Friday, May 16, 2014

What You Can Expect From A Book By Neil Cole, Part 2: The Positive Remarks

I am blogging about the consistent themes and questions that emerge from those who have read my books over the years. I'm not doing this as a defense or to bolster my self-esteem, but simply to let you in on some of the philosophy behind why I do what I do the way I do it.

In the last post I looked at the negative remarks that typically are raised. They do not bother me. I've been a published author for almost 20 years now, trust me, I can handle criticism...I actually like learning from it and hope I am becoming a better writer as years go by because of it.

In this post I want to highlight some of the positive observations that consistently emerge. Now, I didn't do the last post so that people feel sorry for me and stroke my fragile ego, and I am not doing this one to boast. These articles are strictly to lift up the hood and let you see what is going on inside my writing process a bit.

"Cole is not some ivory tower theoretician. He is a practitioner." Strangely enough, the actual words "not an ivory tower theoretician" come up a lot when people remark about my books. Weird huh? I made a commitment a long time ago that I would not publish something that I didn't prove to work out in my own life first. In fact, I go further than that. It needs to have worked in other people's lives for a few generations before we publish it. I distinctly remember reading a specific book about cell-based church model that was drawn from the expertise of leaders in another nation and culture. It was not the experience of the author and was never proven to work in a US context. While the book was enjoyable to read, and sounded great, it was not doable in a Western postmoden world. I decided, then that I would first do the work and then write on it after I had the chance of proving the ideas. I have held that core value ever since.

This value causes a few things to be evident in my writing:

1. It takes longer to write. I have often had sound ideas and known that I needed to write "that book" but couldn't for many years. Journeys to Significance took 15 years to write so that it had substance behind its theories. Primal Fire was attempted twice with other co-authors before it eventually was published. Frankly it is a better book because of the extra time. Sometimes this means my book is not the first to hit the market on a subject, which is admittedly the downside to this core value.

2. The content is better. There is no substitute for trial by error. Something that is a good idea on paper may not work in real life, but you can't even know this until you put the ideas to work in real life. Unfortunately many books are built on ideas that have never been proven. Because I only write on things that we have actually done, and proven to work, the content has more depth and a sense of reality to it. There are also examples and stories to make the writing more human.

The insights that emerge from experience cannot be manufactured in a study or by reading books. For example, many books describe movements from an outside perspective listing characteristics viewed about them. Church 3.0 however asks questions and puts forward content you can only discover having been in the midst of a real movement. Until you are doing the actual foot to ground work, you don't even know what the right questions are. You learn what is truly important and, perhaps more significantly, what is not, when you actually do the work on the ground with real flawed human beings.

3. The content is practical and proven, and not bound to only one culture. We actually value seeing our ideas work in more than one context before we publish, so the books also translate well into other languages and cultures. Recently a highly respected thought leader, when comparing the genre of missional church books available, mentioned that mine are more cross cultural than most of the others. That is high praise indeed, and not an accident. 

We test ideas in other cultures around the world before we publish them. For us, if what we do works in California, but not in Calcutta than we go back to the drawing board. For every good idea we publish there are ten that didn't work out. We've had a "shelf of shame" that holds the products that we have developed over the years that do not multiply, or work in other cultures and languages. They collect dust and nothing more.

When we have a product that has a restricted cultural application, we will say so in the publication. TruthQuest, our theological learning system, is like that. It only works in literate cultures with theological textbooks available in that nation, but it works incredibly well in those places. We say upfront that this product has limited usage around the world, but we still produce it because there are enough people groups that can still benefit from it. We also have adaptations to some tools so that they work in oral societies and among people who are unable to read.

"Where others are philosophical, Cole's work is very biblical." It is true that the word "biblical" gets thrown around too often to verify one's ideas with Scriptural authority. I hope I am not doing that. But honestly, I think the Bible is the only real authority to change lives and so I want it to speak for itself. I also find that most of the real good ideas can be discovered in the Bible if you look at it with eyes to see and ears to hear.

I once had a rather conservative Bible teacher (who viewed me as "liberal" if you want the right context) say to me privately: "I'll never admit it publicly, and will probably deny it if you ask me later, but I think you are more of a biblicist than I am." This was one of the best complements I have ever received.

My strange little anabaptist/reformed/dispensational denomination (is it possible to be all of these? Probably not, just look at our denomination...if you can find us) did one thing for me, it planted the love of Scripture in me, and for that I am grateful. I remember when I was heading off to seminary a mentor of mine, Randy Creswell, said, "If you spent the same amount of time that you will give to seminary (class time and homework), in simply reading the bible over and over you will probably learn more and save a lot of money." I didn't listen and spent a lot of money and went to seminary. I do not regret it. After I graduated, however, I realized I spent 5 years studying about the Bible and little of that time actually studying the Bible itself. With my mentors words in mind, I then devoted the rest of my life to just studying the Bible itself. I have made it my habit to read 20 to 30 chapters of Bible reading weekly, reading entire books in context and repetitively and that has set my whole life on a certain trajectory, and I believe it comes out in my writing.

"Cole's books look at common ideas with fresh eyes and reveal things we have all missed." This is a passion of mine. I was raised by an artist and received my degree in art as well. I still think of myself as an artist.

For me there is a difference between an artist and a craftsman. A craftsman has a skill to produce or reproduce something. A painter who paints something that looks exactly like a photograph is exhibiting a craftsman's talent. But the photographer who took the picture––who saw the composition, colors and beauty––is the artist. I think imagination and creativity is the difference between a craftsman and an artist (the best artists are both).

I look at life through the eyes of an artist. I do not just want to reproduce what is obvious, I want to see what is not obvious and then bring that to light. I feel that we have been created to create. God delights in His image within us. So while I respect the intelligence of those who have gone before me, I am not content to simply accept their thinking, I want to look beyond that. I want to view things from a new perspective. In my opinion, if my thoughts are not fresh they are not worth publishing. I have stopped writing a book simply because someone else published a good book on the subject and said what I would have said.

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