Spilunking

It’s always been fairly obvious that “Codex Serendipitus” would never work as a title of this new program. Although the words are packed with meaning, they’re just too opaque: too hard to remember or relate to or get excited about. So I have adopted a new moniker that I think captures the ambition and goals of this project:

“Spilunk”

A spiritual exploration of the cavernous depths of God’s Word.

Spilunking

It’s all about searching for the hidden gems buried by a loving Father in the vast expanse of Scripture. “Spilunking” means diving in, exploring, searching, mapping, uncovering, and charting the endless channels and pathways of the Bible. It’s meant to be an exciting and fun adventure, but also a serious and weighty expedition, demanding time, care, resources, and dedication. The word “spilunking” is meant to stir the soul of the adventurous pathfinders. (I have purposely misspelled it to emphasize the SPIritual nature of this endeavor, and also to give it unique real estate in the domain-name/search-engine landscape).

Software Stack:

In addition to choosing a new name (and much more importantly in the long run), I have also finally settled on the software platform I intend to build this project on. This has been a major decision, as I have always wanted to choose a flexible foundation: one that can provide all the features that I will need, has plenty of freely available development tools, is thoroughly portable to all OSs and hardware, and one that I can reasonably assume will still be supported ten years from now. (I wouldn’t want to get stuck in a dwindling language like Delphi or Lisp, or in dead-end ecosystems like Flash or Silverlight.) The platform I choose has to be powerful, flexible, free, and beautiful (graphically). I also want the end product to be easily accessible to anyone in the world. With all this in mind, the choice seems obvious: I’m going to build a web app on the triumvirate of HTML5/CSS3/JavaScript. (I don’t yet know what the backend will be; probably some combination of SQLite, Node.js, and Python.)

I have never claimed to have great skills of prognostication, but it certainly appears that all the big corporate money is going into web apps. Google has pioneered the way, and Microsoft’s new initiatives in the arena are big bets as well. Everything is moving away from the desktop and into the cloud. So a web app is perfectly positioned to ride that wave. It will also port to any OS or device with minimal effort. The decade-long browser wars are finally coalescing into some consistent, open, and community-driven standards that really appear to have staying power.

But best of all, this wave is still just beginning to rise. As HTML5 comes into its own, the sky’s gonna be the limit as to the flexibility and power that will be available to the web dev. It’s like manifest destiny in the days of the Pioneers and early western settlers: The farmland is fertile and plentiful, and yours for the taking. Nobody owns it and we all own it. The world wide web is the wide open West: the fencelines are few and far between, and the soil is well-suited for dreams to take root and grow. Walt Disney purchased an orange grove and built an empire that has spanned generations. Who wouldn’t want to claim a plot of this new frontier and break ground? Dream and build, brother. Dream and build!

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Hidden Threads

gg5126454The foundational concept that makes Codex Serendiptus unique is the idea that every word in Scripture is connected to every other word by invisible threads: thin gossamer strands that intertwine and connect the fabric of Scripture into one majestic tapestry. My goal is to build a tool that will display those threads in vivid and easily comprehensible ways — both graphically and textually.

Any student of the Word knows the fundamental rule that a verse can only be truly understood in its context. What is less commonly recognized is that the true context of a given verse is not just its immediate context, but the entire corpus of Scripture. All the concentric circles of context surrounding a verse must inform our interpretation of that verse. The hermeneutical principle usually cited in this regard is “Scripture interprets Scripture”.

To truly comprehend and appreciate a given work by Rembrandt, you must first understand how he was influenced and shaped by his contemporaries, by his mentors and his predecessors, and by the sweeping history of art that conveged upon him in that focal point of creativity. We need to recognize something similar in the Bible. Of course, with art we may consider those ripples of influence as mere “happenstance”. But with Scipture we have something more: here we have an intricately crafted work of literature, a book whose singular Author has carefully embroidered every thread and theme in precise and intricate ways, binding the disparate strands into one harmonious story. Moreover, this Author utilized the creativity and personality of indivdiual men: men of deep faith who were devout students of the Scriptures handed down to them, and whose theology and thought patterns were therefore greatly influenced by each other and by their predecessors.

Of course, I am not saying anything novel or surprising here: Ephesian 2:9 must be interpreted in light of Ephesians 2, and of the book of Epheshians, and of the prison epistles, and the Pauline epistles, and all epistolary literature in the NT, and of the entire NT, and of the entire Bible. Multitudinous threads of Scripture converge on this verse (and on every verse, by different routes) and amplify its meaning and message. The fundamental goal of the Serendipitus tool is to gently and lucidly unwrap those threads and to reveal them in unobtrusive but meaningful ways.

And, to that end, I aim to harness all the technologies of web design, data visualization, information science, and computational literary analysis at my disposal.

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Viz tool–from cells to strata

A fascinating visualization tool created by a researcher at the Scripps Research Institute gives an intuitive breakdown of the relative sizes of the internal structures of a cell. This animated graphical tool can morph the complex cellular structure into a highly simplified geometric version enabling direct comparison of the various organelle volumes. Check out the superb video on the above link to see a demonstration.

The analog to this tool in terms of textual analytics might might categorize the primary topical themes of a given book or chapter, organize them sequentially into color-encoded geographic regions, thus enabling the side-by-side comparison of multiple books (or perhaps the chronological progression within a single corpus Scripps 3d cell Visualizationor sub-corpus.)

Scripps 3d cell Visualization-comparison

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Windows 8 tablet

Dual viewJust read the unfortunately named gizmodo post “Designing Windows 8 or: How to Redesign a Religion”. Giz interviewed Sam Moreau, the Director of User Experience for Windows, Windows Live and Internet Explorer – the guy who has spent the last 5 years re-imagining Windows from the ground up with Windows 8. A fascinating read. I can certainly imagine CodeX living on that machine!
One of the things that really struck me from the article was the way they are re-thinking Search. thumbs(I’ve slightly modified the quotes below to condense a couple different statements into one, and to apply the discussion for this blog):

So any apps that have registered for the Search contract,—basically you build an app, then you say, “I’m gonna use this API, which means I’m doing the Search contract,” Then they get to show up in this list whenever app A has a Search moment….

So as long as CodeX is designed with this API in mind, we can play along with all the other big boys. Here’s a good example (once again, edited slightly):thumbs2

Imagine I had typed “crown.” The results for hangover are very different in Internet Explorer on Bing versus Netflix. Let’s say I’ve got a bunch of apps: Netflix, Hulu, Wikipedia, CodeX:Serendipitus, whatever. Each time I click one of those they get to render what they have, their best foot forward for “crown.” And it may be very different things. Google gives you this homogenized version of the internet for a query. Apps, in this one box that drives the query across all the other apps, lets each app give you the best version of what they can do for “crown.” Maybe you can get WebMD to describe dental procedures. 

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The CodeX Vision Statement

My dream is to design and build a brand new type of Bible Study software — to create a system that not only aids people’s personal devotions, but actually equips and guides them in the proper methodologies of Biblical interpretation. I want to enable everyone – regardless of their stage of spiritual maturity – to take their personal Bible study to a new level of understanding and depth of insight. I particularly want to assist pastors and Bible teachers in their efforts to uncover the pathways and connections in Scripture that lead to deeper insights.

This all may sound ambitious (and perhaps even unnecessary, given the number of similar products available), but there are a few aspects to my approach that are unique, and – by God’s grace – may be suitable for creating a new paradigm in Bible study software.

1. The first and most important distinctive about the CodeX system is that it will be designed from the inside-out on sound hermeneutical and exegetical principles. These principles will be “hard-coded”, so to speak, into the architecture in such a way that they might facilitate effective & fruitful, inductive Bible study. Rather than being just a “biblical search engine” or a computerized concordance, the system will be designed to offer carefully crafted and contextually relevant guidance, acting in a sense as a “tutor” for those who are novices in Bible study, and as a powerful tool for those who are more seasoned. These foundational principles include:

  • Scripture Interprets Scripture. This system will not be a library of digital commentaries, but rather will enable the reader to see at a glance how a given passage relates to all of Scripture. The Bible is an intricately woven fabric: it’s themes and messages are repeated and echoed from beginning to end. Individual words and verses are most fully understood when read in the context of “kindred verses” across all Scripture. The design of the CodeX system will include an indexed collection of these kindred passages. This collection will be produced by culling previously published (and openly available) cross-reference lists, and also by an algorithmic approach that will automatically detect lexical and semantic similarities in the text.
  • Concentric Context. Every verse in the Bible is surrounded by concentric rings of context that expand outward from the given focus of study: word, verse, pericope, chapter, book, author, genre, testament, entire Bible, extra-biblical references. While kindred passages (i.e., cross-references) may be found anywhere Scripture, the relevance of those passages to the interpretation of a given verse most often correlates to their contextual proximity to the verse at hand. The CodeX will reinforce this interpretive principle throughout the search and visualization facilities.
  • Original Language Architecture. Many modern translations do not offer a word-to-word correspondence with the original text, making accurate word studies difficult. The word-study utilities of the CodeX system will be engineered directly from the original languages, enabling the users to more accurately understand the words of Scripture, without having to know Greek and Hebrew. For example, all word searches will be mapped to the underlying Greek or Hebrew term before performing the query.
  • Theological Design Patterns. In software and web development, “design patterns” are standardized, recurring strategies or templates that are used for common coding situations. Like recipes in a chef’s kitchen, they are selected for a given occasion and combined with others to create a masterpiece. The CodeX system will certainly make use of these, but will go further: every graphical, functional, and architectural design decision will be firmly grounded on Biblical and theological principles. No feature will be included simply as “eye candy” but will require Scriptural or pedagogical justification.
  • Inductive Bible Study. To gain a true understanding of Scripture one must “look for it as for silver, and search for it as for hidden treasure.” (Prv 2:4) This requires determination and the discipline of “deep reading” to seek the Author’s original intent in every passage. The CodeX system will support such inductive study by providing the facilities to store years of personal notes, observations, questions, and personalized cross references. These insights will be categorized, indexed and iconified.
  • Serendipitous Discovery. There comes a moment for all diligent students who, after struggling and wrestling with a difficult or challenging subject for hours or weeks or months, finally reach a moment when the lights suddenly come on and they say “Ahh! Now I understand!” That is “serendipity.” The CodeX Serendipitus is not designed to make Bible study easy. Bible study was never intended to be easy. But, by the grace of God, this system will facilitate a richer, more enlightening, and more fruitful exploration of God’s Word: “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him” (Eph 1:17)

2. The next distinctive aspect of the CodeX system is that it will harness some of the modern advances in the fields of textual analytics and data visualization that have been refined by recent research in the National Labs and elsewhere. I intend to use my background in this field, applying many of these literary techniques and graphical tools to the study and exploration of Scripture. This effort will include the introduction of interactive visual tools (or “vistas”) such as configurable chronologies (timelines), animated geographic maps, genealogical network graphs (family trees), and topical visualizations, to name just a few. Other, more sophisticated graphical representations of data may also be added in the future, enabling expert users to explore the meaning of the text in new and productive ways.

The image at the left (click for larger image) is an example of the power and beauty of Biblical Information Visualization. This graphic, created by Chris Harrison, is a pictorial representation of over 60,000 Scriptural cross references. Although this image is static, imagine a dynamic tool that would allow students to zoom and pan and visually explore the manifold links and threads that are woven through Scripture. This graphic is an inspiration to me, and represents just a tiny fraction of the potential that graphical analytics can provide to the serious student of the Word.

3. Another distinguishing characteristic of this system will be a visual design that is appealing and intuitive and easy to use for people of any age or background. The aim will be to design a system interface that doesn’t draw attention to itself: neither frustrating people with clunky mechanics, nor annoying them with flashy animations. The goal is that this tool will get out of the way and let the user commune with the inspired words. The graphical interface and all the features will be designed in such a way that a user should be able to understand how to use it immediately, and will enjoy returning to it day after day for years. This aesthetic is captured in five words:

  • Simple. Intuitive to use and interact with, requiring only a gentle learning curve. It should be something your grandma could use.
  • Soft. “Soft on the eyes” – a warm, inviting interface that may someday hold the sentimental charm of a favorite Bible with its dog-eared pages and worn leather cover.
  • Sleek. Fluid, fast, and finely-tuned, delivering near-instantaneous navigation and searching.
  • Subtle. Uncluttered by glitzy buttons or ponderous menu bars. Everything from the verse numbers to the accompanying visualizations should carefully avoid distracting from the text.
  • Spiritual. Painstakingly and artistically crafted – like an exquisite stained glass window bringing  glory to God as the light shines through it.

4. One more distinctive of this system is that it will be free (or very inexpensive). This is not a venture to build a fortune on. If the Lord is willing, the CodeX Serendipitus will be made available to every pastor, every missionary, every Bible school student across the land. And then to every elder or deacon or Sunday school teacher, every grandma or grandpa, every disciple of Jesus who is interested in studying the Word of God in a deeper way. Cost should never be a factor in distributing the Holy Scriptures.

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My qualifications: My background includes two degrees (Bach/MDiv) in Bible/Theology (Multnomah & Western) and two degrees (Bach/Masters) in Computer Science (WSU), along with roughly ten years of professional experience in both fields. It is my hope that I might finally merge these two life-paths into a new career.

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So… What’s Up with the Name? (Part I)

The original “Codex” was a technological breakthrough that rocked the literary world. It was a 1st century invention that is now considered to be the most important advance in the history of books prior to the printing press. The revolutionary idea was as ingenious as it was simple: make a book out of individual pages bound together at the spine: the “hardback.” This innovative design replaced the scroll (a long strip of paper rolled between two spindles), whose form-factor had been dominant for over 3000 years.

The Codex had numerous advantages over the scroll. It was compact and economical, having double-sided pages that could hold twice the information on the same amount of papyrus as a single-sided scroll. It was also portable, a factor which made it a favorite among travelers and missionaries. But its most important feature, at least to early readers, was that now, for the first time, books were random-access, in contrast to their predecessors, which were distincly sequential-access only. This allowed readers — Bible students in particular– the luxury of turning to specific passages rather than having to scroll through an entire document, thus opening a whole new chapter in the practice of “Scripture interpreting Scripture”.

It is not surprising, therefore, that it was in fact Christian scribes and students who were by far the most enthusiastic early-adopters of this new-fangled technology. Extant copies of early Christian documents in the Codex format out-number non-Christian codices by nearly three to one, and outnumber the use of Christian scrolls by an even larger margin.1 (A prime example is the famous “Codex Sinaiticus” — one of the most important books in the world, and the oldest substantial book to survive Antiquity. This book, which dates back to the early 4th century, contains the oldest complete copy of the New Testament.) There is significant evidence that Christians were using the Codex format as early as the middle of the 1st century. In fact,  historians have suggested that the Apostle Paul himself may have been referring to Codex books when he instructed Timothy to “bring my scrolls, and especially my parchments” (2 Tim 4:13).2 Some have even wondered whether God didn’t actually inspire this invention just to further the propagation of His Gospel.3 Whether that be the case or not, it is clear that innovative scribes and evangelists made extensive use of this cutting-edge technology to powerfully and effectively spread the knowledge of the Glory of God over the face of the earth.

The Codex was a momentous game-changer in it’s day. It was a technological leap that has stood the test of 2000 years’ time. And though there now exists burgeoning technologies which may someday supplant it, they can never diminish the impact that the hardbound book made on the world. And as I reflect on the history of this brilliant invention, it motivates me to ask myself: what can we do today to follow in the footsteps of those apostolic early-adopters and harness some of the vanguard technologies of our own era to propagate and distill the life-changing message of God’s Word? I’m certainly not so presumptuous as to think I can contribute something that will last 1000 years or even 100; but I do believe that every good gift (including technology) comes from the One who is called “the Father of Lights” (Jas 1:17) — which makes Him the Father of pixels too. And I believe He smiles when we strive to use those gifts and tools which He has bestowed upon us to enlighten the world.

Particularly the game-changing ones.


1 Hurtado, Larry, The earliest Christian artifacts : manuscripts and Christian origins, Grand Rapids, Mich. : William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2006, p. 47. (“at least 73% of the 3188 codices in LDAB are listed as Christian”).

2 Stanton, Graham, “Early Christian Preference for the Codex” Jrl for the Study of the NT Supplement Series, v.258 (2004; ed: Mark Goodacre), p.48; referencing McCormick ” Typology, Codicology, and Papyrology “, Scriptorium 35 (1981), pp 331-334, 155.

3 “Biblewheel: Scroll vs. Codex” [website]
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MOTERVATION MINISTRIES: Vision Statement

The Goal of Motervation Ministries is to create and build software products that equip and train the people of God for deeper, richer and more impactful study of the Word of God. Built on a foundation of solid hermeneutical and exegetical principles, using the latest technologies of WPF and C#, and incorporating cutting edge research in information visualization, and graph & network theory, the flagship product “CODEX:Serendipitus” hopes to unveil a new paradigm in personal Bible study.
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