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Electronic super highways and the sacred rite of book hunting

In my diocese, Anglican clergy follow a long standing tradition: the time-honoured ritual of passing on old books. Most of the time, it looks something like this:

A priest retires. After breathing a sigh of relief, said priest notices that the house has become cluttered with 40 odd years worth of books, with gems ranging from Cramner’s Exposition on Luke 1:14 in Thirty-Seven Volumes to Church Potlucks in 1972: Not Your Grandmother’s Cucumber Sandwiches. (I jest. Don’t run off to Chapters in search of either book.) Hoping to downsize, the priest stuffs most of the books into cardboard boxes, and drops them off at Huron University College, where they are tossed into the student lounge amongst the pack of hungry students on the prowl for theological food. Most of the books don’t stay there long. The two or three contemporary ones are snatched up in the first few minutes. Reference books are quickly poached: prize trophies to be displayed on shelves for years to come. Some books disappear, returning to the pile a few days later. Eventually (when no one is looking), someone loads what remains into the trunk of their car, and the seminarians retreat to their studies, still foaming at the mouth. Inevitably, the books return. At this point, the food chain breaks down, because the prey has gone stale. In fact, some of it has actually become rancid.

Don’t get me wrong: my library is populated with shelves of useful and necessary materials passed on by others. But you know, after the first few book loads, I realized that I couldn’t use many of the books. The world had changed.

Ironically, I can’t say the same about the book pictured above: The Pastor and the Personal Computer by William R. Johnson, ©1985. A friend entering his final year at the seminary fished it out of the boxes during the last free-for-all, with me in mind. Sometimes, it seems, God blesses us with relationships that make us laugh, whether we want to or not!

Whatever your intentions, Jonathon, the book has made me think. While it’s terribly (and hilariously) obsolete, it has inspired a fair amount of reflection about what has changed, and what hasn’t. Allow me to share a few passages with you:

When information needs to be transferred from one area to another in the machine, it travels on electronic “super highways.” These super highways have entrances and exits that allow information to travel to and from certain points accomplishing specified tasks. When you push the key labelled “A” on the keyboard, an electronic code (with on and off signals) is generated representing the letter “A” in the computer. This code then enters the super highway travelling to the major intersection where all the highways meet. Here the code exits from the super highway and stops for a traffic officer to direct it to the next destination. Once the traffic officer has determined where the “A” wants to go, the traffic officer blows a whistle and directs it back onto the super highway towards its destination. At the destination, the “A” leaves the super highway, parks along the road, and competes any required action. After this, the “A” may also be directed back onto another super highway to another part of the computer, depending upon the operator’s original intentions.

I kid you not. That’s what it says.

But that’s how it was. After a fit of giggles, I remembered a time, albeit in my youth, when computers were so rare and mysterious that the only way most people could make sense of them was by abstraction. Some 27 years later, most of us can’t imagine doing ministry without a search engine, an email address, and a cell phone, to say nothing about social media and newer technologies.

Lest you think the book  describes clergy doing ministry in a Tron-like alternate universe, I assure you that Johnson offers many things that are worth revisiting:

Do not begin your computer selection process by looking at the hardware…the first step in selecting a computer for the pastoral ministry is to decide exactly what it is you intend to do with a computer.

If possible, both quantitative (measurable) and qualitative (nonmeasurable) benefits of a computer in pastoral ministry should be identified.

The computer is a tool… while using a computer system may indeed be fun the benefits of a computer for ministry are serious and should produce an improved ministry.

As I read the book, one thing became very clear: something has changed–and something that goes far beyond technological development. As Johnson described it, the computer was a wonderful tool that could save the priest or pastor time: by helping with bulletins, databases, and administrative work. But communication and pastoral ministry, as he saw it, was entirely separate and distinct from computer use (remember, this was before the Internet as we know it). Johnson advises that clergy monitor their time: if computer use frees up time to do “real ministry,” then a computer is worthwhile. If computer use eats up time that could be spent doing “real ministry,” then a computer should not be used.

I wonder where William R. Johnson is today. Not only has technology changed, but the way we communicate and do ministry has changed along with it. I have seen wonderful pastoral ministry done in social networks and other online forums. I have seen ministry opportunities lost when the church has avoided communicating with the modern world. And here I sit, typing into a computer, over a network of “information superhighways,” while staring at a yellowed paperback handed down from generations gone before.

What do you think? How do we bridge the gap? How have you seen or participated in passing on traditions in new ways? I’d love to continue the conversation.

And yes, The Pastor and the Personal Computer will be added to my shelf of trophy books, and at the appropriate time, passed on to someone I know will respect and carry on the tradition.

About Jesse Dymond

I'm a priest from the Diocese of Huron, serving as Online Community Coordinator for the Anglican Church of Canada. I have a lifelong interest in computer technology, and continue to pursue interdisciplinary studies in science and theology. I love composing and performing music, cooking, photography, sailing, and riding vintage motorcycles.
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