‘Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully’ by John Piper 📚

Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully: The Power of Poetic Effort in the Work of George Herbert, George Whitfield, and C.S. Lewis by John Piper is a short, powerful and inspiring shot to the heart for any lover of words and Jesus. It’s one of the most fulfilling books I’ve read in a while, and one that left me wanting more.

Piper sews a common thread through the works of three great Christian Englishmen, namely that proclaiming the gospel of Christ beautifully helps us see him more beautifully. It’s a powerful assertion that he backs up clearly, and one that invites the reader to join these three giants.

George Herbert was a 16th century country pastor and poet, seen by scholars as an immensely pivotal figure in the history of English poetry. His works, published posthumously and published continually since, are entirely focused on his faith and devotion to Christ.

George Whitefield was an 18th century English preacher and key figure in the Great Awakening in both Britain and the American colonies. He preached an enormous number of sermons, an impossible number actually. Piper estimates that for many weeks of his life, actually preached for sixty hours a week. As Piper points out, for most of his career, Whitefield spoke more than he slept.

The most well known of these three men to readers today is of course, C.S. Lewis. Lewis was the foremost spokesman for British Christianity in the mid-20th century. He was an awe-inspiring public intellectual, taking three First Class Honors at Oxford, the top expert of Medieval English literature in the world, and a best-selling novelist.

Piper starts the book with an extended discussion of eloquence, particularly what kinds of eloquence either honor Christ or elevate the speaker and dishonor the cross. In turn, he then takes the reader on a whirlwind tour of each these three mens’ autobiographies, theologies, and professional lives, then settles into a different aspect of their work, each on this common thread of proclaiming the beauties of Christ.

This book is a must read in my mind for any Christian who is a writer, speaker, pastor, poet or avid reader. Even if you do not see yourself in any of these categories, I would commend this book to you. The illustrations draw from each of these men’s work will stretch your understanding of beauty in words, and your imagination of the glories of Christ. It’s an inspiring read that prompted me to pick up the pen and expend more poetic effort myself.


‘Culture Care’ by Makoto Fujimura 📚

I blazed through the 104 pages of this book in just a few days. I will be urging lots of my fellow Story Teamers to read it. It is a powerful argument for the need for artists to step forward and start renewing our decaying culture.

Culture Care is a sustained argument that articulates the need for all artists, particularly Christians, to step forward into thinking generatively. It is a call to establish communities and organizations dedicated to developing what Fujimura calls ‘cultural estuaries’ that are upstream from our culture and can bring us back to beauty and truth.

It is not a call for more ‘Christian’ art, in fact Fujimura successfully shows why such a category is flawed in its most basic premise. It is a call for Christian artists, the ‘border-stalkers’ of our community, to function in a way that creates an ebb and flow between the church and the broader culture. He even outlines how this can serve to defuse some aspects of the culture wars. This book is prescriptive in nature, it does not show proven methods, rather outlines a plan for others to follow.

I am a huge fan of Fujimura’a paintings, but this book has increased my estimation of him even more. It shows solid thinking, a keen understanding of the church in America’s situation, and an inside view of the artist’s mind. He weaves these together into  well thought out approach to our culture’s biggest issues. He is a top-notch thinker on arts and culture, and with this book he has given believing artists and creative catalysts a lot to think about, and aspire to.


‘No Country for Old Men’ by Cormac McCarthy 📚

It doesn’t matter that Cormac McCarthy lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, his work makes me think of him as a West Texan. West Texas, from El Paso, to Marfa, to Lubbock and Amarillo is a hard, dry land that will take everything from you in a heartbeat. But there is also rugged beauty and some of the best people on earth. It’s a land with character,—and a murderous streak. I can’t think of a better way to describe Cormac McCarthy’s work, either.

This past weekend The Austin Stone Story Team held an artist retreat, and in many of my conversations McCarthy’s work came up. So much so, that I started re-reading No Country for Old Men while we were still there.

No Country for Old Men is not McCarthy’s most acclaimed novel, nor is it my favorite, but it’s the one I always think of when I think of his work. The characters are unforgettable. Chigurh, the psychopath. Sheriff Bell, the aging war hero and lawman. And of course Llewellyn Moss, the man who really did know better. The setting is southwest Texas, centered in Terrell County. The first pages of the novel open with violence, and it flows through the rest of the pages with a realistic, cold detachment.

My favorite thing about McCarthy’s approach to this novel is the first person narratives from Sheriff Bell that open each chapter. Paired with the third person narratives that follow, the reader can easily inhabit the skin of the Sheriff and see the world from his point-of-view, while viewing the violence of the story through the eyes of our somewhat dispassionate narrator.

I love this book. Even if it is not his best, that still puts it far above most of the other so-called literary masterpieces of our day.


Quick Grades v. 1.0

Today I launched my first independent software project, Quick Grades. Quick Grades is a free easy grader iPhone app built for teachers. I created this app for my wife several years ago, and I kept it updated for her. This fall I rewrote it from scratch for iOS 8. My wife, the original tester, loves the app and uses it often—and my hope is that many other teachers discover it and feel the same way.

I will post more of the technical details later, but I want to give you a short overview of the app. For those of you who aren’t teachers, let me introduce to you a tool that nearly every teacher in America knows well, the EZ Grader.

A vintage cardboard EZ Grader

This tool allows a teacher to set the total number of points for an assignment, and then quickly refer back to it to get the correct score for each graded paper. These graders have been around forever. I remember my mom using hers in the early 80’s, and it is the same one that’s sold today. It’s a useful item for teachers, but it’s also one more thing to keep track of.

Many teachers now use apps instead of the old physical EZ Graders. It makes perfect sense, but most of the apps aren’t very good. The one I my wife used before was not user friendly. The font was hard to read, the color scheme was distracting and hurt readability, and it did not have sensible settings or options. After watching her struggle with the app one too many times, I decided to build her a new one.

After three years of updates just for her, and all the changes from iOS 5 through iOS 8, the app evolved quite a bit. The functionality never changed, but the simple premise of this app offered lots of room to experiment and find the right design.

A four column design with a scrolling table for the scores turned out the be the right approach. Other applications jam too much information into one view. The choice to use a scrolling table view allows for larger and more readable text, and scrolling to find the right score is intuitive and fast.

The second major design choice was to allow the user to decide exactly what columns they want. Every teacher likes to see a different view based on their grading systems and preferences. Allowing the user to remove certain columns from the view also improves readability.

Additionally, I made the easy decision not to interrupt my users and ask them to rate my app. This is a topic that has generated a lot of conversation in the last year, and I land firmly in the ‘anti-prompt’ camp. Yes, App Store ratings are important. Yes, I really do hope my users like the app enough to rate it favorably. But no, I will not be interrupting their work to ask them to do so.

This app is small and focused. It’s simple by design, and a perfect use case for a mobile app. Your phone is always with you, so you don’t have to keep up with the old cardboard EZ Grader. On a phone the simple interface is better than a more complicated one. Clean design and a focus on the user’s needs yields a simple, yet very useful app.

That’s my hope for every teacher that downloads Quick Grades—that it makes their work just a little bit easier. Our teachers work so hard, for so little pay and have many challenges in their way. If I can help by adding something to their toolbox that is just a bit better than the alternatives, then I will consider this project a success.

Quick Grades is now available for free on the iTunes App Store.


For New Projects, Swift or Objective-C?

In the coming days I will be launching a new app on the App Store. I built this application for my wife three years ago after watching her use another app to help grade papers. Because of my employment at the time I could not release it, but now I will be doing so.

This fall I rewrote it from scratch in Swift for iOS 8, and I really enjoyed it. Learning Swift, the good and the bad, was fun. Now, I am looking down the barrel at two new independent projects, one iOS and one OS X.

Objective-C was never a language I felt fully comfortable with. I was competent and was able to build several projects, but I never loved it. I enjoyed the power and flexibility of the Cocoa frameworks, I loved making apps for the iPhone and iPad, but Objective-C never completely fit me well. It was a means to an end.

Swift is a different story. While there are still wrinkles in the language and the community is working through best practices and conventions, it is surprisingly capable for a new language. Apple made a smart move in using the Objective-C runtime and working to make sure it was interoperable with Cocoa frameworks written in Objective-C. This is certainly where the power and flexibility come from. But the language itself is comfortable. It takes many of the things I like from other languages and melds them into a tool that really works for Cocoa.

For my next two projects I will almost certainly write them in Swift, unless I run into a technical limitation, because it’s simply more fun. I am considering Objective-C for one of them, solely to make sure I stay sharp with the language, but I’d be surprised if I do.

It may be reckless to adopt a new language so readily, and I may regret it, but I don’t think so. I cannot imagine Apple pulling back on Swift support after the start its had. For the time being I will be plunging into the near future with Swift. We’ll see how it goes.