Sunday, December 20, 2009


I have created this post as a kind of gateway site. The idea here is to keep a topical table of contents to my favorite posts.

Experiments in Graphical Philosophy
(These tend to be my most popular and most original posts)

-Why I am a Christian Despite Evidence to the Contrary (or Testing the R-squared of a World View)

-My Problem With Religion: A Quantitative Inquiry

-Why Christians Suck: The Problem of Christian Hypocrisy

(Posts about counter-intuitive intersections of theology and ecology*)

-The ‘Ideal Free Distribution’ of Professional Incompetence: Applying Patch Dynamics to the Workplace

-The Altruism Paradox: The Surprising Confluence of Christian Anthropology and Evolutionary Biology

-Theo-Coleopteraphelia: Actually, “An inordinate fondness for beetles” is precisely what I would expect

*two fields I have graduate degrees in
General Theology

-Easter Reflections on...the Honey Badger

-Psalm Plots (This was my most popular post.  It didn't exactly go viral, but got a serious case of internet sniffles)

-Chesterton’s Apple: Thoughts on Empirical Mysticism

Cultural Artifacts

-Briony’s Unsatisfying Atonement

Black Mirror and the Commodification of Outrage


-How I Stopped Hating Church

Travel Logs: CambodiaParaguay, Guyana, Afganistan, Kenya, and The Odyssey [2]
My 14 Favorite Hikes: Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3
Cities: BangkokSt Louis, Portland, Las Vegas , Kansas City 1, KC 2

Annual Reading Summaries: 2014 Fiction, 2013 Fiction, 2013 Non Fiction, 2012 Fiction, 2012 Non Fiction, 2011 Fiction, 2011 Non Fiction, 2010, 2009

Fragments and Links[1]: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Explanation of the Blog Title-The Ogre’s Castle

Preaching: MP3’s and Manuscripts
[1] These are posts composed of several ‘mini-posts’ or fragments what I thought were interesting but that didn’t merit their own post
[2] This was a seven day introductory field trip with the new class of UC Davis ecology Graduate Students.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Father’s Time Machine

Not many people can say they actually knew a mountain man. I did. Our neighbor growing up was an older man named Gordon. He lived in a double wide about 150 yards down the road, but totally out of sight as both our plots were surrounded by the thick, deciduous forest characteristic of our upstate home. He sold us our house when he got divorced and carved out a little corner of the land to continue living on. He could have just been the eccentric guy that I waved to as I jogged or biked by, but my dad decided he was precisely the kind of man that a couple of young boys should know[1]. My dad was right.

The first time we went out with Gordon it was to check his beaver trap line. We spent a full day in knee deep snow that ended with me lying on top of a pile of frozen, dead beavers in a snowmobile trailer[2], clinging desperately to the metal frame to keep from being thrown off. Yet, somehow, all of my memories from this day are exceedingly positive. It was the first time I shot a pistol[3] and at lunch, when we broke out our pb&j’s Gordon made a fire and warmed some beaver stew that simply looked an order of magnitude better than what we were eating. By the end of the day, my brother and I had actually strung a couple of the dead beavers up on a thick branch and carried them between us like we were Native Americans.[4]

As we got older Gordon began to bring us to Lost Creek. Lost Creek was a semi-permanent camping site he had forged for the summer months, a ten mile hike into the underutilized public swamp lands on the edge of Adirondack State Park. Each winter, he would stash the homemade wood stove and pack everything else out. Then, each spring, he would rebuild his elaborate canvas cabin which became home base for the summer hunting and trapping seasons[5]. He had done this for years, and had never encountered another person. We would eat woodland creatures (simply but deliciously prepared) by the wood stove in his comfortable but rustic structure at night and listen to stories of his adventures.[6] By day, we would check the traps, explore the woods and drink as much water as we could hold from the artesian spring that day lighted 50 feet from the camp.

Gordon walked those uneven miles in and out again and again, more often then not pushing a heavy load of dispatched critters[7] or supplies in what was essentially, a customized, back country wheelbarrow. It is all the more remarkable because he walked with a pronounced limp, a souvenir from his days as a paratrooper who specialized in setting up communication posts behind enemy lines.

My last trip to Lost Creek post dated my complete loss of interest in dispatching animals for fun, food and profit. I brought a book. I don’t think Gordon ever understood my transition to bookish quasi-jock. Shortly after I went to college his hip was too bad to hike and he made his last trip to lost creek with my dad to extract the last of his stuff. I guess I can’t say I was surprised when my dad told me that he put his shotgun in his mouth less than a year later. I can’t defend the decision, but I also could not imagine him living another ten years in that trailer.

In retrospect, Lost Creek was a time machine. What we got to experience was about as close to the lifestyle of the first European settlers as could be reasonably imagined. But my dad’s precise pedagogical objectives were a little eccentric. It was the end of the cold war, but he was very much a product of it. One of his admitted objectives in raising us was to give us life skills to survive a nuclear winter.[8] But I think the less precise goal was to offer a compelling alternative to the MTV culture[9] we were buying into uncritically. It was a different vision of humanness. It was a different vision of human connection to the rest of the world. It was a way of living where satisfaction was uncorrelated with efficiency or possession. It tempered the devotion of my worship at the temple of the Watertown Mall with the understanding that people live robust, content lives that were totally other than the impoverished version of the American dream I was being offered. I consider the opportunity to know a mountain man a fine bit of parenting on my father’s part. I hope I can find individuals who will affect my children in similar ways.
[1] My dad did stuff like this all the time. I remember that he would send me over to the house of a family friend who was a widower to play dominoes. When I protested that I did not have anything to talk to an old dude about, dad replied ‘ask him about the depression.’ The pedagogical value (and character formation) of these dominoes games far exceeded any social studies content I ever received on this era.
[2] Being the first born has obvious privileges, but when the snowmobile has 3 seats and there are 4 people and a trailer full of dead beavers…lets just say that they don’t totally seem worth it.
[3] I never even got close to the bottle we were shooting at, making it an experience that would affect the way I experienced action films for years.
[4] Or, more likely, as if we were Ewocks.
[5] Permanent structures were not allowed on public land.
[6] Including not one but two bear attacks. There was also a story about how he was hopelessly lost (and when Gordon was lost, it was likely some of the least traveled woods in the north east) and suddenly happened upon a random compass laying on the wood floor. He said, ‘You see boys, this is how I know that God is always looking out for you.’ This was the only insight we ever go into his faith.
[7] He would always stop by our house after catching a fisher or shooting a bear. We always thought it was cool but rarely considered the effort it must have taken to haul a full grown bear 10 difficult miles out of the woods.
[8] At one point I could skin a muskrat in under ninety seconds. This, surprisingly, was not on my PhD qualifying exam.
[9] Though most of our experience to MTV culture was second hand because we lived so far away from ‘town’ that cable never actually made it to us…leaving us with 4 channels. My brother recently said in a sermon: “I have watched a whole He Haw standing next to the TV holding the bunny ears. He Haw was the Saturday night live of my generation…if you were really really rural.” You would think that this would have preserved me from owning a pair of hammer pants or Skidz overalls…sadly it did not.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Augustine as Comedian: Part 1 – Unintentional Comedy

Augustine is best know for Confessions, a reflective, passionate, devotional classic that is essentially an autobiographical[1] prayer. It was mandatory reading in our secular undergrad’s humanities program. I have since enjoyed several other works by and about the Bishop of Hippo (most notably, On Christian Doctrine which I eagerly devoured in a single sitting[2]) and have even given talks on his life and theology. So when my reading group proposed taking on his City of God I was thrilled. Let’s just say that it was a slog, even for an admitted Augustine enthusiast. But I took pretty detailed notes[3] on themes and trends. One of the surprising early trends was that in each of our first two or three meetings my friend Dan brought to our attention a line or two that were legitimately hilarious. Soon my weekly notes included a “Comic Passages” section which included entries from all but one chapter.

Even after I sifted through it (to get rid of repetition and ‘you had to be there[4]’ sort of stuff) it is a lot of material for a blog post so I am splitting it by type of comedy: intentional and unintentional[5]. This post will focus on Augustine’s unintentional comedy[6] under two main headings: bombast and irony.


First, we were impressed with the creativity and range with which Augustine mocked the critical faculties of his interlocutors.

“…and anyone who does not admit this is insane.” (392)

“…this was silly talk…” (454)

“Yet anyone who reads the passage in Daniel, even if half-asleep, cannot conceivably doubt the reign of the antichrist is to be endured…” (945)

“No one, unless he is deaf as well as daft, could have any doubt…” (1078)

I guess it would be easy to read these and simply conclude that Augustine was an enormous douche. But this is something you have to get over quickly if you are going to profit from any polemical work written more than, say, seventy years ago. So, instead, we started experiencing his self confident bombast as unintentional comedy in the creative range of his dismissals. It is fun to imagine how he would have fared in a ‘battle’ with the likes of Eminem[7]. I suspect he would have done just fine.

Then there is this gem on his exegesis of 2 Thessalonians 2 “I admit that the meaning of this completely escapes me. For all that, I shall not refrain from mentioning some guesses at the meaning[8]…” (933)

And then there was his compliment to the philosopher Varro: “I understand the difficulty experienced by an intelligence of such range and quality.” (289)

Finally, there was his seemingly unfortunate definition of preaching: “Though there may be direct and clear prophetic statements on any subject, allegorical statements are inevitably intermingled with them, and it is those especially that force upon scholars the laborious business of discussion and exposition for the more slow witted.” (746)

Again, he comes off as a total d#$%, but if you read it, giving him the benefit of the doubt, this comment demonstrates his fundamentally pastoral heart. To Augustine, there was no ivory tower. The point of philosophy and Biblical scholarship was to help people live better. He expended the long hard hours in his study for the benefit of the people who looked to him for insight. Modern rhetorical style finds him wanting, but there is something of real value here from one of the greatest minds in the history of western civilization.


The second great reservoir of unintentional comedy was the passages in which he condescends upon some characteristic he represented. For example many of the unintentional comic passages are either the self parody of his loquaciousness or comedy born of his obliviousness to the same.

On Prolixity:

“Is anything more loquacious than folly.” (224) –said the guy who wrote the 1000 page book

“If all the details that are so pregnant with hidden meaning of great importance were closely sifted, the results would fill many volumes. But a limit has to be set to this work, to keep it a reasonable size and this compels us to hurry on to other topics.” (701)

“even though philosophy had not yet erupted in a teeming flood of subtle and ingenious loquacity.” (791)[10]

“…but this book is prolix enough already, and I am afraid of seeming to seize an occasion for showing off my trifles of knowledge, for idle effect rather than for any advantage to the reader.” (466)

At this point I decided that Augustine’s major works would have been better if he had had a blog. He could have unloaded some of these ‘trifles’ that are embarrassing to a modern reader and make the book over long.

On Tedium:

“just as many words are used to refer to one thing, to emphasize a point without inducing boredom” (401) This was not my experience.

“It is, in my view, impossible to decide for certain whether Socrates was led to take this course (turning philosophy to morality) by the boredom induced by obscure and inconclusive subjects…” (301)

OK, I realize that the humor is hidden pretty deep here, but go back and read that again if you didn’t get it. Augustine is wondering out loud if Socrates turned philosophy into ethics because he wasn’t a very good philosopher or because he was a REALLY good philosopher, and just got board with it. I realize that this is a joke that takes far too long (say 600 years) to unfold, but that is freeking hilarious.

On Proportional Profundity:

“Now, take the prophet Hosea, he certainly has profound things to say, but his message is difficult of penetration in proportion to its profundity.”[11] (795)

I include this in the ‘Irony’ section because this is precisely how I experienced the City of God. It is rightly esteemed as a central work of Western thought, if only for the paradigm shifting ideas about: time, the just war, church/state and eschatology.[12] But unfortunately, reading time is one of my most limited commodities, so works (even classic works) get rated not only on their profundity but by a product of their profundity and their accessibility.

Next…Augustine’s Intentional Comedy

This post was written while listening to The Dear Hunter Pandora Station

[1] Many assert that he innovated the genre of autobiography.
[2] A rarity for me since I read so slowly.
[3] I have an 87 page word document with major themes, quotes, and notes that I could e-mail if anyone is interested.
[4] ‘there’ usually being a 34 page discussion of an obscure Roman philosopher who’s work isn’t otherwise extant
[5] Which will include his characteristic dark humor, a surprising amount of sexual or scatological hilarity, and a category I could only label: ‘um...what?’
[6] As such, this post will be mostly irreverent to a guy who is, really, one of my heroes. But the ability to laugh at someone’s ridiculousness is a pretty good litmus test for differentiating between healthy admiration and unhealthy idealization.
[7] A contemporary context (as in, it was contemporary 10 years ago) in which ad hominem polemics are considered fair game.
[8] While this confidence may seem misplaced to a contemporary evangelical trained in historical-grammatical hermeneutics, it makes far more sense in the context of ‘On Christian Doctrine’ where Augustine essentially argues that interpreting scripture is difficult and making localized errors in interpreting individual passages is not that grievous an error, as long as you err does not depart from the overall teachings of scripture.
[9] I am using the word irony ‘in the way it has come to be know.’ Here’s the thing, I know Irony’s pure definition. Let’s call it the Keirkegaardian use of Irony, saying one thing but meaning the opposite. But the word’s semantic range has clearly expanded to include what I will call the Alanis Morissette usage of, ‘wow that is oddly poetic or had the opposite outcome that one would expect.” I am open to another, more precise, verbal signifier to describe this latter phenomena, but until I get one I will continue to brazenly misuse ‘irony’ under the expansive protection of the ‘contemporary semantic range’ argument.

[10] Some days this is how I feel about philosophy.
[11] This is pretty much how I feel about the Old Testament in general (i.e. why it is hard to preach and why most Christians who read their Bibles regularly camp out in the New Testament). The cultural distance is greater and so it takes more work to mine it for value. It is like the historic shaft Iron mines in the Adirondacks that were abandoned once the Minnesota strip operations spun up. It is just more economical to mine the NT for insight. I am not defending this, just observing it.
[12] I owe my own loosely held position of amillennialism to the Bishop of Hippo.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

UCD Fish on ESPN

I am going to resist the urge to turn this into a biology blog (or even a science blog) now that much of my reflective/study time is spent on Carbon based organisms and systems, but as I continue to sit on some partially written philosophical/theological pieces, I thought I’d do a video post[1] on my biological brain crush…fish.

The biodiversity class at UCD broke the class down into 3 parts with 3 professors: One for prokaryotes, one for plants and one for metazoans (animals). The ‘animal’ Prof[2]studies fish feeding and showed us the following video in class.

The Prokaryote prof[3] twittered this link and in 48 hours it had gone viral with > 200,00 views, culminating in it ending up on ESPN’s SportsNation.

Four things interest me about this anecdote:

1. This story about disseminating academic research on fish feeding included three media forms: television, YouTube and Twitter. I have thought a lot about what the scientific community owes the society that funds it in return for that investment (particularly for those forms of science that do not translate into technology). I feel like this is precisely the sort of result I would hope for. In addition to the formal contributions to the journals, these professors have leveraged technology to produce cultural value from the result of (admittedly obscure) work. [4]

2. Some of you may recall my very early post about content and community. I argued that the model of the lonely preacher producing compelling content week after week is fundamentally flawed and is an expectation unmatched by any other professional field. Even the academy is going to this model of producing content in community. It is not a coincidence that a class this good had three world class minds contributing to it.

3. Prof Wainwright liked to say human[5] jaw structure is relatively boring, having a single hinge. All our specialization is in our teeth. But there is incredibly rich and gorgeous diversity in the jaw structures of fish. I feel like there is a Tolkein-esque insight here about unexpected reservoirs of transcendence[6].

4. I love the confluence of science and sports as the punch line of this anecdote precisely because I counter-intuitively have the same existential reaction to theses seemingly disparate spheres. I enjoy descriptive science and sports because they are both windows into transcendence. One could say that Chris Johnson and the slingjaw wrasse are both just curious because they are tails of statistical distributions and therefore appeal to our voyeurism. But I choose to believe that there is something more than that going on. I think that both of these exceptional organisms tap into our desire to experience something qualitatively different[7]. Our fascination with them is a symptom of a spiritual hunger…an appetite for otherness...a conduit for worship.[8]

But mainly this post is just an excuse to post a series of Professor Wainwright’s stunning videos. So here are a few more[9]:

This post was prepared while listening to the Charlie Darwin Pandora Station

(Note: Listening to a station based on a hauntingly beautiful song called 'Charlie Darwin' seemed appropriate for this post, even before it brought up this song.)
[1] This is the kind of thing that would normally end up in one of my fragment’s posts, but between wrapping up my PhD, finals, family, work and a pretty rigorous preaching schedule this blog has been quieter than I like. So it became its own post.
[2] Peter Wainwright – a fantastic and energetic lecturer.
[3] World renowned Jonathan Eisen, also a fantastic professor, who maintains a very good blog on evolutionary biology. And Martin Doyle, the undisputed Angiosperm expert handled plants…lets just say to call the class thrilling is an understatement. Sadly, the brilliance was lost on many of the pre-med undergrads who simply saw it as a difficult obstacle between them and becoming a cutter.
[4] In light of my perspective on this I have distilled my dissertation into 10 - 3 minute videos and will have a nerdy YouTube channel of my own once my third paper is accepted.
[5] Actually, all Tetrapods.
[6] One of the comments on his youtoube channel asks “are you a scientist or an artist or both?” – I do enjoy the blurred distinction. Anyone who has read this blog for a while will recognize that I think the distinction between those categories is all together too rigid.
[7] Prof Wainwright himself appears to also experience some sort of beauty in both of these enterprises since his first lecture included a discussion of natural selection, ecological specialization and phenotpypic variation by examining NFL combine stats for various positions in three different decades. It was a bit of a non-sequiter, but thoroughly enjoyable and intellectually profitable.
[8] Incidentally, this gets at the root of the most prevalent of all spiritual disorders: idolatry. 'Idolatry' tends to invoke the anachronistic image of ancient Mesopotamians bowing down before great bovine statues. But it is every bit as prevalent and insidious in our milieu, as idolatry is simply confusing an awe inspiring object/organism/experience as a source of transcendence rather than a conduit.
[9] You can link to his Youtube channel here.