I’ve been working on ways to visualize the interconnectedness of the authors of my primary sources on prayer. Many of the authors, folks like C. Peter Wagner, Dutch Sheets, George Otis, Jr., Jack Hayford, Cindy Jacobs, and so on, frequently appear endorsing each others’ works. What I hope to create in the future is a dynamic infographic that allows me to reorganize on-the-fly a relationship tree among the authors. In essence, I want to be able to pick any author in the tree, put them at center, and then see how the network looks. Since that goal is in the distant future (August, maybe?), for now I’ve been content to make progress on how the back-end of such a graphic should be built. I’m still asking myself what format the database should be in to be flexible and upgradeable, and I’m definitely still asking myself what data is really essential to mapping the network. Here’s what the attempt looks like so far:
Feel free to visit the database and play around with it. I’ve put in a few more than a dozen texts that are all about the role of prayer in modern American Christianity. Some of them, like Robert E. Coleman’s The Master Plan of Evangelism have recently been republished in editions that solicited endorsements from important evangelical leaders and authors. You can see that Coleman’s work features blurbs from Billy Graham, Bill Bright, Carl F. Henry and about twenty others. A sample of data is below in the recommended JSON format for inclusion in SIMILE Exhibit projects, the MIT backbone behind my pilot site as it exists at the moment. (That’s also the reason the site loads slowly, it’s drawing the Flash from API on MIT’s servers, but in the future I’ll host it myself which will speed things up considerably):
type : "Text(s)", label : "The Jericho Hour (Eastman, 1994)", title : "The Jericho Hour: The Church's Final Offensive", author : "Dick Eastman", authorlastname : "Eastman, Dick", publisher : "Creation House", year : 1994, endorsements : [ "C. Peter Wagner", "Jack Hayford", "Bill Bright", "Vonette Bright", "David Bryant", "Pat Boone", "Patrick Johnstone"], imageURL : "jerichohour.jpg",
Each of the expressions (type, label, title, etc.) allow the site to return queries for that kind of data. It’s my own personal card catalog, and I can put as much information as I care to into the database. I have pretty good control over how it displays, and I’ll have even more when I host it myself and delve a bit deeper into the heart of the code. There are limitations at the moment, based on my knowledge of JSON and the Exhibit framework, but in the future I hope to include far more than simple discrete bits of bibliographic information. Including the text of each endorsement would be valuable, but links to biographical and text annotations would be even better. Some notes about the data: You can see that for the moment I’ve got two fields for the author name. That’s necessary because I wanted the lists to accurately sort the authors alphabetically. The label includes the author’s last name and date of publication because they are displayed in the Timeline view to help avoid confusion over several similarly titled publications. I’ve also begun to include cover images, which you can see one or two of if you switch to the “Tile” viewing format.
The goal of all of this is naturally to understand the connections among these authors and the spread of their ideas within the American evangelical community. The role of Regal Books, the evangelical division of Henrietta Mears’ Gospel Light, is clearly visible within even this small set of data, as is the decisive influence of C. Peter Wagner (of Fuller Theological Seminary). The small community of authors in the 1990s who took seriously the concept of prayer warriors and warfare prayer were a pretty interconnected bunch. Even if you discount jacket and pre-publication endorsements, there are significant cross-uses of citations and recommendations of important texts. (The bibliographies, when present, are good candidates for a more expansive, hyper-linked database set.)
So what does it mean when these authors give their endorsement? Should we think less of the repeated platitudes given by authors within a single publishing house and more of those that are spread across time and publishers? Who, I hope to know, is the most influential of the authors who published about warfare prayer? Does this person’s significance match industry sales figures? Is their impact measurable? Would insiders affirm the primacy of that person or a particular text? What are the unwritten debts paid in the substance of the texts that might be revealed by showing temporal relationships of related works?
For now what I can say is that endorsements are a great way to understand the immediate context of a work–who the publishers feel it is important to have say something positive about a text and who the author might know that was willing to write a blurb. It’s a snapshot–a limited one–but it does reveal some basic contours of the discourse. The platitudes are often pretty vague praise, so their content is much less revealing to me than their simple existence. It’s hard to tell whether the endorsements come from close review or basic approval of the shape of the project–and frankly that’s the reason that the data can’t be the end part of any type of analysis like this. Endorsements only say as much as publishers let them say, which is usually about two sentences of feel-good prose. But there are still plenty of questions to be answered about the evangelical endorsement cycle and lots of reasons to believe that collecting and organizing this data will be valuable in the future. And I can’t contain my eagerness to see the fruits of visualizing the information. I hope that they will aid my other semantic and historic interpretations, but only time and data will tell. I’ll be sure to keep you updated.
If you’ve got suggestions for how to display this data, please shoot me an email! I’m also always on the lookout for new works to add to my bibliography about spiritual warfare and intercessory prayer. I’ll have my Zotero folder go public soon so I can share with folks here on the blog.