Microsoft Sermons

Over the past month or so, there has been a recurrent Microsoft ad that has been dominating commercial life on about all the channels. We’ve all seen it, here it is right below here, and it has found high visibility on almost all major viewing occasions.

The other day, I sent out a tweet that basically summarized my thoughts on this commercial:

This is a bad commercial if for no other reason that it is a stunning representation of the tremendous distance between Microsoft and Apple in terms of product placement, market capitalization, marketing strategy, and the market approach of Microsoft. Ironically in the ad, Apple comes out on top for the primary market segment that Microsoft is appealing to in the ad.

This is exactly the kind of ad that Apple would never make.

Of course this ad has been critiqued by far more engaged minds than mine. Suffice to say, the commercial fails to develop a case for the product against the thin criticisms (and outright misleading information) against its most potent competitor. Microsoft capitulates its own standing with a trite comparative ad that is easily dismissed because we all know the truth that is missing in their ad. Apple has a better product and the mocking claims are benign swipes by a displaced competitor.

The Microsoft ad parallels the attempts of many ministries in their quest to relate to culture by creating comparative illustrations or biting critiques in the form of media, clips, or other content that appropriate components of culture. In doing so they inadequately recreate culture, often capitulating entirely to the cultural form, that discredits their larger point. As this happens, particularly with younger generations, the audiences might be entertained by the correlation to a cultural form or style, but the opportunity to point out the exclusivity of the Gospel message within the biblical text can be missed.

As a result sermons, and worship services, are left confined to a particular cultural form that limits the ability of the communicator or the worship team to fully develop a biblical text. The cultural form dictates the limits of application for a biblical text and isolates the ability of exposit its full points.

This is not to say that using these kinds of mediums and media are never appropriate. There are most certainly times where they can be used and used to support a larger point. The challenge is when a cultural medium or aspect of media becomes the ultimate lens through which the biblical text is filtered. At that point the box is placed upon the biblical text and confined. This is a form, that while popular these days, is not sound homiletic practice.

Notice how Paul handles using a cultural form in Acts 17:

Acts 17:22   Then Paul stood in the middle of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that you are extremely religious in every respect.  23 For as I was passing through and observing the objects of your worship, I even found an altar on which was inscribed: 


Therefore, what you worship in ignorance, this I proclaim to you.  24 The God who made the world and everything in it—He is Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in shrines made by hands. 25 Neither is He served by human hands, as though He needed anything, since He Himself gives everyone life and breath and all things. 26 From one man He has made every nationality to live over the whole earth and has determined their appointed times and the boundaries of where they live. 27 He did this so they might seek God, and perhaps they might reach out and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. 28 For in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’ 29 Being God’s offspring then, we shouldn’t think that the divine nature is like gold or silver or stone, an image fashioned by human art and imagination.

30   “Therefore, having overlookeda the times of ignorance, God now commands all people everywhere to repent,  31 because He has set a day when He is going to judge the world in righteousness by the Man He has appointed. He has provided proof of this to everyone by raising Him from the dead.”

As Paul is speaking to Gentile pagans (the truly unchurched) he places his challenge in a cultural form that they would immediately recognize. He also appropriates two forms, one present before them, and one that was, perhaps, a popular literary quotation. Yet Paul places these both within the bounds of his sermon and not his sermon within the bounds of his examples, or illustrations.

In the end the sermon draws on these forms for connection and then leverages for a redemptive point.

For Paul, understanding his context was a critical point of his sermons in Acts. The sermon to the Jews in  Acts 13 shows how Paul leverages Jewish cultural forms to make points of connection as opposed to the Gentile forms here in Acts 17. Yet in both places Paul is clear to ensure that his redemptive point is not clouded by the cultural form that connects with his audience.

Instead of crafting a sermon at that capitulates the redemptive Gospel narrative to the cultural form, Paul confines his use of cultural forms to allow the crucial redemptive point to stand on its own.

For too many of us who have attempted to use cultural forms, we have allowed them to cloud that larger point. By appropriately seeing the New Testament example of using illustrative material to bolster a point or make a connection instead of being the narrative upon which the biblical text is confined, we see the redemptive point of the Gospel is able to be expanded and not confined.

Just like with the Microsoft ad, our task as expositors is to move beyond the trite commonality of poorly framed points and allow the grand Gospel message to stand on its own.

Instead of lowering the biblical text to the cultural level, our job as faithful expositors is to allow it to remain elevated above the cultural milieu. Allow the cultural forms to support the biblical text, not the other way around.


PhD Apps and Resources

In approaching the final months of my PhD program in historical theology, I have been contemplating the various apps and resources I use for my research and writing. Over the past several years I’ve been able, through my seminars, to try out some different tools and see which fit. The list below contains the tools I’ve found best fit the approach that works. Certainly there are others out there, but this seems to work the best for my needs.

Programs (both computer and iOs)

Word – Microsoft is the bane of many folks’ existence and it receives a lot of criticism. However, it is the best word processor and paper writing tool out there. With the integration of the Endnote toolbar, I’ve found that the process of writing seminar papers is quite easy. Granted, I took the time to learn the ins and outs of the program through some online and in class tutorials. How we arrange and set styles, how you can remove gigantic spaces between footers, and how to create page breaks that reflect appropriate pagination requirements are just a few things that are easily resolvable when you know the program.

Evernote – This program has revolutionized my entire research and thinking process. I currently keep the program on two computers and my iPad so I can work on notes in various places (office, study, library, Starbucks, etc.) By creating distinct folders, sub-folders, and carefully managing files I’ve gone from pages and pages of handwritten notes (and painful handcramps) to a completely paperless system. With the additional of Evernote Clipper (which I desperately wish could be used on my iOs devices) my ability to grab articles, webpages, research data, and other relevant materials quickly for later review and classification has exploded. This is the best tool in my entire box.

Dropbox – Navigating PDFs and documents between my laptop and iPad is made simple with this cloud based system. I have the central filing system separated in folders for: church matters, personal items, PhD research, and a couple of other shared folders. Then each major folder has appropriate sub-folders. For my PhD research I have created a sub-folder for each seminar and then transfered them to a portable harddrive when I’m finished with the seminar. (The best moment is moving a folder into the “completed seminars” folder.) Dropbox is essential for my work as it is integrated with some apps below.

Endnote – Perhaps the greatest difference in research over the past fifteen years has been the development and sophistication of the documentation programs. I’ve used Endnote since my master’s degree. Though I’ve tried other programs, for my purposes Endnote is the best. With its latest update I’m deeply impressed the integration of many facets of the program. The Endnote Web feature is also very helpful. As aforementioned, the integration with Word allows me to drop in properly formatted citations and footnotes into papers as I go through the “Cite While You Write” system. This has saved me about 2 to 4 hours of formatting per paper. I can’t stress how important this kind of documentation and citation program is. There are other options, check them out here.

Apps (primarily iOs)

I use my iPad extensively for my research and work. Frankly, it is the workhorse of my life. Here are some apps I use in my research.

iAnnotate PDF – I have moved almost exclusively to non-paper research. Where there is paper (other than lengthy texts) I scan and create PDFs. Through iAnnotate I can mark up, highlight, notate and export these PDFs to my Endnote program for storage and immediate reference. iAnnotate has been great and as it interfaces with Dropbox, I can easily download, work on, and then upload PDFs to the cloud.

Notes Plus – This is how I take notes in seminar and often while I do some research in the library or my study. It allows for handwritten notes on my iPad using my JotNot Plus stylus. When I’ve received PDFs of presentations I can import those and mark them up. As a side note, I also use this app for taking notes during couples counseling sessions.

– The research language requirement is important for a PhD. However, sometimes I need to get the idea of a scholar who is writing in Latin, Italian, French, German, etc without taking up the labor intensive time of carefully translating. So I use this app to get that idea and see if I need to return and carefully translate. This makes my research a bit easier, but it isn’t a clean translation and needs to be carefully understood.

Kindle – When I can, I use Amazon’s Kindle for eBooks. It is a great app and a great system. Though I don’t (and probably won’t) own a Kindle device, this app allows me to grab eBooks from Amazon, mark them up, take notes, search, and carry thousands of them with me and they only weigh 2 lbs. Its just as good as the iBooks app in my opinion.

Google Play Books – Google Books has done a lot to bring out of print texts that are still important to the table of contemporary scholarship. So their app is helpful, though not without limitations. I use this app often and have about forty out of print books which are germane to my research loaded.

 Accordance – Though I also have the Mac version, for my research in historical theology (particularly patristics) the iPad app has allowed me to carry, search, note, and reference over 1,000 texts all on my iPad. The Mac version has a better search tool, but the iPad has sufficed in about 75% of the time. Also, during a couple of seminars I have been able to utilize the biblical texts side to bring up and discuss relevant matters to the seminar.

Logos Bible – I don’t own Logos’ computer based system. However, I do have about 600 volumes on my iPad which are indexed, searchable, cross-referenced, and always available. This is a good program and it has aided my studies.

FeeddlerRSS – Staying current on the best scholarship is essential during a PhD, or at any time really. One of the great things about our current situation is that we have some world-class scholars who blog regularly and discuss important matters. Through Feedler, I can stay up to date, read my feeds and interact as I need. Google is doing away with their Reader service in July, which is an utter tragedy, so I guess I’ll have to move over to another platform. However, this has allowed me to star blogs, tweet them, and interact at a level unlike anything else.

So, that is my basic run down. I don’t use a bunch of fancy programs or apps for outlining (though I’m considering it) and I use a lot of services like through my browsers. I tried Mendeley and just never really made a good connection with the program. So that’s why I’ve stuck with Endnote. About six months ago I made the switch from PC to Mac when I purchased a MacBook Air. I had been using a Mac Mini for ministry stuff and that made the transition easier. However, when it came to papers I couldn’t use Pages for them because of the limitations of the program. Office for Mac brought all the significant Microsoft Office programs to my Mac and has made all the difference in the world. Anyways, this is submitted to aid anyone.

What programs do you currently use for research? How is it easier today than twenty years ago? What am I missing?

May 2013