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The Kindle Has Landed

Well, despite the rank amateurism of the Royal Mail, my Amazon Kindle arrived yesterday. The Royal Mail lived down to their standards: we were out when they called with the day’s post, and the Kindle box was left in a stand we keep outside the front door for flower and plant seeds. No card through the door telling me where it was, no attempt to take it safely back to the sorting office. I was fortunate that Debbie noticed the box with the big Amazon logo. No temptation for opportunist thieves there, clearly. (And we’re still waiting for a digital camera for Debbie, which is also overdue, so who knows what will happen with that?)

So what’s the Kindle like? There have, of course, been numerous debates about the pros and cons of e-readers in comparison to traditional books. One good article and debate can be found here, for example. They say you can download the first chapters of books as samples. That’s not always strictly honest: you often get the foreword, preface and part of chapter 1.
But I was persuaded to part with cash for a 1993 book by my former research supervisor, Richard Bauckham, called ‘The Theology of the Book of Revelation‘. Nice light reading, you’re thinking. Well, what Richard doesn’t know about eschatology and apocalyptic isn’t worth knowing, so anything he writes on this is worth the price. He also writes fluently.

However, I had a particular reason for purchasing an electronic version rather than a physical one. Here is the text of one customer review on Amazon:

This is one of the most maddening books I’ve read recently. The author’s work cannot be faulted (five stars for the theology); the problem lies with the editing of the book. If it is intended to be used as a textbook rather than read from cover to cover like a novel, it needs a really good index. It doesn’t have one. Worse still, in my 2002 printing, there is no biblical index at all. Trying to find out what the author has to say about any particular verse or passage in Revelation is like looking for a righteous man in Babylon, or, anyway, a needle in a…. I’m sure Cambridge University Press could have done better than this, and the author deserves better from them.

The problems clearly aren’t the author’s fault, but the publisher’s. The lack of indices had held me back from buying it before. However, with an electronic version it is at least searchable for any verse, word or theme I want to research. Does Richard have an opinion on a particular passage? Hold on, let me just do a search and I’ll find out. The Kindle (or another e-reader) is ideal in these circumstances.

My one curiosity with the Kindle edition of the book – and this is what I find maddening – is that it seems to have downloaded without a contents page to tell me what the chapters are.

More generally, the Kindle reading experience is good. The e-ink screen is much more naturally like paper than a bright screen on a computer or smartphone. Moreover, I found myself reading at a good pace. It’s difficult to be sure, given the fact that you don’t get page numbers, only a percentage of how far you are through the book plus some ‘location numbers’. Yet my perception is that I was reading slightly faster than a physical book. I don’t have the gift of speed-reading, so this is an advantage for me.

So my early impressions are favourable. I think the big danger for me could be with just how easy and fast it is to download a title. I could end up spending more money than I should.

Amazon And The Royal Mail: A Parable Of Customer Service

So I did what I said I’d do with my Christmas money. I put it all together and ordered an Amazon Kindle e-reader. I placed the order on 28th December. Amazon emailed me that day with the good news that they had dispatched it that very day. Not being in a desperate rush for it, I opted for their free Super Saver Delivery, and they said it would be with me by 5th January at the very latest. That is, yesterday.
Enter the Royal Mail, entrusted by Amazon to deliver the Kindle to me. No sign of it by today. All we do know is they are in the habit of leaving various packages on our doorstep without bothering to ring the doorbell. With no Kindle having appeared by today, the day after the deadline, I wondered what to do.

Amazon’s website asks you to check with your local delivery office that it isn’t waiting there. When I finally got through to them, I basically got the “No, guv, not possible, everything that comes in here goes out. Goodbye” response.

Ringing Amazon was totally different. Their representative apologised, and told me that if the Kindle hadn’t turned up by the 13th I could ring again and they could then treat it as a lost package. They would then send out a replacement and upgrade my delivery, free of charge.

Which company impressed me? I think you can guess. The Royal Mail employee disdainfully said, “Amazon shouldn’t have told you to ring us, they know there are delays.” Not our fault, no chance, we’re not even going to consider it, we won’t offer to check, no criticism of us is ever justified.

Amazon were quite different. That’s £109-worth of kit (well, £111 with the VAT increase this week) they are willing to replace, just like that. My one gripe is that they use a service like the Royal Mail where you can’t track a package. I’m seriously considering upgrading to their Amazon Prime service, although I feel too mean to pay the annual £49 fee. Maybe you get what you pay for.

An unwillingness to be self-reflective and accept criticism, as it seems was the Royal Mail’s attitude, is something we display as individuals as well as institutions. It can be because we fear the acid tongue of the critic, who may take advantage of our error and crush us. So we try to wriggle out, justify ourselves and defend the indefensible. I’m rather good at that. Maybe you are, too.

And while automatically accepting the criticism and trying to put something right may also not always be wise – it can be done for the sake of a quiet life – it may be more Christlike. He ‘took the blame’ and put things right for the human race, if not all creation. While some elements of Amazon’s business may not always be that moral, on this occasion it seems to me they were the more Christlike.

Digital Britain, Analogue Church

The Evangelical Alliance recently published some statistics about what it calls Digital Britain. They make fascinating reading. Here are some highlights. You won’t find all of it surprising, but what is clear is just how much our culture is shifting in a digital direction.

* There is a trend away from social letter-writing in favour of email, texting and IM. Only 10% of letters now delivered by the Royal Mail are now ‘social mail’. Although 72% of over-70s write such letters, it decreases to 47% of over-50s, and there is a 1-3% annual shift.

* The use of landline telephones is in sharp decline, too. In 2007, we spent only an average of 5 minutes a month making calls from fixed lines, but a staggering 136 minutes on mobiles. (I know, I find that hard to believe.) In a population of 60 million there are 74 million mobile phones in use (how many people really need more than one?) and 89% of over-14s have at least one.

* The use of email is increasing. Although it was falling out of favour with younger generations, who preferred texting, the arrival of smartphones such as the iPhone and the Blackberry have rejuvenated email among the young. Perhaps it is the mobility and that the common theme to texting and the increase again in email is the use of the mobile phone.

* Social networking is extraordinarily popular. 25% of British adults use social networking sites – a higher percentage than the Germans, French and Italians.

* Yet it’s not an interest in technology per se that is driving these increases, at least among the young. Rather, it seems they use technology to continue doing the things they were always doing: listening to music, watching TV or films, and contacting friends. Technology becomes a supplementary way of carrying out these activities, not a replacement.

The contrast with anecdotal evidence in the typical traditional church is huge. You can’t send an email late at night to someone if you suddenly think of something, because they may not be online. They might have a mobile phone, but they may not use it often, so texting is less viable, too. As for a church website, well that’s nice and they may want the church to have one but it won’t be any practical use for them, even if they realise it is a good way of getting known today.

That we do certain things differently in the church is, in my opinion, both partly right and partly wrong. It is partly right because we need to minister to and with the digital poor. Sorry if that’s an ugly or patronising expression, I don’t mean it to be, but I need to make a contrast with the digital natives and digital immigrants who are comfortable learning and using new technology.

Yet it is also partly wrong, because it concentrates on maintenance rather than mission. It preserves existing ways but does not pioneer the Gospel into the ways in which our culture is developing. Therefore the church needs continually to find new ways into the digital culture.

In one respect, such a missionary thrust is tailored to introverts like me, who by nature are drawn to the written (or typed) word. Past models of evangelism have been throughly based around extraverted approaches – think about how the word ‘evangelism’ is conceived by many Christians and they think of crusade meetings and door-to-door work. I mean no disparagement of them, nor of the many other gifts extraverts offer, but might it just be that introverts could be on the cutting edge of new approaches to mission?

If so, that will mean a complete rethink of some of the attitudes and prejudices that prevail in many churches, alongside the ‘big ask’ of adjusting to the new digital culture.

Stamps

Last year, I made a series of posts about an alleged controversy regarding whether the Royal Mail was willing to sell religious Christmas stamps:

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps Update

Royal Mail Christmas Stamps Part 3

This Isn’t The Royal Mail Christnas Stamps Blog, Honest

I have now received an email from a friend, telling the same story. The main Christmas stamps this year are on a pantomime theme, but you can get Madonna and Child stamps as an alternative. He says he went to buy Christmas stamps and was only given the ‘secular’ stamps. Checking the Royal Mail site shows the panto stamps are the main ones, but the Madonna and Child ones are available for those who want a more ‘traditional’ image – see here. What is unclear from the Royal Mail is whether it is compulsory for their staff to offer customers a choice. It may be that if they offer a choice, that makes both designs equal in importance. That would contradict their policy of alternating between a religious and a ‘secular’ theme for the stamps. However, the other side is that you have to be ‘in the know’ to ask for the explicitly Christian stamps.

My friend who emailed me today entitled his message ‘Keeping Christ in Christmas’, and that is a wider issue than stamps, although I can see why they are part of the concern. The danger is the continued relegation of Christianity to the private sphere, away from the arena of public truth. That trend has been continuing for centuries: since the Enlightenment, if you believe the late Lesslie Newbigin, and since Thomas Aquinas separated grace and nature, if you believe the late Francis Schaeffer.

Where Christ fits into society’s Christmas (if that is even a valid question) is one symptom of the wider problem: what is the public rôle, if any, of faith? A classic Anglican view, especially in the UK where it would often be linked with established status, would see secular stamps as a threat. It would be about taking the spiritual out of the public sphere. I recall that some years ago George Carey argued against disestablishment on the grounds that it would be a further privatisation of faith. Whether he was right is another matter, but that would be a typical Anglican approach.

A more Radical Reformation (e.g., Mennonite?) view might be rather more ambivalent. Let the state and public sphere do what it will, Christians must get on with being faithful, even if there is opposition, hostility or apathy. We are the ones who keep Christ in Christmas. As we do so, it is part of our witness. Personally, I suspect this approach is more suited to the times we are in, where Christianity is largely out of favour in our society. We are being pushed to the margins. However, that is a potential advantage in the long term should generally postmodern conditions prevail for a long time. Postmodernity often welcomes the idea of truth coming not from powerful places but the margins. This is not the same as the privatisation of faith; it is about recognising that we are exiles in Babylon, a model that is increasingly important to many of us.

A third view might be that of the Revivalist. In a desire to see the Gospel command hearts and minds much more (or ‘as it used to’), there would be fierce protests against the secularisation of Christmas. This is one step on from the establishment view that ‘we are a Christian country’: it sees the issue as one of sin. I long to see a ‘revival’, but find this style unhelpful. Militant Christian protests backed by fervent intercession couched in terms of ‘praying against people’ will not help our cause. 

There are other views we could explore, but it’s late in the evening and I need to finish this. I suggest there is no harm in us asking nicely about the stamps, but we must be careful about our tone and we should not make this a crusade or act as if some terrible injustice has been done to us. The majority non-Christian culture just won’t understand.

Those are my initial thoughts. What do you think?