topics that focus on topics like gory death, macabre crimes, weird and unusual life forms etc? The philosophy of writers for boys like Raymond Bean who writes Sweet Farts, R.L. Stines who writes 'Goosebumps', and Terry Deary and others who write 'Horrible Histories' is to shock boys and to appeal to their interest in death, bodily functions, horror, blood and so on. Their overall aim (beyond selling books) is of course to get boys reading.

While the 'Butt' books by Andy Griffiths (and others) with titles like 'Zombie Butts from Uranus', seem to hit a fairly low mark in terms of linguistic complexity and their banality of plot that I'm not keen to see children read, there are other books like 'Horrible Histories' the work of authors like Dahl and others that have a place. Writing about gross or sensational topics can be done well or poorly. In limited quantities they can be helpful in motivating reading. The key is to make sure that this isn't all that boys read; that boys have their literary horizons expanded.

As Paul wrote to the Church in Philippi, we are to fill our minds with good things that will move us to worship God and serve others. We are to encourage our children to do likewise.
"Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things." Philippians 4:8
How can we use books and reading to train and mature the affections of the child?

The reading of literature as well as the Bible is a key way that we train the hearts of our children. Books give us opportunity to talk with our children about life; including their fears, hopes, desires, frailties, prejudices and so on. The more you can involve yourself in your children's early literacy experiences the better. Here are 6 things pieces of advice that might help.

1. Fathers and mothers need to work hard at listening to and reading with their sons. Share the experience of reading with your children. Read to them and with them as they grow older. I've written a post on my 'Literacy, Families & Learning' blog about how to do this (here).

2. If your boys find it hard to concentrate on books, tell them stories. You don't have to be a great storyteller, start by telling them about your childhood memories, your interests, real life stories etc.

3. Fathers or another adult male role model should have a key role in any boys' early literacy and learning development. Stretch the interests of your sons rather than trying to constantly appeal to their gross instincts.

4. Boys need help choosing books that they will not only like, but which they will be able to read. Take the time to help them. If they pick up a book with an exciting cover and find that they can't read it, this will be a disincentive. This will help to expand your boy's reading horizons.

5. The writers who are into 'gross' or unusual topics know that boys are more likely to be pick up books and read them when the books and the reading events offer opportunities to discover, experiment, explore, learn new things, laugh, consider the curious or unusual, help them to play, see how things work, share trivia, tricks and facts with other boys, explore the unknown, and generally do interesting things.

6. Read the Bible with your children from the first year of life. Make it interesting and exciting not a chore.

Other related posts I've written

'The Redemption of Children's Literature' (HERE)
Thomas Spence, 'How to Raise Boys Who Read - Hint: Not with gross-out books and video-game bribes', Wall Street Journal, 24th Sept, 2010 (HERE)
Post on 'Boys and Reading Success: Get them Reading' (HERE)
'Getting Boys into Reading Through Fiction' (HERE)
'Getting Boys into Reading Through Non-Fiction' (HERE)
'The importance of reading to and with your children' (HERE)
'Twelve great books for boys' (HERE)

Thursday 10 March 2011

The Impact of the Internet on Learning, Truth and Communication

I wanted to remind readers of this blog of the many resources on the CASE website. Many of the articles, MP3s and even videos are available free. While you need to be a CASE Associate to access everything you might want to check the site out. Below is an extract from an article I wrote for Case # 15 (2008) theme 'Communicate, Cyberspace and Community' which is part of the free resources.

It is indisputable that the Internet has changed the way most people obtain information and communicate with one another. But there are many questions about where it might take us. In particular, I have been contemplating how the Internet impacts on the knowledge we gain from it and the way we view the nature of truth. Does it privilege particular views of the world and specific epistemologies? Does it serve the needs of particular interpretive communities more than others?

I don’t raise these questions as one who fears technology, nor do I raise them with any sense that I know the answers with any certainty. I raise these questions as a constant user of the Internet who wants to understand how it is changing our world. I have been using email for more than 20 years as a daily part of my life; I carry a BlackBerry and can browse the Internet while walking in the street; I write three blogs and read many others; I use the Internet as a constant and valuable resource. I know the wonderful benefits of the Internet and the many positive things it offers. But I also have a concern about the impact it has on my life and on the lives of others.

In one sense, the Internet poses no more problems for Christianity than the cinema, television, radio or even the printed word in all its forms. The Internet is just a tool, like the book and the DVD. The Russian psychologist Lev Vygotsky argued that tools are the means by which we understand the world. We have access to material tools that help us to accomplish tasks (e.g. a screwdriver, pencil, computer) as well as psychological tools that enable us to understand our world (e.g. words, letters and numerals). Mathematics and language as symbolic systems are broad examples of psychological tools. Hence, the Internet like other tools is simply a means to understand the world. 

Like other tools the Internet (by which I mean the electronic network that allows us to exchange data in varied forms including social networks, communication tools, web-based resources, sound and video archives etc) is used as an extension of cultural groups (e.g. the family, school, church etc) and its use as a psychological and material tool is learnt in these groups. Much of this occurs with no formal instruction. The tools we use reflect the social and cultural groups in which we live and they are applied as we interact with others. Vygotsky argued that tools mediate our thoughts and actions. With Vygotsky’s concept of the ‘tool’ as background it is worth reflecting on the Internet as an example of a tool. Is the use of the Internet as our primary tool for communication and learning different from the use of books, telephones, letters, and face-to-face communication? The answer I think is yes! But does it matter? Well, it might. There are three key differences between the Internet and other tools for learning and communication that I consider in the article:

a) It is used as part of different, more complex and more changeable interpretive communities,
b) It uses many more modalities for communication in much more interactive ways and with little face-to-face human contact.
c) It provides a much richer tapestry of semiotic opportunities and as such offers a less dominant place to the written word.

I conclude my article with these words:
As we confront our postmodern and sceptical world we need to understand that the Internet can be friend and foe, slave or master. We need to use it as a window on our world and engage with cyber communities for the sake of the gospel. Not in silos of common and accepted beliefs, ideology, culture and a uniform worldview, hoping for the lost to stumble in. Rather, we need to seek out communities of common interest based on common human needs and concerns. We need to approach cyber communities like physical communities: we can be in them without necessarily sharing the same worldview. While there is still a place for Christian communities of interest on the Internet, we need to get beyond an ‘echo chamber’ experience. The Internet has many self-referential communities of interest that are simply silos of like-minded people who hardly make contact with others who hold different worldviews.

You can download the article HERE, view other resources HERE, or simply visit the CASE website HERE.  

You can read all my posts on the Internet and communication HERE (most recent to oldest).

Thursday 3 March 2011

Indebtedness: What the Bible has to Say About Debt & Saving

Issue 26 of Case magazine will tackle the tricky subject of money, and in particular, 'debt'. Our lead article in the issue has been written by Dr Paul Mills an economist who has worked in London and Washington on global financial stability. He frames his contribution to Case with two seemingly contradictory pieces of biblical advice:

"Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth ... Look at the birds of the air: they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them." Matthew 6:19, 26

"Go to the ant, you sluggard; consider its ways and be wise! ... it stores its provisions in summer and gathers its food at harvest." Proverbs 6:6-8

He writes:
Which is the more 'spiritual' province of the animal kingdom – the 'birds of the air' who trust in Providence, or the ants who make provision for the future? The question sounds frivolous, but it highlights one of the most difficult issues that each Christian must address when applying biblical teaching to everyday life – just how much wealth is it right for me to own? The dilemma arises because the Bible contains two strands of teaching on the subject that seem to run counter to one another. For instance, Jesus explicitly enjoins his followers not to accumulate treasure on earth (Mt 6:19); yet elsewhere the Scriptures commend prudent foresight and the responsible stewardship of possessions.

Given the prominence of this seeming paradox, one might have anticipated that Christians would be well versed in its practical resolution. However, while the issue of the personal ownership of wealth has provoked heated debate throughout the church's history, it is now largely ignored by Western Christians.

We have been infected with the mores of our age that regard personal finance as too sensitive a matter to be broached outside the confines of the cash dispensing confessional. It is only on the question of giving that the Christian can be guaranteed frequent financial instruction!

In this thought provoking article, he argues that:
  • The foundation of the Scriptures’ misgivings about the ownership of wealth is that material possessions are an idol competing with the true God for our worship. As Jesus said "No-one can serve two masters." (Matt 6:24a)
  • Wealth is a barrier to faith in providence.
  • Wealth is deceitful and fails to deliver on its promises.
  • In spiritual terms, "the long-run return on worldly savings is worse than non-existent". Wealth is a bad eternal investment!

But the above is not to suggest that saving is wrong, just that we need a proper attitude towards saving, and a right view of the purpose of such savings. He concludes:
"Both the 'birds of the air' and the ant teach valuable spiritual lessons. The Christian is both to trust God wholly for material security and to be ready to save prudently when the circumstances require it."

Contents of Case # 26

The articles that address the theme include:

'Faith prudence? Christians and financial security' - Dr Paul Mills
'Christians and Personal Debt' - Gordon Menzies & Susan Thorp
'The Disastrous Distancing of Debt' - David Höhne
'Debt Forgiveness for Countries: What is our framework?' - Catherine de Fontenay
'How Our Understanding of God Helps Shape a Response to Consumerism' - Ben Gooley

CASE Associates should receive their copies of Case #26 in 2-3 weeks.

You can purchase single issues of Case Magazine from the CASE website (HERE) or become a CASE Associate and receive four editions each year for $55 as an individual. There are specific deals for Christian schools, churches, students and institutions (HERE).