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Calvin prof makes Christian classics available on-line

  When Harry Plantinga was faced with a spiritual crisis he turned to what some might consider an unusual resource: the internet.

What he found there helped him survive a tough time in his life. So he decided to "payback" the internet. And what began as a simple act of gratitude now helps literally hundreds of thousands of people around the world.

The saga began in 1993 when Plantinga and his wife Pam learned that their children Peter, then three, and Anna, then 14 months of age, were both hearing impaired. The news hit the new parents hard.

"It was a blow," said Plantinga. "I asked many questions of God. How could he let them both be hard of hearing? What can his love mean for us if it doesn't protect us from severe difficulties such as handicaps?"

It was in dealing with the crisis that Plantinga found an electronic edition of The Imitation of Christ on the internet. Plantinga, now a professor of computer science at Calvin College, was working at the time in Pennsylvania in computer graphics—essentially, he says, "figuring out ways to make video games run faster." The internet was a familiar place for him. Yet finding an unexpected theological treasure such as The Imitation of Christ there was an unexpected surprise. He loaded the book onto his laptop and read through it from start to finish.

"It helped me a great deal," he said. "And I found it on the internet!"

In his gratitude he decided to scan the book into his computer and make it available to an even wider audience. Then he asked his pastor for recommendations about other classic Christian works. He began to not only read those classics, but also scan them.

Gradually he began to develop a little library of classic Christian works available electronically.

Now, six years later, the "Christian Classics Ethereal Library" (or as Plantinga terms it, Cecil) contains hundreds of volumes of the most important Christian books from the past 2,000 years—including works of theology, philosophy and history as well as commentaries, reference works and four different versions of the Bible.

Plantinga, a 1983 Calvin physics graduate, has arranged the works in their own website ( and that site gets about 150,000 hits a day from over 100 countries. Plantinga guesses that some 15,000 people a day visit his virtual library.

In addition Plantinga has developed a CD-rom which includes just some of the material on the website. That CD-rom alone contains 300 or so "of the best Christian books ever written," including such things as John Calvin's Institutes, Augustine's Confessions, select sermons from Jonathan Edwards, Revelations of Divine Love by Julian of Norwich, John Milton's Paradise Lost, The Psalms and Hymns of Isaac Watts and many more.

Plantinga, who joined Calvin's faculty in the fall of 1999, estimates that there are some 5,000 such CD-roms in circulation now with about two thirds of those being used in second world, third world and developing countries.

Recently, for example, Plantinga's father (Notre Dame professor Alvin Plantinga) visited Siberia. He tucked one of Harry's CD-roms into his carry-on bag and brought the disc to a school beginning a minister-training program. The school's theological library had been contained in one rickety bookcase and consisted largely of old missionary tracts from the 1950s. In one fell swoop the CD-rom expanded the school's library in a way that prior to digital technology would have been almost impossible.

Between the website and the CD-rom the Christian Classics Ethereal Library is impacting a wide range of people around the world. The website, notes Plantinga, gets hits from everyone from college students and professors to at-home Bible studies to people taking a break at work to monks and nuns. And each day he gets 10 to 20 e-mails testifying to Cecil's worth.

Plans are to make the CCEL even better.

He is currently working with five Calvin computer science students on the development of "CCEL next generation." The quintet is: Eric Bengtson, Jason Bode, Adam Emerson, Ben Meyer and Jeff Plantinga.

In addition scores of volunteers around the world assist Harry Plantinga in scanning, proofreading and editing documents for the CCEL. Eventually Plantinga hopes to see the CCEL contain 1,000 or so of the most important public domain works for theological study.

"It seems unlikely," he admits, "but six years ago I didn't expect to be working with dusty old theological books let alone sending CD-roms around the world. I'm still not sure I can thank God that Peter and Anna are hard of hearing, but much good has surely resulted."

—Phil deHaan '84

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