Thursday, January 04, 2007


At Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, you will find Carpenter Hall, a building named for Rolla C. Carpenter, who in the 19th century was a professor of experimental engineering, and who in this century is mostly forgotten. In his 1895 book, Heating and Ventilating Buildings, Carpenter relates this story:

“Fahrenheit a German merchant, in 1721 was the first to make a mercurial thermometer. Fahrenheit took as fixed points the temperature of the human body, which he called 24 degrees, and a mixture of salt and salt ammoniac, which he supposed the greatest cold possible, as zero. On this scale the freezing point was eight degrees. These degrees were afterwards divided into quarters, and later these subdivisions themselves were termed degrees. On this modified scale the freezing point of water becomes 32 degrees, blood-heat 96 degrees (as determined later, this should be 98 degrees), and the point of boiling water at atmospheric pressure 212 degrees.”

Americans still use this unscientific instrument today, despite its awkwardness and foreign roots, a practice that perplexed the professor more than a century ago. “Except for the fact that it has been long in use, it has not a single feature to recommend it,” he concluded about the Fahrenheit system. Did you ever wonder why we say 32 degrees instead of say 30 degrees? Why is boiling 212 instead of 210 degrees? It is because Gabriel Daniel Fahrenheit made it all up as he went along, and today we treat it as though it were written on a stone tablet.

How many things do we do in church just because they have been long in use even if they do not have a single feature to recommend them? We often treat something as if it were one of the Ten Commandments just because we have always done it that way. I think another reason why in America we still use Fahrenheit is because we do not want to go to the trouble of unlearning degrees Fahrenheit and relearning Celsius. The same goes for inches and feet as opposed to the metric system.

I know that I am as lazy as the next guy when it comes to unlearning old assumptions and ways of doing things and then relearning a better way. But if our calling is to advance the Kingdom of God can we be so cavalier about changing our ways to be more effective. This year I am going to continue to reexamine how we “do church” in order to become more effective.

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