Towards the Open Sourcing of Christianity

Written by Mark Van Steenwyk : August 27, 2007

image In a recent post, I shared that I’d be distributing some of the works of Jacques Ellul.  This is illegal.  And, though I believe I am doing the right thing, I know that some folks might take issue with me

For a long time, I have advocated that Christians adopt an “open source” approach to using and sharing resources.  As it is, one must pay royalties to utilize many Scripture resources.  You often have to pay ridiculous rates for sermon illustrations and video clips.  Bible software is uber-expensive.  Is it right that if I write a book for the Church that the wealthy are more able to access it than the poor?  Is it right that only the relative affluent can afford Bible software? 

I understand how the “system” works.  But Christians should challenge the system.  We live within the consumer capitalist system of liberal democracy.  Does that mean that Christian information and resources should flow within the plumbing of that system?

As I see it, when a Christian writes a book that is supposed to benefit the church, it belongs to the church.  How one publishes that book, and how the income for the book is distributed matters.  Obviously, this isn’t a black/white issue.  It is a complex issue that Christian need to think about theologically. 

Three years ago, almost to the day, I wrote the following on this blog:

As it is, the best products (which are created by Christians in order to benefit the church), are only available to the wealthy. Poor people and poor churches can?t afford this stuff. The system is inherently geared to bless the wealthy. The system is based upon consumerism. I say creative Christians everywhere THROW OFF the shackles of consumerist industry and figure out a new system. Open source. Creative Commons. Distributism. Going Non-profit. All these approaches have merit. Let?s develop a new way of doing things, so that the software and books and training manuals, etc., can be made more available to ALL of the Body of Christ, so that we can be more effective in our mission.

Since I wrote this, more and more open-sourcing of information has happened in the Christian world.  But we must become increasingly creative in creating nexuses for sharing.  I would love to see a viable, solid, online bible software alternative…like a wiki where scholars write solid commentaries that can be upgraded whenever new scholarship comes up.  I would love to see nonprofits exist that can help give stipends to thinkers and innovators so that we can create alternatives to expensive resources.  Yes, this is a complex issue.  Yes, I am naive.  But I know that we can do better.  Open source Bible software.  More inexpensive Christian book publishing and distribution.  An open source version of something like Media Shout.  A cooperatively run Christian publisher that publishes with creative commons licensing.

  • What things to you think Christians ought to share?
  • What resources are already out there?
  • How can we help people learn about what is already ought there?
  • What would it take to make this naive dream a reality?

for further reading . . .

  • None Found


17 Responses to “Towards the Open Sourcing of Christianity”

  1. Mark on August 27th, 2007 1:05 pm

    While you may think Christian material should be open source, it doesn’t seem ethical to steal something because you think it is good and people should have access to it. There are other methods of providing the insights this man has to the masses without blatantly disrespecting the wishes of the people who own this material. If you want to throw off the shackles of consumerism then simply stop using that which is copyrighted.

    As the saying goes, “when in Rome, do as the Romans”. If there is nothing unethical about having to pay for intellectual property and the society you live in says you should, then you probably should do it. To steal the material and post it on the internet really exhibits a lack of faith that God will make his purposes happen. He can do this without you having to steal for him.

    The end doesn’t justify the means. If God wants people to access this information, I am sure he will provide a way for it to happen without having to steal it.

  2. Mark on August 27th, 2007 1:13 pm

    To add…

    If you are ethically opposed to Christian material being copyrighted, then you should ensure that you do not copyright any of your own material or support other peoples Christian material that is copyrighted:

    There is an abundance of Christian material/discussion that is free from the shackles of copyright law. The fact that there is Christian material out there that is copyrighted does not mean that there is something wrong, but merely that in a capitalist society, people are going to find ways to market ANYTHING. It is your choice whether you participate in Christian capitalism or not. I myself haven’t entered a Christian bookstore in years as it makes me sick to my stomach as soon as I enter.

  3. Ryan Wiksell on August 27th, 2007 1:48 pm

    I mostly agree with you, Mark, but I’m going to jump in by trying to round out the issue.

    Is the problem that these materials cost money that some don’t have? Or is the problem that those who have the money aren’t helping support those who don’t?

    If the poor are to get blessed, something has to give. You seem to be suggesting that it’s the authors and publishers who should be making the sacrifice. But are these necessarily the right people to sustain the entire burden? Perhaps every time a church purchases a Bible software package, they should be offered the opportunity (for half-price, maybe?) to buy a second one to give to a less financially endowed body of believers. This would be a great example of the two camps working together to achieve the goal.

    Sometimes an author (such as a pastor of a very successful church) or a large publishing company needs to accept its responsibility to provide certain materials for free, and sometimes they do. But we need to place the burden of responsibility on those who are most able to carry it, and oftentimes the author (or musician, or software engineer) is not that person. Quite often they are just trying to put their kids through college like everyone else.

  4. Chris on August 27th, 2007 2:57 pm

    I have to agree with Mark and Ryan. I understand your desire to provide access to something in equal measure to all Christians. But the way you are trying to achieve that is unethical, and like Mark said (but in my own words), it is a teleological effort (your end justifies your means) and not a deontological one. You’re recognizing an underlying challenge (I wouldn’t necessarily even call it a “problem”) in the Christian church, which is the unequal distribution of material resources. But you’re deciding (quite arbitrarily I think) to address it by ignoring the laws that protect a company that provides Christian material. This doesn’t actually address socio-economic inequality in the Church, because not only does it miss the mark on changing consumer patterns among Christians, it doesn’t address why some Christians are rich and some are poor. I admire the effort at open sourcing, but you need the permission of everyone involved in open sourcing for it to work.

  5. amy on August 27th, 2007 5:18 pm

    if you are hoping for more great christian books to get into the hands of poor folks then you could raise some money to buy a whole bunch of them and then give them away.

    if these christian publishers can sell books to people with an excess of money then can’t they use the money they make and produce more books to give away?

    (wait, is this about the poor people or the preacher authors? maybe i need to re-read your post….)

    these are just my first thoughts. i’ll share them even though they may be oversimplified (silly). and i’ll pray on it.

  6. markvans on August 27th, 2007 5:57 pm

    These are fair challenges. I’ll give some serious thought to taking down the Ellul resources. Let’s set that particular issue aside for the sake of conversation here, since there have been a number of issues raised.

    I am all for people getting paid for their work. I’m not advocating that authors take a hit. But the publishing system (and other systems of distribution) are inadequate. My fundamental question is a systemic one: how can we go about this whole thing in a better way?

    This isn’t a case of “when in Rome.” That sort of thinking simply maintains the status quo when it applies to ethics. We don’t adopt the ethical standards of Rome. We try to live out Christian standards. The question I want us to focus in on is this: how can we rethink and reapproach the way in which we distribute information in a way that is just, ethical, and fair?

    All I’m hearing is: “We need to work with it the way it is.” If given the choice between this and violating copyright, I’m tempted to violate copyright. Not arbitrarily. When the Christian anarchist writings of a long deceased author are out of print (and hard to find), is it better to distribute them freely or to honor the law? I’m becoming convinced that it is better to honor the law in this case, but I do so very begrudgingly.

    Yes, at the same time I buy books on Amazon. Why? Because I think the alternative of simply abstaining from capitalism isn’t a real option.

  7. Michael on August 27th, 2007 6:58 pm

    Mark, I think the fact that most of the Ellul stuff you are distributing is out of print is an important factor that most of your critics either don’t realize or are ignoring. If you were distributing a book that is in print, that would be more problematic I think.

    Consider posting a short note that describes your justification for breaking the law in this case: 1) that these books are not in print, 2) that to your knowledge there are no plans to bring these books back into print, and 3) you are providing them for free and for research purposes only.

  8. Jonas Lundström on August 27th, 2007 10:28 pm

    Mark, I respect your choice to publish Ellul´s work. Probably you are doing the right thing. As I see it, this is also a question of delivering God´s message in a worthy manner. We have been given for free and we should give for free. Christians should never demand a specific amount of money for using their spirit-given role in the Messiah´s body. God´s message is a message of grace!! If people freely decide to support our basic needs when we use our gifts, this is ok, but we should deliver even if nobody does.

    To me, this means not only means that I wouldn´t (with the convictions I have today) write a book or an article and demand that people pay for it. I also wouldn´t receive a fixed salary for preaching or serving in the church. In Sweden, we had a movement that started 140 years ago, later called “the free baptists”, that for theological reasons avoided employing pastors etc for almost a hundred years (before they began to be like every bode else). I think they were right.

    I still buy books etc since this often is the only way to get the hands on good material (but thanx to the Bruderhof and others who do it differently). And I think I wouldn´t “steal” a “christian” book. Would you?

  9. amy on August 28th, 2007 8:31 am

    i’m not sure i understand any of this. maybe i should just read/listen… i can’t help but share my thoughts though. please forgive me if i’m way off the mark here. (pardon the pun, hahaaa)

    the reason i’m so confused is that i use copyrighted material all the time in my creative works. chunks and slivers of it, not entire songs or works. i’m not making any money off it. i ask the artists for permission and have received it a few times, from people like sufjan stevens. sometimes i don’t hear back, but so far no one has complained or asked me to remove something from my blog.

    i’m not sure what the problem is. you can borrow what you’re inspired to, share what you’re moved to share, and ask the artist/writer if they mind. if they do then, of course, respect their wishes.

    i’d be very surprised if they minded, though in your case if you’re republishing an entire book or something like that then you really might be infringing on the author’s free will to do with it what he pleases.

    the author who received the work and helped to bring it to earth in whatever form can decide (hopefully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit) what to do with it and how much of it to share and with whom and so on. if you’re moved to share a bit, ask for permission, praise the author, and move on to the next message.

    mark, i hope you don’t mind my frankness…

    but you seem determined to revolutionize something. it’s like part of your identity. it’s curious. but it may get in the way of doing what we’re really supposed to be doing. which is to love one another.

    am i missing something here? i certianly could be, and very likely am… please enlighten me…. i’m listening…

  10. Jesse Gavin on August 28th, 2007 10:13 am

    I wish Christians would spend more of their time creating freely available resources. I think that web-based resources are most easily distributed and here are a few good examples.
    This is chock full features and all free.
    The quality here is ’so-so’ at the moment, but they are adding to it every day. and it is free
    The guy who took all these photos and wrote all the content on this site has volunteered thousands of hours to provide this for free.

    I also think that it is important that some people be able to devote themselves full-time to creating good resources. And since they need to eat and pay the bills, it is necessary for them to have some sort of income. The good news is that there are now MANY creative ways to create income while providing resources for free. We just need to think up some more good ideas.

  11. Jack Frost on August 29th, 2007 5:46 am - Christian Classics Ethereal Library.

  12. Chris on August 30th, 2007 9:51 am

    Well, this has been a fascinating post and a great set of comments. Such a complex issue. I think the central problem, the key to creating an open system of shared resources in the Christian Church is actually to start with a closed system. What makes it difficult to even begin to address any specific material we wish to share (Bible resources, spiritual literature, food, clothing), is that our current system of Christian living is TOO open.

  13. Luke on August 30th, 2007 10:26 pm

    One of my favorite techniques is to summarize all the best bits of an expensive book in a blog post, which is of course available for free.

    The problem of course is that the Christian book publishing industry, and especially the CCM industry, are INDUSTRIES. They exist to make money, not to help people. (That is also why 99% of what they produce, like 99% of the self-help market, is bullshit made to entice - not help - you.)

  14. Michael on August 31st, 2007 7:15 pm

    The problem of course is that the Christian book publishing industry, and especially the CCM industry, are INDUSTRIES.

    Also good to distinguish here between the mainstream Christian book publishing industry (Zondervan owned by Rupert Murdoch, for example) and other theological publishing houses which, although are “industries,” are much smaller and not primarily about profit.

  15. Ariah Fine on September 13th, 2007 12:29 am


    This is fabulous. Let me just say that I strongly resonate with you. I still think you should do what you feel is most in line with following Scripture as it relates to specific situations (the Ellul material), but let’s look at the bigger picture your talking about.

    Your absolutely right that we could do this thing SO much better. I’ve always thought all churches should have libraries, and yet, people still don’t read that much. Imagine inter-library loan from church to church. Wouldn’t that be pretty sweet?

  16. Miracle on September 18th, 2007 6:47 pm

    Interestingly, I found your blog by searching the linking scheme of Ginkworld on Google. We at ginkworld have created the ginktionary as on open source faith dictionary (its a wiki). We also have a rewrite project that words the new testament in today’s cultural language as a open source wiki. I completely agree with your sentiment about open sourcing christianity. It can be done and the main contributors can still find enough income to feed their family. They will just have to be creative and humble about it.

  17. Ariah Fine on September 24th, 2007 10:30 am

    Dude, you got to check this out:

    I think you’d be impressed.

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