I Know What I Want to Be When I Grow Up

I Just finished reading Eric S. Raymond’s The Cathedral and the Bazaar. If you’re unfamiliar with this work, it’s not (despite the title) anything about theology. It’s actually the seminal text on the history and rationale behind the open source software movement, from one of its key architects and proponents.

Although ESR (as he is generally referred to in hacker culture) cautions against the expansion of the open source label to other fields (ie music, books, politics, etc), I was amazed in reading this book just how much potential application there is for open source ideology in the world of theology and religion. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The Cathedral and the Bazaar Metaphor. ESR compares proprietary software and programming to a cathedral — development and release of the “product” are tightly controlled by small, exclusive group of people, shrouded in secrecy and authoritariansim. The result is large, costly, and frozen in time. Contrasting this is the bazaar right outside, which ESR compares to open source software — open, ever-changing, where anyone can produce and/or consume a diversity of products.

    The theological implications here are pretty obvious, especially since it’s already a “churchy” sort of image. It’s interesting to note, that in actuality, most European cathedrals are largely empty on Sunday mornings, a relic of another time. Most local marketplaces (my favorite = coffee shop), on the other hand, thrive, and often provide more service to the community than just the products they sell. Note I said “local.” IMHO, Wal-Mart is more of a cathedral than a bazaar.

  • Sale Value vs. Use Value. Since most open-source software is free (as in “no cost,” although it’s always, by definition, free as in “liberty” or “speech”), some people fear that its rise would have damaging economic effects on the software industry. ESR points out that the current industry over-emphasizes “sale value” (immediate exchange of good for cash up front) over “use value” (think support & service) to the detriment of the consumer. If the biggest profit comes from the up front sale, companies have more incentive to provide a nice slick “box” and a marketing campaign than they do to provide something that actually works or has any sort of longevity. If the product is free, companies are forced to compete to provide the best support and service to make their profit. The book was written in the late 90’s, and already this idea is becoming industry standard, even in companies like Micro$oft.

    From a theological standpoint, this one really jumped out at me: Often in Evangelical Christianity of the past two decades we find a *huge* emphasis placed on “salvation” and “alter calls,” (sale value) while we have largely ignore things like ongoing spiritual education and practice (use value). It seems like we have taken the position that the most important question a person can be asked is “Are you saved?” rather than “How do you live your life?” And, like the software industry, the church is often guilty of slick marketing campaigns and “packaging” of our product at the expense of the real stuff Jesus did, like caring for the sick, the poor, and the oppressed. Jesus was pretty big on “service and support.” (Matt. 20:25-28)

  • How to Be a Hacker. First of all, ESR differentiates between the media’s great misunderstanding of a hacker as a punk teenager who “creates problems and destroys things,” and the original understanding of a hacker as a computer programmer who “solves problems and builds things.” To “hack” code is not to break it, but to add something to it that makes it more valuable for one’s self and for the community. Sharing, obviously, is a big part of hacker culture. In response to the question, “How do I become a hacker,” ESR says that “You aren’t a hacker until people in the hacker culture call you a hacker” on the basis of your contribution to the community.

    Yeah. There’s an old song — “They will know we are Christians by our love, by our love, yes they will know that we are Christians by our love.” How awesome would it be if, rather than slapping a chrome fish on the bumper of our SUV and then driving like a**holes, we refused to call ourselves Christians until others recognized the Christ in us.

Finally, I was encouraged to read this in the final chapter:

The hacker mind-set is not confined to this software-hacker culture. There are people who apply the hacker attitude to other things, like electronics or music — actually, you can find it at the highest levels of any science or art. Software hackers recognize these kindred spirits elsewhere and may call them “hackers” too — and some claim that the hacker nature is really independent of the particular medium the hacker works in.

So, I think I want to be a hacker when I grow up. An open-source software hacker, yes. But also a music hacker. A literature hacker. An education hacker. And a theological hacker.

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