The next 30 books on my reading list

Part of my annual performance review is to establish my learning and  growth objective for the year (July 1-June 30). This year I decided my objective would be to read or re-read thirty books in electronic format and create a database of copied-and-pasted quotes, organized by topic, from these books. Here they are:

Old Testament

  1. Brueggemann, Theology of the Old Testament

New Testament

  1. Wright, Paul and the Faithfulness of God
  2. Davids, A Theology of James, Peter and Jude
  3. Witherington, Indelible Image, vol 1

Interpretation

  1. Deppe, All Roads Lead to the Text
  2. Greidanus, Modern Preacher, Ancient Text
  3. Witherington, What’s in the Word?

Philosophy, mind and intellect

  1. Owner’s Manual for the Brain
  2. Comte-Sponville, Little Book of Philosophy
  3. Geisler, Introduction to Philosophy
  4. Comte-Sponville, Bellas reflexiones sobre la vida

Apologetics

  1. Show Them No Mercy
  2. Keller, Reason for God
  3. Keller, Making Sense of God
  4. Copan and Flannagan, Did God Really Command Genocide?
  5. Frame, Christian Apologetics

Theology

  1. Justification, Five Views
  2. Role of Works in the Final Judgment, four views
  3. Wright, Justification
  4. Ladd, Gospel of the Kingdom
  5. Berkhof, Introductory Volume to Systematic Theology
  6. Berkhof, Systematic Theology

Life and ministry

  1. Comte-Sponville, Small Treatise on the Great Virtues
  2. Duhigg, The Power of Habit
  3. Wright, The Mission of God
  4. Patterson, et al, Change Anything
  5. Dickson, Best Kept Secret of the Christian Mission
  6. Keller, Center Church
  7. Piper, Desiring God
  8. Frame, Doctrine of the Christian Life

Dynalist came through again!

I have been using Dynalist for almost a year now, for notes and productivity, and have already written about it here. But they do not get enough attention, given the fine product they have, so I wanted to share one experience I had these last couple weeks.

I had to teach an intensive course in Spanish on the biblical book of Revelation. I wanted to have the entire Spanish text of the book available for projecting onto a screen, separated clause by clause. But I also wanted the many Old Testament texts that Revelation alludes to  visible, but visually distinct from the text of Revelation. And I also wanted to insert my own notes in the text so they would appear when printed, but I wanted them hidden when showing the biblical text on the screen to my students. Aaaand if that weren’t enough, I also wanted to use tags to bring together the verses that displayed this or that theme as found throughout the book. Oh and I even wanted a few images. What to do?

I pondered using TiddlyWiki, my other go-to tool. But then it hit me. In Dynalist, I can have list items, colored list items, tags and notes. And the notes can be hidden or not hidden as I wish.

In one afternoon, I

  • pasted the entire text of Revelation to Dynalist
  • separated the entire text by clauses so each clause could stand out
  • added tags on certain topics that appear throughout the book
  • added my notes in English to the first three chapters of the book as notes
  • added the Old Testament references to chapters 1-3 as colored list items
  • added some images

Dynalist made all this fly by so fast. Then each day of the course I continued to add English notes and OT passages.

I also emailed Erica from Dynalist, requesting the necessary CSS to add to my Stylish custom style for Dynalist, so that I could completely hide the notes from view, even the icon that indicates there are hidden notes. Erica graciously replied with what I needed within a day.

Here is a screen shot of part of what I printed out for my printed notes: observe the blue tags for topics that appear in each verse, the orange background that sets the Old Testament verses apart, the image, and the gray text of my English notes.

And below is what my students saw projected onto the screen (the same thing, but with my notes completely hidden from view):

Had you asked me before Dynalist how long such a thing could take, I would have said ‘Days.’ But this only took a few hours.

My intensive course was a hit. And now if I ever teach it again (quite likely), I have everything in one place. I can even share a link with my students, if I wish.

Thank you, Lord! And thank you, too, Dynalist.

Yes, I refer to myself as an ‘American’

Hello, friend! If I or someone else sent you a link to this blog post, you probably objected to the use of the term ‘American’ to refer to a citizen of the United States of America. If so, I just wanted you to know my thoughts on the matter:

First, I am fully aware that there are many people who live in ‘the Americas,’ who have, for that reason, just as much right to call themselves ‘Americans’ as I do. My wife is from Honduras (Central America), and I have lived in Ecuador (South America) and now in Mexico (North America). So I realize my use of the term is inaccurate, just as many terms I use are technically inaccurate, but I still use them anyway.

Second, I am not trying to be insensitive or imperialist by my use of the term. I am just conforming to what has been a fully entrenched use of the word for many, many years, a word used and recognized the world over. It is a term that communicates effectively, and rolls off the tongue much easier than “United States citizen” or even “U.S. citizen.” And in Spanish, americano is much easier to say than estadounidense and less offensive and/or ambiguous to me than gringo, gabacho, suco or güero. Also, if there are any non U.S. citizens trying to call themselves ‘American’ because they live in the Americas, I have never met or heard of any. So I don’t see any good reason not to use such a handy term.

Third, you would have much more justification if you were complaining about the terms I use to refer to groups you are a part of that I am not a part of. If you were an African-American, you would have every right to dictate to me the term I should use to refer to you. And out of courtesy I should abide by that. But by objecting to the word I use to refer to myself, you are interfering in my business with no right. People can call themselves what they want, and you just have to live with it. I may find “the n-word” so sensitive I can’t bring myself to type it out. But if African-Americans choose to call each other that, that is their right. And so I choose to call myself American and americano. And you are just going to need to accept it, rather than complaining and trying to correct me on it.

Finally, we Americans have plenty of flaws and sins worth criticizing. So criticize those, and leave our name alone. If you are the kind of person who feels the need to impose yourself as thought police for terms as innocuous as ‘American,’ you need to re-evaluate your priorities and find causes more substantial with which to occupy your time.  You may be using this issue to indirectly vent other frustrations of yours – anger, envy, resentment, or prejudice being potential candidates – and you should probably get those checked out and deal with them on a personal level.

Feel free to call me what you will. But as for me, yes, I will continue to refer to myself as an American.

Evil and good, love and hate

Evil people hate good people because they resent the twinge of conscience that the silent testimony of the good provokes in them. They secretly long for the innocence that the good enjoy, but they prefer the freedom of evil, and take out their inner frustration by resenting the good people. Good people hate evil people because they resent the tug of desire that the silent testimony of the bad produces in them. They secretly long for the indulgence that the wicked enjoy, but they adopt the limitations of the good, and they take out their inner frustration by resenting the wicked people.

Not that there are neat clean divisions between good people and evil people. We are all a little of both. I can see both hatreds in my own life. I can see in myself hints of resentment for all those – who clearly must be “libertines”! –  who get away with all the things I would never dare to indulge in. And I resent all those – who undoubtedy must be “Pharisees”! – who silently reproach me for doing the things that deep down I know I shouldn’t do. It can’t be just me. I have a suspicion we are all libertines and Pharisees in our own unique ways.

The better we become at being bad, the more likely we are to despise those who choose the good. And the surprising thing is that the better we become at being good, at resisting our impulses and choosing the narrow path, we are more, not less, likely to despise those who don’t do the same.

No matter who we are, and no matter who the other person is, hate will come easily. Love is the only way forward. And love will require work. Correction: love will require grace.

In the Gospels I see love. And I see that love moving in both directions.

  • I see Jesus sharing meals with sinners and prostitutes. But I also see Jesus dining with Pharisees and teachers of the law.
  • I read the story of the prodigal son being welcomed back by his loving father, and I hear the same father plead lovingly to the prodigal’s resentful, judgmental brother to come in and join the festivities.

Jesus loves those that society typically calls sinners – those who surrender to their impulses and desires and take no thought of self-control and godliness. But the love of Jesus is also a love for the other sinners, too: those who try to be good and live strict, conservative, religious lives, but find themselves divided on the inside, secretly wanting to give in, and judging those who do.

Jesus demands that both groups repent. But that very call to repentance means that all of them are invited and none of them are turned away.

How might we, who have a firm foothold on both sides of good and evil, become more like Jesus? How might we work on cultivating love toward the people in both directions from where we stand?

 

Sentences

Some of the sentences we read are just that – if we believe them, they become life sentences that condemn us to whatever prison cells their authors wrote from. They captivate us – and send us into captivity.

Some words condemn us to the irresistible allure of their author’s outrage. Others beckon us into the dungeon of their author’s apathy. Some seduce us with the enticement of their author’s moral lapses. Some seize us and fill us with their author’s anxieties and despondency.

I wish it were easier to sniff out the emotional baggage with which authors write.

I wish it were easier to spot when an ancient author writes as a reaction to his own guilt and shame. This would allow me to reflect on whether I should believe what he says and thereby take on the yoke of guilt out of which he writes.

I wish it were easier to spot when an insightful tweet or a funny meme underhandedly promotes impatience, or resignation, or condescension.This would help me find a balanced way of receiving it.

But I get so gripped, so enamored by what the words say that I find it hard to step back and recognize the attitudes and perspectives behind them. And, swallowing author’s sentences, I too am sentenced along with them.

Reading and writing is ultimately a spiritual battle. The writer foists his opinions on the reader, hoping to dominate their hearts and minds. Behind every book, article or – yes, blog post – is the subtle message: “Love me! Find me clever, witty, or enlightening! Adopt my beliefs! Be a little more like me!” And the reader responds to this attempt at domination by deciding how much to submit and how much to resist. Some readers swallow ideas uncritically. Others respond with discernment or even resentment.

The goal of understanding the author in order to know how to respond appropriately sounds good in theory, and to a limited extent is doable and important. But ultimately it is impossible to fully get inside the other person’s head. You read John Calvin’s Institutes, then want to know more about Calvin himself, so as to know how to interpret his book. But to do that you have to read secondary works, which themselves are written by authors with distinct perspectives that need teasing out.

So appears the strange phenomenon of third tier literature, writers writing about writers who wrote about other writers. Paul writes about Jesus. Calvin writes about Paul. A historian writes about Calvin. And then someone writes their thesis about the historian’s interpretation. At what point can the reader rest, knowing she has finally heard the end of the matter?

Looking behind the text is important, but we can only do so much of it. A more practical goal is to look in front of the text, at ourselves, at the struggles which the sentences and paragraphs produce in us. Why does this chapter excite me or anger me? What kind of person will I become if I give in to its tractor beam, if I allow it to put me under its spell? What kind of person will I become if I reject the worldview of this text? What kind of person do I really want to be?

I recognize the irony of writing to readers about authors trying to dominate readers. I know my sentences will bind some of those who read them and provoke rebellion in others. As an author who cares about ethics, I can only hope that those who subject themselves to my ideas will find their captivity liberating, and that those who resist my ideas will find the struggle invigorating.

I hope my words will communicate

  • wonder and fascination,
  • discernment and discipline,
  • motivation and courage,
  • love and humility,
  • trust and grace.

And that they will inspire the same in those who happen upon what I write. Blessings.

Thanks to Dynalist, my searching is over

For years I have been trying to find the best note-taking tool. I wanted to have my notes all in one place, in a way that allows me to quickly dump individual notes from my reading, organize them by topics, link topics to each other, and quickly find my notes with a flexible search mechanism.

I have tried everything:

  • Evernote is great for saving images and clipping, but since even a pro account has a limit of 100,000 notes, it is not ideal for dumping and tagging individual notes.
  • OneNote has some benefits, but it doesn’t have real tags, its searching is not very good, and if I want to add an individual note I found somewhere, I need to drill down to the right notebook, section, tab and page.
  • I spent a lot of time in the last ten years contributing to the TiddlyWiki community, because TiddlyWiki is such a great – and fun – note-taking tool. It is infinitely customizable, has great tagging and searching, and hyperlinking notes to each other helps me see connections I never noticed before. But my interests are so diverse, and my notes are so many, that I ultimately found that I either had to create one big TiddlyWiki file, which slowed down considerably, or split up my notes among many TiddlyWiki files, which made searching and hyperlinking impractical if not impossible.
  • A year ago I discovered Workflowy, a unique outlining program. It felt liberating! It was basically one place where I could order my ideas in an infinitely expandable and zoomable bulleted list. I was pumping out new Spanish resources at a faster pace than ever, and organizing my own notes in one huge hierarchy. But the more I used it, the more frustrated I became with it. Search results were messy and required a lot of scrolling through the search results. To add something I found in my reading to a particular topical list in Workflowy I had to drill down to the right bullet. I couldn’t just create a note and tag it as in TiddlyWiki. The other thing that frustrated me with Workflowy was the lack of development. Its creators seem to have plateaued or become sidetracked.

Earlier this month I discovered Dynalist. And now my search is over. I have found my note-taking holy grail.

Dynalist was created by Erica Xu and Shida Li who appear to have become tired of waiting for Workflowy to implement their promised new features. So they built her own, better version. And they may not realize it, but they built the perfect solution to the problems I had with the tools mentioned above.

How can I best describe Dynalist? It is an outlining tool clearly inspired by Workflowy, but in which you create any number of separate, infinite outliner documents and can organize them in folders.

dynalist1Some details:

  • You can tag as in Workflowy, with a # or an @.
  • You can search for either document titles or for content in the documents. And the searching is fast and helpful.
  • You can add inline previews to images on the web (something that requires a complicated hack in Workflowy).
  • You can quickly create links to other documents or even to bullet points in other documents with the search-link function.
  • You can convert any list or bullet point into a separate document simply by dragging it to the contents pane.
  • You can share your documents so others can view them. Here is a shared Dynalist I created.
  • There are many other features like bookmarking, themes, and some customization settings.
  • I even created a couple of custom user styles for Dynalist (get them here), but that is for another blog post.

The other thing that impressed me about Dynalist is their fast, friendly service, and their plan for development of new features and functions. They have a Trello board here outlining their plan. And you can see how they have progressed in each quarter.

trello

About pricing – the amazing thing is that most of the best features are available in their free version. I ended up buying the pro version for $50/year. This gives me backups (for when I accidentally delete something and need to go back and find it later) and bookmarking. It will also soon allow me to save files to Dynalist. But if your goal is productivity, note-taking, organizing your thoughts, brainstorming, or writing first drafts of articles, the free version lets you do pretty much everything you would want to. (More details on pricing here).

I hope you will do yourself a favor and give Dynalist a try. It is a great product, and for me, is the end of a long search for just the right note-taking tool.

Gospels Bubblemaps

I am currently in the middle of a devotional / teqaching prep project called Gospels bubblemaps. It’s a project that started as one idea and suddenly expanded to three.

My original goal was simply to create color-coded charts of each of the four Gospels. This phase is now done. Each type of passage (miracle, parable, dispute, passion prediction, etc) has a separate color.

matthewbmThese charts let me see at a glance where the concentrations of certain kinds of passages are in each Gospel. They also help me find passages quickly (the passages display when hovering over each bubble).

johnbm

Phase two: the peril of parallel passages: Since each passage had its own separate note, I decided to link parallel passages together. I borrowed Kurt Aland’s Synopsis of the Four Gospels from the seminary library, and went to town. Little did I know what a long, tedious and frustrating exercise that would turn out to be. Not only are there parallel passages, but there are parallel verses in passages that themselves are not parallel, and there are passages that seem parallel but are not, and there are sayings of Jesus that get placed in wildly different contexts, which change the emphasis and meaning, and there are entire passages that get repeated, but with the details changed – and in the same Gospel! But I did the best I could, and thankfully, this phase is now also complete.

mtpassI am now in the last phase. I am tagging each passage in the Gospels with the themes, people, places, groups, and imagery types found in that passage.

luketags

I have automatically generating lists of all the tags – all the people tags, all the theme tags, all the places tags, all the groups tags, all the imagery types tags, and all the passages in each Gospel with their tags. These lists will grow as I add tags to more passages.

tagstags

I would eventually like to use Gospels bubblemaps to write a manual in Spanish of all the themes in the Gospels, and what the various passages say about each theme.

This resource is free for you to consult! I hope you find it helpful. Here is the link: http://giffmex.org/gospels.bubbles.html

TiddlyWiki

I have been using TiddlyWiki to organize many of my notes since late 2006. Yet many people have never heard of this wonderful tool.

TiddlyWiki is a webpage file (an html file) that has been stuffed to the gills with code, converting it into a one file database for notecards, called tiddlers (tiddlers is a British term for a small fish, like a minnow) you create in it. The tiddlers are connected to each other by tags and hyperlinks you add to them.

tw

TiddlyWiki is infinitely customizable, with a growing toolbox of plugins, macros, filters and other features. You can create your own visual stylesheet for your TiddlyWiki, and enhance its appearance and functioning in ways too numerous to count here. Here is a screen shot of a visual theme I use in my TiddlyWikis:

tw2

You can embed images and video in tiddlers, create tables, tabs and iframes, and even draw pictures and scrawl hand written notes in them.

TiddlyWiki is Open Source, meaning it is completely free. You can download a separate empty TiddlyWiki for each subject you want to take notes on. Take that, Evernote!

Oahu

Here are a number of tips for those traveling to Oahu, Hawai’i based on our December 2015 family trip there.

Lodging: Hotels charge resort fees, parking fees and Internet fees, about $75 or more a night, on top of the room price you will find on Expedia. There were five of us, so we would have needed two rooms. We ended up using Airbnb, which cost much less and gave us a kitchen and laundry facilities in our Waikiki apartment (see photo). We were not disappointed in the least.

Our apartmentGardens: The botanical gardens on Oahu were not as impressive as the two we visited on Maui in 2011. But we still enjoyed them very much. We went to the Lyon Arboretum on the first afternoon and loved it (see photo below). We walked to a waterfall in the back of the Arboretum since Manoa Falls was too inaccessible due to heavy rainfall. Hoomaluhia Gardens was one of the attractions I was most looking forward to, because of the gorgeous photos I had seen on Flickr (especially this one). But we all agreed it was just okay. Foster Garden right in Honolulu was much smaller but peaceful and pretty.

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Helicopter: my wife and I had taken the breath-taking Blue Hawaiian helicopter trip to West Maui and two adjacent islands in 2011. While the Oahu tour wasn’t quite as dramatic, it was still worth the money. Unfortunately, we forgot to grab Daniel’s ID, and since President Obama was on the island, Homeland Security took a long time interrogating him before letting him fly. And we got the sense that they skipped part of the tour both because of the time we lost waiting for Daniel and because there were parts of the island off-limits while Obama was there.

Hepicopitaper ride over OahuNorth shore: our daughter Alexandra and her friend Winnie took their first ever surfing lessons and managed to stand up and ride the waves…

Alexandra and Winnie surfingMeanwhile, Daniel and I drove to nearby Camp Erdmans YMCA, where for a free will donation we got to walk through Otherton from the TV show Lost. We both loved that show, and Daniel was grinning from ear to ear.

IMG_8080Our “somewhat around Oahu” driving tour: we drove counterclockwise from Waikiki, hoping to get all the way around the island in one day. But we had so much fun seeing places along the way, such as this rocky beach…

DSC08334And the pretty Kualoa beach park…

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That we only got as far as Kualoa and had to turn around. Seriously, I could have skipped Waikiki completely and spent my entire vacation on the other side of the island. The mountains are so beautiful and there is more plant life.

Hoomaluhia gardensThe tourist attraction that turned out surprisingly good: I plunked down the money for the Polynesian Cultural Center, assuming that it would be mildly interesting but way overpriced. Boy, was I wrong. We got the Ali Luau package which included a luau dinner and live show, and then the amazing live show, Ha! the Breath of Life. This was way better than I thought it would be, and worth every penny.

Polynesian Cultural CenterThe tourist attraction that turned out surprisingly meh: My son Daniel and I took the movie tour at the Kualoa Ranch. I was expecting a tour in a roof-free vehicle with a number of stops throughout the lush valley at sites where famous Hollywood scenes were filmed. Instead, I got a tour in a school bus, with only two stops, one at a WWII bunker. So we only stopped once in the valley, at the tree trunk seen in the original Jurassic Park. And during the drive, I had the aisle seat, so I could hardly see anything through the small school bus windows. (to be fair, my 21 year old son had the window seat and enjoyed it a lot.)

Kualoa ranch movie tourShrimp and ice cream: these were two foods we couldn’t get enough of on Oahu. We had shrimp at the big food court at the gigantic Ala Moana mall:

Must have had 4 or 5 shrimp plates in 10 days...And at Giovanni’s famous shrimp truck. Mmmm!

Giovannys famous shrimp truckAs for ice cream, the family had “snow” at the Snow Factory (see photo), and the most heavenly salted caramel ice cream ever made, at Nitrogenie.

Shaved ice and ice cream, mixedShopping: My wife enjoyed the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet so much, she made me take her back a second and a third time. Good deals on Hawaiian shirts, macadamia nuts, ukeleles and much more. It’s right near Pearl Harbor, so don’t miss it.

Christmas program at Hope Chapel: This was a delight. Well-known Christmas hymns (and some Hawaiian ones I had never heard before) set to ukeleles, and a pastor who preaches barefoot. One of my favorite moments. I wish they had had music CDs for sale. I would have bought one.

Hope Chapel Christmas service

Diamond Head: Seriously, get a ride to the actual entrance of this volcano. My tour book said that Diamond Head was five minutes from Waikiki. Since we were on that end of Waikiki, I had us all hoof it there. The problem is that the entrance is in the back, so we had to walk all the way around it. Then cross it. Then walk up it. Then return. We were exhausted.

Byodo-Inn temple: This was quite a treat. The entrance through the cemetery was inspiring…

DSC07739

And the temple itself very pretty. And there were lots of birds and fish to feed at the end of the walk.

Byodo-Inn temple

Pearl Harbor: Don’t make the mistake I made when going to Pearl Harbor: I went alone thinking I could do the early morning thing and get the free passes for my family, and pick my family up later after they had slept in. But it turned out everyone needed to be physically present to get their free passes, so we went the last day of our trip. The most moving part of Pearl Harbor for me was the plaque that described the surviving sailors who asked for their remains to be submerged with their fallen comrades.

What I would do were I to go again: see Waimea Valley park, take a contemplative walk around this cemetery…

Cemetery in Hawaii

…and maybe this time get into the ocean! Seriously, how embarrassing is it that I was ten days in Hawaii and never got in the ocean past my ankles. But I can’t say I feel disappointed by that. I loved the entire trip! For the rest of our vacation photos of Oahu, see here.