3 Dec 2012

Happy Xmas One and All!

It seems that every season of the year has its own bespoke news story. Early May to mid July witnesses a barrage of stories about airline safety as kind of media bon voyage to thousands of holidaymakers who will in turn listen to every creak and groan of their tour operator-maintained aircraft with barely suppressed horror. August carries the perennial debate about A-level standards, and from mid-September stories begin to circulate about an Ice Age-like winter which lies ahead of the embattled citizens of the United Kingdom.

And then there's Christmas, and the steady stream of stories from both sides of the divide about secularising a Christian season. 'Festive Felicitations' or some other such politically correct and lyrically vapid proclamation will be witnessed on the corporate Christmas card of an obscure town council, and Christian/non-Christian commentators will aver that such an act of secularism could in fact sink 2000 years worth of Christian theology and practice forever.

And so we roll into December again - Classic FM has got bells on, shopping centres have become a mustering point for the distracted and distressed, huge tins of Quality Street are widely retailing at less than £5, incomprehensible adverts for perfume are everywhere - and thus the time will surely soon be here when the secular/sacred debate can emerge from the attic for another year of lustreless display.

But let me lay one old chestnut to rest for good - that of Happy Xmas.

As a child the employment of 'Xmas' on a card, in a shop catalogue, or on the windows of a family home was an act of cultural and spiritual vandalism - taking, as it did, 'Christ out of Christmas'. Such strong reactions continue to this day, with many fellow evangelicals taking serious issue with the Xmas rendering - as recently as 2005 Franklin Graham described the use of Xmas as a 'war against the name of Jesus Christ'.

But history appears to suggest an entirely different background to the use of this particular term. Xmas dates as far back as the early Medieval period, where the Greek letter chi (which strongly resembles our letter 'x' when not transliterated),the first letter of Christ's name Χριστός, was used as a short hand for Christ. So, from the perspective of history, the X was used to refer to Jesus in the midst of festivities, rather than to remove him from it.

Amazing what a little bit of history can tell you, isn't it?

It turns out that it was the Greek, and not the Grinch, who stole Christmas.

I'm still not any kind of fan of 'Xmas' as a term, but if any of my atheistically minded friends do wish to send me a card with this wording (perhaps as a misguided attempt at subverting the season) then I would welcome your correspondence most warmly. It would bless me to see you engage with New Testament languages (albeit at an elementary level), and to see you willingly put the cross back into Christmas.

For the rest of us, it might be a case of simply keeping calm and getting on with celebrating this particular (ahem) mass together.

4 Nov 2012

A prayer before preaching

Lord take these fragments
And make them fragrant.

Lord, take the victories,
Defeats,
Distractions
And devotion of this week
And work through my failing efforts.

Lord take the words from this page,
These thoughts and prayers,
This exposition and application
And fill our company
Fill our hearts and lives,
With the certainty of your Truth-speaking.

Lord take us,
A body of broken believers,
Beleaguered by the realities of a broken world,
Tempted
Stretched
Frustrated with ourselves,
With our sin
With our setting in a planet of terrible beauty,
And grant us life from Christ,
That we might live for Christ.

Lord bless me,
Bless your people,
Bless us,
In spite of us,
And magnify Your name,
For Your own sake,
In the worship of your people.

1 Nov 2012

Guest Post from Darren McGuicken: A Kindle Paperwhite Review Which Does Not Mention The iPad (But Instead Mentions The Nook) AKA: Why e-Reader Reviews Are Generally Useless


For the first time ever we have a guest post on Double Usefulness. My good friend Darren McGuicken kindly agreed to write a review of his brand-new-out-of-the-box Kindle Paperwhite. In my opinion what follows is a very helpful guide to what the new Kindle offers and how it compares with previous manifestations. Thanks a million Darren!

Many of the latest reviews of e-ink devices, contrary to their focus back when the technology was new and more obviously entirely magical, tend to spend their time on the differentiation between e-readers and tablets.  The conclusions usually suggest that yes, an e-ink display is a nice thing in general and probably easier on the eyes than something backlit, but that if you want games, film, or other media as well (implication: and you’d be mad not to) then it’s still worth paying the extra (implication: and potentially not much extra) and going for a ‘full tablet’, as though that was secretly your goal all along.

This review is similarly biased, and assumes that you are already convinced of the merits of e-ink and are more interested in whether this particular e-ink based device is for you or a worthy upgrade if you already possess one.

My own Paperwhite arrived from the US Amazon store (via these nice people, following this handy process) the week before it was announced as a pre-order on the UK Amazon store and as of this review I’ve had exactly seven days to play with it.

As an aside for those wondering if a US order is still worthwhile, and taking into account the final customs duty, US sales tax, delivery costs etc. I incurred, a US-ordered Kindle plus official leather cover worked out no cheaper overall than would the same items ordered from the UK today. Additionally, my version comes with ‘Special Offers’, ads, while the standard UK version does not.  Any actually useful offers you might see will be US-only anyway and not available in the UK if clicked-through.

I was upgrading from a first generation Barnes & Noble Nook (again a US order since it never materialised in the UK, unlike the latest models) which was both lovely and loved and had some real genre-busting features.  The most impressive of which was how it got around the lack of a touch-screen interface for its e-ink display by introducing a swipeable and prodable LCD strip below the e-ink which configured itself into a set of context-aware buttons depending on whether you were reading a book, viewing the homescreen, or making use of an ‘app’ such as the in-built web browser or others available from third parties.

This was an intuitive and inventive solution to a problem which other contemporary e-readers either had to solve using physical keyboards or eventually, much later, with low-resolution and high-sensitivity infra-red The Nook approach seemed like something from a much more advanced device in comparison but it did significantly impact battery life and its software was always a little unstable, with reboots and crashes coming fairly frequently.

The actual e-ink display on the Nook was great.  All e-ink was and is awe-inspiring, even to the tech geeks amongst, maybe especially to us, since we’re used to the usual slight-disappointment that new technology can bring (it never really looks like it does on TV, not in real life, not when used by pesky humans).  e-Ink, on the other hand, really was as new and different as it claimed.  The static-screen effect, the ‘that’s just a sticker, peel it off and turn the thing on so I can see what it actually looks like’ effect, was startling at the time.

One downside of e-ink for both the Nook and its competitors was a very grey overall tinge to the display, something that continues with many current devices, which produced an overall image maybe a bit too dull when used indoors or away from a good light source.  That was really just the flipside of its main benefit, since in bright sunlight it excelled, and if needing a lamp to read indoors when it got darker was its failure then it was still exactly the same experience as owning a real book.

The Nook also made up for whatever resolution failings it may have had (even modern implementations of e-ink aren’t particularly high DPI) through good use of font selection and presentation.  The Amasis font in particular gave a very nice book-like typeface which imparted a quality feel to the ‘print’ which other devices of its era didn’t necessarily care about, using e-ink optimised generic serif and sans-serif fonts that still looked quite computerlike.

A further aside: low resolution e-ink devices just don’t seem to look as bad as low-resolution LCD.  Some combination of the physical properties of e-ink screens and the much higher contrast of backlit LCD mean that ‘jaggies’ are much more apparent and much more intrusive on the latter.

What does any of this have to do with the Kindle?  Well, the Nook is my only real long-term experience of e-readers and in many ways as an instance of their kind it was ahead of its time.  The new Kindle is the first all-in-one package e-reader that seems to be genuinely worth an upgrade in comparison.

Why?

Like the Nook, the interface on the new Kindle is now responsive enough that it can be tweaked depending on context, and in this implementation it’ll do so on the main e-ink screen instead of on a separate, dedicated LCD strip.  So the home screen now shows a handy cover view of your books, which makes swiping through your archive in search of something much quicker than having to parse dense lists of full-text titles.
Like the Nook, the touchscreen of that new interface is very responsive, finally making use of a true capacitative layer, as would a tablet.  It can also happily therefore only be triggered by your fingers and not by random detritus falling on it, unlike an infra-red solution.  The responsiveness of the touchscreen is far superior to anything else I’ve seen on similar devices, acting exactly as it would on your smartphone or tablet, and when combined with the increasing use of only partial screen wipes or page fades (until enough e-ink debris builds up) gives a much more eye-friendly overall effect than when earlier devices used full wipes for each screen transition.  Transition speeds themselves don’t seem to be significantly improved over the prior generation of Kindle.

Like the Nook, there are a selection of fonts available, including the excellent Baskerville, a font often used in honest-to-goodness Real Pulp™ devices.  As the resolution increases in e-readers there is less of a dependency on specially crafted fonts to hide the failings of the display and more options become available to make your experience as booklike as possible.  Other reviewers don’t necessarily believe that the new suite of fonts are optimised enough for the display, that the e-ink originated fonts look better than the perhaps ‘too thin for the resolution’ implementations of the other fonts on offer which still show the limits of the screen.  From my own experience, and at ten chapters into the Silmarillion with the font set to a small sized Baskerville, I think the overall look is great, and now much closer to an actual paperback in the hand.
Unlike the Nook… the new Kindle has a couple of additional interesting tricks.

The lighting. You already know about the Paperwhite effect, and I can confirm that it really does add a clarity and a contrast to the screen in daylight conditions which, when played with and adjusted for the specific ambient light, can produce a very papery look to the screen.  Set alongside an actual paper book’s page you can see that it has much the same effect on the eyes.

In darkness, the brightness can be reduced right down to something that’s easy enough to look at, while keeping the text legible, to allow you to keep reading without needing a lamp.  As Amazon themselves are now trying to make clear though, the lighting effect is not completely even across the bottom of the screen, the light itself clearly emitting from five discrete points along the bottom edge, giving a ‘searchlight’ type effect pointing up onto the screen.  The darker the conditions, the more obvious this becomes. 

I don’t find that this is really noticeable when reading, or when the light is being used to provide greater contrast rather than as the sole or primary source of illumination, but it will irritate some people and is definitely worth investigating before you run out and buy one.

In darkness the ‘frontlit’ effect is also a little more odd looking, vaguely ghostly.  More like the effect given by glow-in-the-dark paint, albeit at a much higher potential brightness, or as though there is a light source somewhere in the room which is reflecting off the page, no matter how you orient it.

The light is also always turned on when the device is active, even when set to its lowest level, which wouldn’t ordinarily be visible except in darkness.  It’s only truly turned off when the device is locked.  
I’ve only charged the device once since its arrival and even after a week of mostly evening reading I’m still on more than three quarters of a charge, so battery impact doesn’t yet seem to be an issue as a result.

‘X-Ray’ is also a new and entirely welcome feature, in which concepts or characters or places are called out in an overlay which can be accessed from the new top-menu.  Each entry is given a blurb (coming from Wikipedia and similar sources), potentially explaining who a given character is, any important physical characteristics, along with a timeline showing their appearances in the book as well as a list of every instance in which that character, place or concept is mentioned.

This, like the in-built dictionary available in previous generations, keeps you much closer to the text you’re reading if you need to look something up, rather than having you hop back and forward in the same book, or to leave one book for another, or even to jump into a separate web browser and away from the book entirely.

The software on the device also seems robust in a way that the Nook was not.  Although this again is probably no strangeness to those already used to more modern devices.

e-Readers will never have the same tactility as an actual tree-innards book, something with good quality paper, with that smell, with that texture…  However those are features for the fetishist, not the reader.  Those of us who love books will and should continue to buy books.  Those of us who love to read are well served by the portability and accessibility to content that an e-reader brings, even if it’s as an addition to books which are collected physically as a luxury.  The Kindle Paperwhite is the best e-ink based reader that I’ve seen.

The screen is great, the touch interface is great, and all the differences and additional features are definitely for the better, but I don’t believe that if you already have a recent e-reader that the difference is so great that you should trade it in for this one.  When or if that device breaks or if you’re already a couple of generations behind, or looking for something which better integrates with Amazon and your existing cloud of purchases (or access to the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library, finally available internationally), then this is a fantastic device and in my opinion well worth the money.

29 Oct 2012

Notes from a Well Worn Bible Pt.1

Perhaps it's because I'm in pastoral work, but very often when a relative dies I am bequeathed their old Bible. It's a privilege to own so many of these family heirlooms, and a joy to read through the notes and quotes which are often recorded in them. Recently I've been looking through some old Bibles and thought it might make a nice occasional series here on the blog to share some of the things which my forebears have thought worthy of writing down in their walk with God. In an age where more and more people are defaulting to electronic Bibles, it is refreshing to encounter the physical form of Bibles long loved and much used by generations which have gone before: and perhaps there is a warning there for those of us of the Kindle/iPad generation about how much we can leave behind of our online existence.

There's an old adage that says 'a Bible that's falling apart is normally owned by someone who isn't'. I trust that the notes and quotes contained in this series might be proof of that, and a means of encouragement to anyone who calls by this blog.

The first note from a well worn Bible which I want to record comes from my Great Uncle Jack's daily reading Bible. Uncle Jack went to be with Christ some years ago, and his widow, Aunt Molly, just passed away last summer (I had the privilege of conducting her funeral service). Theirs was a life of quiet but heroic faith. They lost their daughter Mary just moments after she was born (in the days when parents did not get to spend time with the child they had lost) and their son, Cecil, died in his late teens. In the wake of such tragedy Uncle Jack and Aunt Molly held on to God, and set an example of what it is to trust Him, even when we don't understand His ways.

Below are the words of a hymn (it is written by Joseph Parker) which Uncle Jack had hand-written and kept inside his Bible: it contains rich and helpful truth in the midst of adversity:

God holds the key to all unknown,
And I am glad.
If other hands should hold the key,
Or if he trusted it to me
I might be sad.

What if tomorrow's cares were here without its rest?
I'd rather He unlocked the day
And as the hours swing open, say:
"My will is best".

The very dimness of my sight
makes me secure;
For groping in my misty way
I feel His hand, I hear Him say
"My help is sure"

I cannot read His future plans;
But this I know:
I have the smiling of His face,
And all the refuge of His grace
While here below.

Enough: this covers all my wants;
And so I rest!
For what I cannot, He can see
And in His care I saved shall be,
Forever blest.

12 Oct 2012

The good is oft interred with their bones: some thoughts on the Jimmy Savile Scandal

Jim'll Fix It was staple viewing when I was growing up, and how could it not be? The idea of people, often children, being able to write in to the BBC and have their wishes granted was spellbinding. I can't remember if I ever wrote in to the show, but I know that I had a wishlist of things I would like granted. Jimmy Savile was like a tracksuit and jewellery bedecked Santa Claus figure, with seemingly limitless powers in granting wishes. I had no knowledge of his previous life and work as a Top of the Pops presenter or disc jockey, to many in my generation he was simply a kind of fairy godfather, albeit with a highly annoying voice (was an adult really allowed to sport a cigar while presenting children's TV during my childhood?).

Now the reputation of Jimmy Savile lies in ruins and nothing, it appears, will be able to fix that. Numerous allegations are emerging of serious sexual crimes against children and young people, spanning a sickeningly long period of time. While nothing has as a yet been 'proven', it appears from statements from Metropolitan police spokespeople that there is substance to the charges now being levelled at the late TV personality. What lies behind this story may be yet more interesting, with allusions to institutional cover-ups and complicit onlookers who knew exactly what was going on.

It appears that Shakespeare's Mark Antony was correct in stating that 'The evil that men do lives after them. The good is oft interred with their bones'. And it is precisely this issue which seems to most befuddle and perplex the pundits and commentators who are relaying this story to us. Savile is dead, and will now never have to face the inevitable arrest and investigation which would have befallen him had he lived longer. The frustration that this element of the story engenders is palpable, and has found some bizarre expressions, both in media and the real world. Prominent charities which bore his name have now severed any links with Savile, his iniquitously huge headstone has been removed and will now be consigned to landfill, and there have even been rumours of his body being exhumed (it is buried at a 45 degree angle so that Savile could 'see the view', and is encased in concrete).

It appears that people want consequences, and that the idea of a man seeing out his days in good repute without facing the ire and fire of the penal system is unbearable. The United Kingdom may have largely succeeded in persuading itself that 'there's probably no God' and that people can stop worrying and enjoy themselves, but it seems that it is sadly lamented when someone like Savile has managed to apply this principle to the full in life. People want retribution, even if on the bare bones of a long dead old man.

Such a story is salutary to the Christian and non-Christian alike. For the non-Christian there is the unbearable reality that life and death are lived without real consequences, and that injustices are just part and parcel of living in a random world. But for the Christian there is a challenge too. We might think that we are kind in downplaying God's judgement, of highlighting it seldom if ever in our public ministry, and that we are in some way charitable to whisper God's wrath while shouting God's grace. Such a position is not merely unfaithful to Scripture, but misses an important apologetic point for the Christian faith: we believe that God will right every wrong, and that while people might slip the net of judgement in life, His wrath will fall with all the certainty of the Godhead on those who do not repent. We are programmed for consequence, we are hungry for justice, and the Bible speaks powerfully to precisely these issues - just read Psalms 1-12 for a sample of precisely this truth.

Jimmy Savile has slipped out of life without a moment of time served for his alleged sins, but he, and all of us must face God - either to receive the punishment richly deserved, or to be ultimately rescued from it on the merits of Christ's finished work for us at Calvary; in which he bore the fullness of that wrath for us. As much as it might run contrary to the spirit of the age, and the calibrations our hearts, we ought to praise God for His justice, as well as for the fact that he is the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus.


11 Oct 2012

Confession of Ministry Sins Pt.1

I was recently listening to Joel Beeke preach at the 2011 Desiring God Pastors' Conference, and was arrested by a reference he made to a 1651 gathering of Scottish ministers in which they confessed their sins as ministers of Christ's gospel. Dr Beeke quoted their twelfth confession regarding prayerlessness which was convicting indeed, and in chasing up his quotation I discovered the rest of this amazing document (as recorded by Horatius Bonar). Over the next while I hope to post their confession here, praying that they might be effective in my own life (and perhaps those of other ministry colleagues) in stirring me to walking closer to, and working more effectively for Christ Jesus.

Confession 1.
We have been unfaithful. The fear of man and the love of his applause have often made us afraid. We have been unfaithful to our own souls, to our flocks, and to our brethren; unfaithful in the pulpit, in visiting, in discipline, in the church. In the discharge of every one of the duties of our stewardship there has been grievous unfaithfulness. Instead of the special particularisation of the sin reproved, there has been the vague allusion. Instead of the bold reproof, there has been the timid hint. Instead of the uncompromising condemnation, there has been the feeble disapproval. Instead of the unswerving consistency of a holy life whose uniform tenor should be a protest against the world and a rebuke of sin, there has been such an amount of unfaithfulness in our walk and conversation, in our daily deportment and intercourses with others, that any degree of faithfulness we have been enabled to manifest on the Lord's Day is almost neutralised by the want of circumspection which our weekday life exhibits.

9 Oct 2012

Book Review: 1662 - The Great Ejection by Gary Brady

2012 has been a year of achievement and celebration in the United Kingdom. Highlights of the year have undoubtedly been the centenary of the sinking of RMS Titanic in April, Her Majesty the Queen's Diamond Jubilee celebrations in June, and the landmark London 2012 Olympic games. 2012 will be well remembered as an historic year in itself, and one which looked back on historic events.

With all of this celebration, the 24th August passed without mention in secular media, and with barely a whisper in the Christian press. And yet this date marked the 350th anniversary of a remarkable day in the history of Christianity within and beyond England. The Great Ejection, the expulsion of over 2000 Puritan ministers from the Church of England following Charles II's restoration (and the passing of the Act of Uniformity) represented a seismic shift in the nature of Christian testimony at the time, and has left its mark ever since.

One is to be grateful, then, that Gary Brady (see his blog here) has undertaken a popular study of 'The Great Ejection', in this title recently published by Evangelical Press. Although a reader of the Puritans for a number of years, and having had some exposure to the Great Ejection, this book revealed to me just how little I really knew about the events of 1662 and following.

The book wisely begins with stories from the Great Ejection, which give a flavour of the tremendous shift that it represented for individuals and families. The description of Joseph Alleine's ejection, penned by his wife Theodosia, is incredibly moving, not least for the contrasting details of his taking supper before facing 'many scorns and scoffs from the justices and their associates' along with threats of hanging. Alleine's calmness in the face of such hostility is echoed throughout the book as being typical (although not universally so) of how the Purtians faced such hot persecution. Other examples follow, each painted with touching humans details, lending flesh and blood to the many homes and families rent asunder by the consequences of godly men following biblical principle.

The book, however, is not merely anecdotal. The wider historical background to the Great Ejection is provided, tracing its roots from Henry Tudor to the restoration of Charles II. This is a period of history which I've had cause to study, both personally and academically, and it is pleasing to find that Brady's synopsis touches on the main points of what happened during this incredible era in a way which is accessible to those who have no prior knowledge of it.

The historical notes become more pronounced as the ejection is handled in chapter 3, laying out for the reader the various religious parties extant in England at the time, as well as the acts of government which would ultimately lead to the events of 24th August. This material is very valuable as it untangles the complicated religious picture prior to 1662 and helps the reader to understand just how the Great Ejection happened.

Chapters 4 and 5 draw the reader into the event of the ejection itself, and judicious use is made of the diary of Samuel Pepys to give an objective sense of just how important this moment really was. These, for me, were among the finest chapters in the book, balancing anecdote with hard history in a way which makes the Great Ejection live in the mind. The historical notes are well struck, and the sympathetic handling of Charles II's position is indicative of the measured tone which characterises all of the history recorded here.

Chapter 6 traces the steps which would eventually lead to greater toleration, continuing the balanced approach outlined above. Brady shows that a spectrum of suffering was experienced by individuals during this period, and that persecution could be patchy and sporadic, rather than universal or concerted. The chapter which follows offers samples of the sermons preached by those who were to be ejected on the eve of their being relieved of their pastoral charges. Reading these tasters has inspired me to follow up on these sermons by reading The Banner of Truth's Puritan Paperback edition of these sermons.

Chapters 8 and 9 provide a who's who of those ejected, and these for me were the slowest-reading chapters of the book. One wonders if this material might more helpfully have been placed at the end of the volume as an appendix, but there is undoubted merit in surveying the names and stories of a wider body of those who were ejected (for those reading the text, a key to the abbreviations used in the biographical entries is found at the end of chapter 8, and it is helpful to locate this before reading the chapter itself).

The book concludes by highlighting some of the enduring lessons from the Great Ejection, practically applying the quiet heroism of those who suffered to our own lives today.

1662: The Great Ejection sets out in clear prose and small compass the background to the Great Ejection, and its profound effect on those who endured it. It is a book which brings home the full weight of this historical event in its original context, and in its application to our lives today. Highly recommended.