Hackers are people too

hackersThe vast majority of people in America are Christian. So it shouldn't really surprise newsrooms that Christians have a wide variety of vocations. The Baltimore Sun's Tricia Bishop profiled a computer hacker -- a "good" computer hacker who helps organizations find their security weaknesses. Her entire hook for the story is that he's a Christian. Now don't get me wrong -- there's a lot to like in this story. But the piece is presented as if it's some spiritual tour de force. And yet, near as I can tell, the story is a somewhat typical account of life as a Christian.

The lengthy profile starts out quite powerfully:

It was 2003, it was Vegas, and Johnny Long was a rock star.

He slung the blue speaker badge around his neck - careful to make sure everyone could see it - and strutted through the DEF CON hacker convention with his nose in the air and his ears set to whisper mode, listening for the buzz.

Too cool to make eye contact, the 32-year-old cut a path through the crowd, which was mostly made up of men wearing some variation of a black T-shirt, the unofficial uniform for the three-day conference.

Johnny, the Maryland kid who once networked computers in his backyard for fun, had grown up to become a professional hacker, joining an elite team of cyber superheroes - called "StrikeForce" - that was paid to break into computer systems.

And that, along with his knack for using Google to help break into cyber security systems, had just won him a coveted speaking slot at the world's biggest underground hacker convention.

The platform at the conference was easily the highlight of his career, the big payoff for all those late nights staring into a computer screen, the missed time with his wife and kids, and even the high school years when the popular kids ignored him.

Johnny (or j0hnny, as he was known online) had arrived.

And yet, in the wake of this much-anticipated triumph, he was surprised to realize that the only thing he felt was emptiness.

Isn't that a nice beginning to the story? Anyway, Bishop then explains that Long, a lifelong Christian, was in the midst of a midlife crisis. He outs himself as a Christian and, well, not much happens. He continues being a good father and husband while mentoring people.

Hackers are outsiders, idealistic and libertarian, according to the article. The piece explores how hackers get their start as teenagers and includes the tidbit that his best bud in middle school was also a decent kid who didn't get into a whole lot of trouble. He was also Christian.

Bishop goes on to explain that Johnny was cool with the doctrine of Christianity but not with Christian culture -- the way Christians dressed and talked. But his parents took him to church every week and, well, he went. The piece goes into great length about his career path as a hacker, focused on network protocols and security. And it has some interesting information about how Johnny was good at finding security weaknesses. In fact, he found passwords and other security information using Google. And this made him a rock star in the hacker community.

Anyway, Johnny outs himself as a Christian and basically nobody notices or cares. His career takes off. And then:

He was also spending more time with members of the nondenominational church he and his wife, Jen, the product of two missionary parents who has never been one to shy away from a charity case, joined a few years after marrying.

"I've seen him get more intentional about his faith, about the role he believes God plays in his life," said Mark Norman, senior pastor of Fulton's Grace Community Church. Norman got to know Johnny through a church Bible study group. "There was a deepening, a maturity."

On the convention circuit, Johnny invariably declared himself to be a Christian during presentations, with ever-growing conviction behind the words.

But he was still looking for a way to combine his passion for computers with his faith. He goes on a church trip to Uganda to help children orphaned by AIDS. He put computer networks together there, saving thousands of dollars. Which brings us to the big finish. He decided to hack charities: hackershackers

The idea is to get hackers from around the world to volunteer their time and used gear to various charities that seriously need technical help, whether it's through securing their sites or finding ways to pair children with sponsors online, like Johnny is working on for AOET.

I've served Christian groups in a few different capacities and pretty much everyone I served with went through a process of figuring out how to use their secular vocational skills to support the organizations. There's nothing wrong -- and a lot right -- with writing about the process but the article is presented as if it's some miraculous story.

The other problem with the story is that you could have replaced the word Christian with any number of other descriptors -- Rotarian, vegetarian, libertarian -- and had a very similar story. What was it about his Christian faith that led him to do what he ended up doing? How did his Christian faith come into play? Could we get anything specific -- a Bible passage, a key doctrine, an exemplary brother in the faith?

The media are obsessed with writing about religion when it intersects with politics. But for many people, religion is more likely to intersect with family relationships, jobs and daily living. I commend Bishop for writing about the daily life of the Christian. I just wish we got some more details.

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