Wednesday, December 29, 2010

2010 A Year In Books

Last year I posted a list of the books I read…and it was fun. So I am doing it again.

Madame Bovary (A)[1] - Flaubert

Definitely more “important” than “good.” MB is a heavy handed morality tale that lacks a single redemptive character. But apparently Flaubert innovated the modern novel…and I can see the template for all of the great ones in it. So there is that.

The Power and the Glory – Graham Greene

LOVED it! This is my new favorite novel not written by a dead Russian[2]. I wrote a post on it.

Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs - Klosterman (A)

This is my third time through SDACP[3]. By now it is a period piece. But it remains THE definitive statement of Xer culture. It led to one of my favorite posts ever. And Klosterman is a bit of a rhetorical mentor for me, so listening to him read his best prose is valuable in its own right. I suspect this will not be the last time SDACP ends up on one of my year end lists.

Robinson Caruso (A) - Daniel Defoe

This book is REALLY old. And, while I am always trying to be aware of “chronological snobbery”[4], my brother described it as “a book that passed for entertainment in a time when there wasn’t anything else to do.”

Jesus and the Victory of God - NT Wright

Over 1000 pages into Wright’s scholarly series I am beginning to feel diminishing returns.[5] I might be a one woman man, but I am a promiscuous reader. I am beginning to feel a little smothered in this relationship and really want to “start seeing other people”. Still, this text has been hugely valuable. My basic take on Wright is that about half the time I think his method leads him to a spurious interpretation and the other half of the time his reconstruction of first century Palestine makes complete sense of biblical passages that were previously obscure. His treatments of Mark 13, the cleansing of the temple, and that weird passage where Jesus talks about driving out a demon only to have it replaced with seven stronger ones were worth the price of admission. Oh, and he demolishes the Jesus seminar stuff without breaking a sweat (and without being a jerk).

Lilith – George McDonald (A)

George McDonald might be best known as a character rather than an author. He was the Virgil type guide in CS Lewis’ The Great Divorce. But he[6] was also one of the indirect[7] instigators of Lewis’ conversion. I liked Lilith. It started really slowly but there were a couple of sublime chapters near the end. Friends have suggested that McDonald’s children’s literature is really his best stuff…so expect some of that on next year’s list.

Drive – Daniel Pink (A)

Most of the valuable ideas from this book were summarized by his TED talk. This is the classic case of a book that could have been a pamphlet. Still, the big ideas are pretty compelling. They include 1) for creative problem solving type jobs, monetary incentives impede rather than augment innovation[8] 2) success is not correlated with intelligence but how one perceives intelligence.[9]

Pensees: Christianity for Modern Pagans - Pascal/Kreeft

Pensees was the first book I read for fun by someone who had been dead for several hundred years. I loved it. In many ways, Pascal became my intellectual mentor[10] and introduced me to the many many dead friends and mentors I have had over the years. In a couple weeks, I am giving a talk on his life and thought,[11] wanted to revisit the Pensees, and happened on this fantastic book. Peter Kreeft has selected and organized[12] the best of the Pensees and then wrote a sort of midrash.[13] Some of his reflections on Pascal are more valuable than others, but to have an excellent contemporary thinker articulate the current import of enduring[14] insights of one of the all time great thinkers makes for a fun read. Kreeft’s[15] tone (simultaneously serious and playful) is also a good match for Pascal, whose tone is similar.

Paul for Everyone: 2 Corinthians – NT Wright

As usual, Wright’s popular work is as useful as his scholarly work. I read this little text to orient myself to the scope of 2 Corinthians before I began a detailed study of the passages I was going to preach.

Ezra and Nehemiah – Derek Kidner

The post-exilic OT literature is surprisingly difficult. Haggai and Zachariah[16] only make sense on the backdrop of Ezra and Nehemiah, but the historical books are unhelpfully non-sequantial and kind of confusing. So, when I agreed to teach Nehemiah over the summer I knew I was going to have to do some preliminary heavy lifting. Kidner made it easy. This thin little text laid out the chronology and significance of both books in a readable and insightful way. I highly recommend it for anyone hoping to understand the post-exilic texts.[17]

Home – Marilynne Robinson (A)

I have a friend who met Robinson relayed an off the cuff quote where the author confessed, “I hate plot.” Let’s just say, I believe this story. But she writes beautifully. I knew these characters. I can still picture them better than characters from film. And the last page of this book made me cry. I can’t remember the last time that happened.

In the Beauty of the Lilies - Updike [18]

I just love Updike’s sentences. I was lukewarm on the plot, but plot is not why I read Updike. I read him for his lyrical use of our language and his unshakable Christ hauntedness.

Partial Reads

Letters to my Students – CH Spurgeon (50%)

This was easily the most nourishing volume I read this year. It got squeezed out of the rotation by more pressing books, but it will almost certainly end up on next year’s list as a completed book. The book served two purposes 1) It is the transcripts of his lectures on preaching. His insights were enormously helpful not only for my personal preaching but for the class we are teaching on it. I even assigned a few pages for our students. 2) He uses words so well. I try to work some authors into my rotation who have the gift to select and order words in such a way that the product is qualitatively different than most writing. This is why I read Updike and Robinson, and Spurgeon has the same gift.

The Princeton Guide to Ecology – ed. Levin (40%)

I LOVED this book. It is a compellation of 92 six to ten page reviews of the state of the art regarding the most important ecological principles. The papers are mercifully and maniacally brief literature reviews that oriented me to the watershed ideas and contemporary directions. For someone who is trying to get up to speed on a new discipline, I could not have designed a better text. About 15% of it was assigned as readings for my intro class. I found it way more valuable than that.

Foundations of Ecology: Classic Papers with Commentaries - ed. Real and Brown (50%)

Someday I will write a post on the culture differences between engineers and ecologists. As I am fundamentally a scientist (who likes the rigor and practicality of the engineering skill set for doing science) there are many ways in which I prefer the culture of Ecology. This is one of them. I have found that ecology has a ‘cannon.’ Initiates are told the story of the major Khunian paradigm shifts that is the heritage of our moment. Case in point, my text for the required introductory graduate course was this anthology of seminal papers. I read half of it, which was, again, far more than required.[19]

The Cross of Christ – John Stott (50%)

I used this for Lenten devotions this year. It was extremely valuable in that context. It is a little more technical than devotional, but was a great way to keep up a sustained and substantial meditation on the cross.

This post was written while listening to Deja Entendu by Brand New


[1] (A) means that I listened to this in an audio format. Most of my reading time goes into scientific journal papers. So I listen to most of my ‘fun’ reading. I did a post on this.
[2] My wife’s reading group also read and enjoyed this one, so it is not just for nerds.
[3] The second time generated one of my favorite posts of all time.
[4] Which is responsible for my attempt to balance my reading diet to include approximately equal parts books by the living and the dead.
[5] One of my principles of getting the most out of a modest reading program is diversity. Most non-fiction authors offer a maximal insight/time ratio early on and returns diminish pretty markedly.
[6] Like Chesterton
[7] There were direct instigators (his contemporaries) like Tolkein and indirect instigators, authors from the previous generation.
[8] Creatives are motivated by intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivators. I believe this. This is how I am motivated. I work harder on (and put more personal time into) the stuff I have less funds to do if I think it is compelling.
[9] I think I am going to do a whole post on this.
[10] Creating the desire to be a philosopher-scientist…which is not easy in the current era of hyper specialization.
[11] Look for it to show up on my MP3 page.
[12] Which is important because, Pascal died very young and not only never finished his book, but never really started it. the Penses are just fragmentary notes and have historically been published in almost arbitrary order. They are also redundant and some have more contemporary utility than others. So, simply selecting them, grouping them and putting them in a logical order was a great service. Incidentally, Kreeft’s take on Pascal’s major themes match mine pretty closely.
[13] A running commentary. It is almost like a Penses blog – in paperback.
[14] And often prophetic.
[15] Kreeft is Catholic – in a fun way. Reading him as a Protestant is like reading Chesterton. You forget that he is Catholic for dozens of pages at a time, until he drops a zinger against Protestants that leaves you saying ‘Ouch, where did that come from.’ Reading Kreeft has the effect of enlarging my affection and alliance with my Catholic friends…while, at the same time, affirming that I am, in fact, not Catholic.
[16] These guys were contemporaries and, presumably, even friends (Nehemiah lists them as both present during a couple big events)…but their writing styles could not be more different. Haggai is a straight forward moral prophet while Zachariah is a “if I didn’t know better I’d think he was high”/ “Predicted things he had no business knowing” apocalyptic type. I’d love to see a HBO quality dramady about the friendship of Haggai and Zachariah (um, minus the boobs – It really sucks that HBO is making some of the best art of our generation but feels compelled to cheapen it with totally unnecessary nudity).
[17] I did some teaching out of Nehemiah this summer. The venue was not amenable to recording, so there are no MP3s. But I did one blog post which revolves around an insight I owe to Kidner. Also, Mark Driscoll’s series on Nehemiah was extremely helpful.
[18] I mentioned in my Portland post that I read this book and home at the same time. They are both about the damaged children of a Presbyterian minister.
[19] No book like this exists for my field. I have contemplated putting one together. Also, engineers do not do meta-analysis like ecologists do…though we could very much benefit from it.

Monday, December 20, 2010

On the 4th Day of Christmas the Internet Gave to Me...

...Four fun, Chistmas themed Youtube clips.

This year, my two favorite Christmas songs are not really Christmas songs. First, vloger Charlie McDonnell put out an album, that is very clever and entirely unique. It includes a fantastic song called The Absence of Christmas.[1]

Second, I have yet to write about mewithoutYou’s new album and concert a year later…primarily because I have surprisingly complicated feelings about the album. But A Carrot and A String may be the best Christmas song that isn’t a Christmas song written since Joy to the World. With all the pabulum that gets played on the airwaves this time of year, it would seem like an occasional descent new song would squeak in.

Amanda and I have struggled with Christmas traditions for years, and more so since we have had kids. We have decided that the American winter festival (which is extremely fun and most people participate in, in some form or another) can coexist in strained peace with the celebration of the incarnation without the former swallowing the latter up. But no one gets at the tension of all this better than Gaffigan:[2]

Finally, I can’t tell you why I like this clip. On one level, it casts the characters of the Christmas story as annoying Christian facebook stereotypes. But I do like it…unironically…so there that is.

I hope you and the people you care about have a great holiday, and if you are into the Jesus thing, I hope the mystery of the incarnation strikes you with new wonder in the coming weeks.

This post was posted while listening to Charlie McDonnall’s This is Me
[1] The album is mostly goofy but has a couple really poignant moments….my favorite track is “Bread”. I have “In the Absence of Christmas” stuck in my head for a day…but it is a thankful reprieve from “Haley G Hoover” which was just creepy…but unfortunately really catchy.
[2] I have been taking Charis running (in the jogging stroller) through Davis neighborhoods at night to look at lights. It has been a fun daddy-daughter time and a good example of why living in California is cool. Amanda and I have been silent on the whole Santa thing hoping we could go one more year without her noticing – giving us 12 more months to decide how we want to negotiate this strange cultural artifact. I thought I had dodged it when we ran by a house with a blow up Homer Simpson in Santa gear and she said “that doggie has a hat…that’s so silly.” But during one of the runs she asked me “why do so many houses have elmo?” (apparently any cartoonish character clad in red is elmo). So we broke out the story of St Nicholas, a guy we have enormous affection, who saved girls from the sex trade - without the graphic details (one of our Christmas traditions is to donate to organizations that do the same in his honor). Now I just need to come up with a good reason that he would use a reindeer with a glowing nose to rescue girls from a life of forced prostitution.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

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

Altruism is one of the most interesting evolutionary puzzles. Mild forms of “altruistic” behavior have been observed in several distantly related taxa. Some of this has been cleverly and definitively explained on purely Darwinian principles[1] but some of it still seems a little ‘hand waving-ish’[2]…particularly when the theories are applied to humans acting altruistically towards non-relatives.[3] The problem is that pure altruism is not an “evolutionary stable strategy” (ESS).[4] But one of the solutions that evolutionary biologists and behavioral ecologists have floated sounds shockingly familiar to those of us who have spent much time in the ancient texts that compose the normative documents of Christianity.

The story goes like this. Altruism is better than pure competition on the species scale, but selection does not happen on that scale. Advantageous alleles are selected based on the survival and reproductive benefits to the individual. Therefore, in order for altruism to be selected, the bearers of altruist genes have to benefit, on the whole, more than it costs them.[5] This is evolutionarily unstable because cheaters would accept benefits of the altruists, not take the risks, and eventually ‘win’ pushing the altruistic genes from the population. Therefore, altruism requires some sort of ‘enforcement’ on the ‘population’[6] scale. There are some interesting examples of enforcement in non-human altruists, but the really interesting hypothesis is that humans use ‘guilt’ to enforce the terms of altruism on the tribal scale.

But, even with guilt enforcing altruism, it is not an ESS. Therefore, the successful altruistic strategy is that of the ‘subtle cheater.’ In each generation altruistic systems disproportionately propagate individuals that cheat just enough to have a survival or reproductive advantage but not so much that they incur the penalties of the enforcement mechanism.

This is all pretty plausible (especially for non-human species). But the really interesting insight is how ‘subtle cheating’ works out in human populations. If our enforcement mechanism is built into our psychological and sociological hardware and software (guilt[7]) what does it mean to be a subtle cheater? Who do I need to deceive?


And that is the shocking and thrilling detail. If human altruism is self enforced through genetic and environmental imprints on our operating systems, getting away with subtle cheating REQUIRES “self deception.”[8] Human success is largely due to our altruistic tendencies…but only if those tendencies include “subtle cheating” which, given our enforcement mechanisms, require “self deception.”

Um, Really? So, let me get this straight. Humans work best in cooperative community. But there is something fundamental in each one of us that will always try to get more than we give. And in order to live with ourselves and our seemingly universal need to perceive ourselves as “a good person”[9] we all engage in self deception to convince ourselves that the real cheater is ‘the other.’ It seems like I have heard that somewhere before. Allow me to introduce: Christian anthropology.

The fundamental premise of Christian anthropology is that we are valuable beyond measure and designed to reflect the altruistic character of our maker but deeply broken and have an insurmountable entropy towards self interested behavior. We describe this causally with the narrative of the fall. Regardless of whether or not you hypothesize a historical Adam and Eve[10] the fall is the process by which we not only tarnish our immense capacity for beauty and generosity with the fundamental entropy of self interest, such that the former merely punctuates than the latter…but then we lie to ourselves about it.

All of this could lead us to argue (with a smile, and hopefully in a cheeky rather than a douchey way) that Christians are more in touch with reality, as specified by behavioral ecology. The Christian operating system which is self aware of our tendency of self deception and our tendency towards subtle cheating, makes it an evolutionary unstable strategy…but also gives it a huge epistemic advantage.[11] But, if Jesus was to talk in the language of behavioral ecology, I think the sermon on the mount might have included something like:

"Blessed are those who are aware of their self deception, it is the first step in actual self forgetfulness.”

Which is actually just my paraphrase of:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”[12]

This post was prepared while listening to The Sufferer and the Witness by Rise Against

[1] The classic example is eusocial insects who turned out to be haplodiploid, which makes sisters more closely related than they would be to their own daughters, making celibate cooperative labor the most effective way to get genetic material into future generations.
[2] My personal favorite is the argument that we have the impulse to save a drowning unrelated child because the act of heroism may be observed by one of the victim’s hot relatives who would then have sex with the rescuer providing a mechanism where the risk is overweighed by the genetic payoff in the long term, selecting for risk taking altruists. If you think about the kind of selective pressure it would take to preference that genotype as broadly as it exists in our species…that would take a lot of extremely grateful sisters.
[3] Adoption of unrelated children cannot be seen as anything other than an ‘evolutionary trap.’
[4] An ESS is a strategy that is resistant to ‘invaders’ or ‘cheaters’. For example, it was hypothesized that the huge, seasonal gatherings of birds, like those that soil our cars at the U-mall or the Arc parking lot – were a type of self-regulating behavior. The birds were taking a ‘census’ of sorts and then would regulate the number of eggs they laid accordingly in order self-regulate and keep the population size proportional to the resources (under the carrying capacity). This has been widely discredited, however, as evolutionarily unstable…because cheaters would eventually take over. If everyone else is self regulating, a few birds that do not would compose a disproportionate portion of each successive cohort, until they quickly took over. Dawkins calls this “subversion from within.” Therefore, most ‘self regulation’ hypotheses have been jettisoned for resource or predator regulation.
[5] i.e. Alturism must be fundamentally self interested.
[6] Tribal.
[7] Note: Police do not count as enforcing altruism. They reduce the ferocity of our competition but do not require cooperation. You could make a case that liberal fiscal policy enforces altruism…but I will argue in a couple of posts that this is simply an outworking of guilt.
[8] All of the phrases I am using in quotes are not my own reading of this…they are the actual language of the theory from my coursework on behavioral ecology at UC Davis…from phenomenal Prof Sih who is one of the rare professors who is uncommonly brilliant AND a thrilling lecturer.
[9] I totally buy the idea as guilt as an altruism enforcing mechanism. There is nothing as ubiquitous as the idea that ‘I am a good person.’ After Imus was publically called out about his comments on the Rutgers woman’s basket ball team he said “I am a good person who did a bad thing.” After Jim Belushi died, someone said “He was a good man and a bad boy.” We all have this compelling need to self perceive as ‘basically a good person.’ And may be no idea that people will fight harder for despite mounting evidence to the contrary…regardless how much violence we have to do to the word ‘good’ or even ‘person.’ Before I was a Christian, there was nothing about the Christian worldview I found more repulsive than the assertion that I was not a good person. Now there is no insight I find more pragmatically helpful.
[10] I do (as the Homo Sapien ancestors that were contemporary with Australopithecine), but I don’t think you have to. And it is mostly a non-issue because it is non-falsifiable. But what is clear about the first three chapters of Genesis is that it is not the whole story. It has a fundamental pedagogical agenda. So I am more than happy to allow the scientific process to fill in the estimable gaps. Regardless of whether the fall happened in a cosmic moment (which I tend to believe) or over evolutionary time, it is the process by which humans, a special creation in the image of God, traded that image for an evolutionarily stable strategy. (Footnote to the footnote: I am working on a post about the Battle Star Galactica finale…if that seems like a non sequiter – you didn’t see it).
[11]Please note: I am not now, nor have I ever argued that Christians are, therefore, ‘better’ than those who do not go in for the Christian narrative. In fact I have argued often (here and here) that the logic of the Christian story gives the counter-intuitive result that Christians are, on the whole, less moral than their non-Christian neighbors…and that this is exactly what you would expect if it was true.
[12] Matthew 5:3

Tuesday, November 30, 2010


The new Arcade Fire album is unsurprisingly good. That's not the anouncement. There is a verse in the opening track that pretty much articulates how I am feeling about what I have to share:

So can you understand?
Why I want a daughter while I'm still young
I wanna hold her hand
And show her some beauty
Before all this damage is done

But if it's too much to ask, if it's too much to ask
Then send me a son
-Arcade Fire - Suburbs

I've got several posts lined up to run after finals next week. In the mean time there are new posts and MP3’s over at my preaching site (which is where most of my creative energy has gone the last 3 weeks).

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Sufjan Concert

Sufjan Stevens played in Oakland last week. I have a few rules in life. One of them is: If Sufjan Stevens is playing within 100 miles and you have the opportunity to go with some of your best friends in the world[1]…you do that. He played for almost two hours and it was as much theatrical art as it was a concert. The show opened with Seven Swans and closed with Chicago and was nothing but new music in between. This could have been a recipe for disappointment, primarily because his new music is such a shocking departure from what we love about Sufjan.[2] But I thought it was fantastic. In a sense, the new material works better as a show than as an album…and it really did work as a show. For two hours, a series of short films played behind Sufjan and his 9 piece band as he alternated between the epic, cosmic pieces like “Age of Adz” and “Too Much”, and more familiar “Futile Divices” or “Now that I’m Older.”

If he had just gotten up there and sung the new album without regard for our passion for the old stuff, it would have struck me as self involved marketing. But it was impossible to feel that way with all that went into crafting an experience of his new music. It held together as an intentional and cohesive piece of art. As much as I would have loved to hear “The Wasps of the Palisades” or “Cashmere Pulaski Day” they would not have cohered with the show he crafted. He was not playing a set. He was telling a story.[3] In a sense, he was performing a single, two-hour, piece that he had prepared for us. It felt special.

And then, for the encore, he came up alone and banged out three of his best songs from his earlier work. I would have paid the ticket price just for the encore. Anyway, while I am on the topic, I thought I’d tack on “Four things I love about Sufjan.”

1. His song titles.

They are just way more fun than anyone else’s. Consider songs like:

The Predatory Wasp of the Palisades Is out to Get Us!
They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back from the Dead!!
Oh God, Where Are You Now? (In Pickerel Lake? Pigeon? Marquette? ...)
Springfield, Or Bobby Got a Shadfly Caught in His Hair
Or the musical interlude:
Let's Hear That String Part Again, Because I Don't Think They Heard It

There was a fun Facebook group[4] dedicated to why members thought their state should get the next Sufjan album. In one discussion we took shots at what a Sufjan playlist might look like for our states. Here is what I came up with for NY[5]:

The last one out of Buffalo turn out the lights[6]
Old movies with the twin towers in them make me sad
Born During the Blizzard of '77
Stuck on 37 high peaks with deteriorating knees
A Resilient People in a Belt of Rust and Weather
Oh, Opalescent Feldspar, The Billion Year Rock Rainbow
The Silent Shafts (or Ore is More Profitable in Minnesota)
More cows than you would imagine
Purple lufstrife is Montazuma's revenge
The surprisingly resurgent Rochester (or, Mr. Eastman[8], was your work really done?)[9]

2. Art with a sense of place

I have mentioned before in this blog that the art I tend to resonate with finds generality in specificity. In particular, I love art that can find something as broad as ‘human nature’ in a very particular sense of situatedness. This is why I enjoyed Garden State. This is why I loved The Wire. And this is why Illinois is one of the greatest albums of all times. Illinois generates the emotion of a Midwest upbringing that connects with our humanity in a study of similarity and contrast. Intentional spatial locatedness gives his work a surprising generality.

3. ‘Christian’ makes a great noun but a horrible adjective.'[10]

Sufjan writes about whatever he thinks or experiences. So he writes about Jesus and being a Christian and stuff. I, obviously, love this, because, well, I am also interested in Jesus and being a Christian and stuff.[11]

Near the middle of the concert he performed the sprawling “Get Real Get Right”[12], which ends with the verse:

For you will not be distracted by the signs
Do not be distracted by them
Do yourself a favor and get real
Get right with the lord
Get real, get right with the Lord

After the applause someone yelled ‘Praise Jesus’, which was quickly followed by someone else shouting ‘no.’ I loved this exchange (particularly the latter part) because it demonstrates the difference between an artist who is a Christian and a Christian artist. We do not own Sufjan. He is not ours in a way that a Christian act is.[13] We have not claim of ownership on him.[14] So he is free to do art, and not just produce a commodity for a niche community. It also demonstrates that there is not an insidious anti-Christian bias in the music industry. If Christians make great art, they get to make it about whatever they love.[15]

4. John Wayne Gacy

He closed with what I would consider his three most theological songs from Seven Swans and Illinois…culminating in his most controversial and most haunting piece: “John Wayne Gacy”. Gacy (who grew up in Illinois, hence, the tracks appearance on that album) was a famous serial killer. Known as ‘the clown killer’ he lured boys into his orbit, and then did unspeakable things…eventually collecting their bodies under his porch.

The song hauntingly describes the crimes.

Look underneath the house there
Find the few living things
Rotting fast in their sleep of the dead
Twenty-seven people, even more
They were boys with their cars, summer jobs
Oh my God

I remember clearly the first time I heard it.[16] I was driving from Jackson to Vicksburg. It was chilling. But the final verse held more in store than I could have ever imagined. The song ends, somewhat abruptly:

And in my best behavior
I am really just like him
Look beneath the floorboards
For the secrets I have hid

Some have interpreted this song as excusing Gacy…as a behaviorist apologetic blaming the actions of a monster on his environment. They hear this last verse and think ‘he is not just like me, he is qualitatively different.’ But the interpretive key to this song is actually Christian anthropology. Sufjan is not saying that he is just like me except for some bad luck in his environment. He is saying[17] that except for some social coping mechanisms, I am just like him. The difference is quantitative not qualitative. My heart hides its own dark secrets. The monster is me. The remedy…well, I think you might find it amidst a septet of graceful birds:

This post was written while listening to The Age of Adz by Sufjan Stevens
[1] Amanda, Tyler the winemaker and his wife Byranie.
[2] He described the mood and themes of the new work as ‘cosmic’ and ‘processed based’ which is exactly the opposite of why I love Sufjan, which is universal story telling through the vehicle of the very, very particular (see "Why I love Sufjan #2). For the record, I hope he is not done with albums like Illinoise or Seven Swans…but I think The Age of Adz is a win.
[3] Which is ironic (ITWIHACTIK) because he sees this album as a departure from his fundamental nature as a lyrical storyteller, but the reason he couldn’t sprinkle older works into the concert is because it would have destroyed the continuity of the narrative structure.
[4] Which has mostly gone defunct since Sufjan revealed that the 50 states project was either a joke or WILDLY optimistic.
[5] Mostly upstatecentric
[6] When the steal mills were shutting down in the 70’s someon actually put a sign up that said this on I5 on the way out of town.
[7] There is a wildlife refuge in Western NY called Monazuma’s wildlife refuge. I-80 passes through it. It is overrun with the invasive purple lustrife.
[8] George Eastman’s (of Eastman-Kodak) suicide note read: “To my friends: My work is done. Why wait?”
[9] Some of the other fun titles on the site included:
California: Whose Fault? The San Andreas Fault/ The Worst Day in the Happiest Place on Earth
New York: Go F**K Yourself, Or what the Passerby said to me/What is Eirer than a Canal?/ / One Thousand Islands and not a single soul/ The Longest Island, that Spit of Land
Pennsylvania: A short Reprise for Bob Saget, who went insane, but for very good reasons
[10] From Rob Bell’s Velvet Elvis.
[11] I think that sentence set a record for illicit comma use…but I cannot deconvolve the good ones from the imposters.
[12] The title track and a sort of homage to a complicated man who seemed to act as his muse for this album: an isolated, poor, bipolar sign painter from Mississippi who became too enveloped by an alternate reality to be able to live in this one. Apparently most of the cover art and a lot of the art used in the video portion of the show was his.
[13] Nor would most Christian labels have him as his latest album contains a couple (gasp) F-bombs. I am not entirely sure how we got here where an artfully used explative is more offensive than derivative art.
[14] Both ideologically or financially. Sufjan has his own label…which, incidentally has the uncontested best label name on the planet: “Asthmatic Kitty.”
[15] Well, I know it is quite a bit more complex than this. But this idea plays in the discussion.
[16] A good sign of an epic song.
[17] And I think the video underscores this.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

In Defense of Not Reading: My Favorite MP3 Repositories

So, it will surprise no one to learn that reading is one of my favorite activities. But the way I have ordered my life, I only read about 10 books per year.[1] This is not enough to maintain a positive flow of ideas through the control volume of my mind.[2] So I supplement with technology. I have found a discipline of listening to a broad range of quality (and often free) MP3 content while I do chores, perform laboratory experiments or exercise, has become the centerpiece of my reflective life. This week I am talking to a group of students about how I aquire, metabolize and process ideas…so I wanted to post a list of my sources of free[3] audio content.[4]

Bible and Theology:

Biblical Training:

Full length and summary seminary classes by well respected professors.


Monergism comes from a pretty narrow theological perspective but they have compile an excellent compilation of audio resources.

Tim Keller:

No person that currently has a pulse has been more influential in my thought and praxis. So he gets his own link.[5]


The Veritas Forum:

Recordings of apologetic talks given on college campuses across the country.

Be Thinking:

I have not used this site. It was recomended by a friend. It looks very promising.

Classic Works:


Hundreds of classic, public domain, books read (mostly) by quality readers. Includes classic fiction (e.g. Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, George McDonald) and non-Fiction (e.g. Justin Martyr, Chesterton, Darwin).

General Interest:


TED is the periodic Technology, Entertainment and Design Conference. It started as an opportunity for nerds to get together to be nerds together…but has evolved into something much bigger. Now they get whoever they want to speak on whatever they want. Anyone who has an innovative big idea and can communicate it well gets invited to speak and you can find provocative 20 minute talks on nearly any topic. Some of these make excellent illustration material. It is also a good way to become familiar with the theses of influential contemporary thinkers without having to read their books. Yup, I really like Ted.

MIT: Open Campus -

MIT has made a commitment to offer most of their class materials free, online. More and more are becoming available by MP3.

The Library:

I get a lot of great free audio content from the public library. There is great fiction, non-fiction, music and, I especially like the full length classes on a variety of topics by The Teaching Company

Do you know of others? Please let us know in the comments.
[1] A pretty standard example is here.
[2] Meaning, this is faster than the rate at which I lose ideas, making me less insightful with time.
[3] Note, I also pay for audio content. Most seminaries have excellent selections of audio lectures for $40-100. The Teaching Company also has great classes for $30-100 (note: never buy from them if the class is not ‘on sale’ – all classes go on sale at least once/year and usually more often – also, check your local library first). This seems steep, but if you compare it to the cost of a university class (~$1k) or the hours it would take to do the reading to get an equal dose of insight, it turns out to be a deal.
[4] My brother also did a post like this a while ago.
[5] Another link I like is here, where a dude who has a bigger ‘brain crush’ on him than me has organized other free Keller content. This is some of his best stuff.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Lessons From a Year of Preaching Part 3: Beyond Behavior Modification

So this series has outlived its name[1] and I am going to make this the last post on this topic, for now. My preaching partner and I are teaching a preaching class this year so, if you are interested in my thoughts on this, the MP3’s and resources will be showing up at the class website. But for my final post in the series I wanted to talk about the motivating behavior change in ourselves and others, a topic that has far more nuance, complexity and peril in it than I ever imagined.

Most of us share the experience of trying to motivate behavior change in ourselves. We have a behavior or habit that we want to minimize or discontinue all together (e.g. over eating, carbon usage, prejudging people based on perceived relationships between their easily observable characteristics and behaviors we have formerly correlated with those characteristics[2]). Or there is some behavior that we would like to do more than we do (e.g. exercise, spending time with kids, or allocating resources for the poor or the environment) [3]. But one of the great shared experiences of our humanity is that most of us who have undertaken some long term project of behavior change have also failed at it. So, if at least part of the intent of preaching is to help offer cosmic resources for behavior change it would seem like understanding what motivates behavior change in ourselves and others would be fundamental.[4]

But the water is actually murkier than that. Because, from a Christian world view it is not sufficient to do the right things. Doing the right things for the wrong reasons makes them the wrong things. Behavior change with the wrong motivations is not progress. So simple behavior change is not a reliable metric of either personal growth or effective preaching. We are a very clever species. We can often find ways to ‘hotwire our hearts.’[5] That is, we can find ways to modify our behaviors or the behaviors of others[6] by appealing to fears, insecurities or appetites that are themselves unhealthy.[7] This kind of behavior change can leave someone worse off than before.[7.5] So the key to motivating behavior change both in our own spiritual journeys and in the journeys of those in our communities (through preaching or other graces/sacraments) is to reject illicit motivational strategies. But we can’t simply reject manipulation. We have to replace it with something better. So this final post will look at the two sides of the ‘motivating behavior change’ coin: a warning and a proposed way forward.

1. Beware of Moralism

Christianity is not a religion…so you can not treat it like one. The standard religious resources are not available to us. In general, religions hold out the prospect of earning divine favor and avoiding divine punishment as a cosmic ‘carrot and stick’ to motivate the behaviors the religion deems valuable and disincentivize those it considers antisocial. But the Christian story is not one of accumulating merit and avoiding guilt in the cosmic ledger…it is a story of unilateral rescue. If you try to apply the carrot/stick motivational methods to Christianity, it becomes something else.[8]

This means there are tools in the motivational tool box that are simply off limits for Christians. Guilt is very effective for short term behavior change, but it is out of bounds. And this turns out to be pragmatically helpful anyways because, as my brother likes to say, ‘the guilt button is effective but fragile.’ If you push that button too many times, it stops working. Guilt and fear are simply not long term motivators. They require an emotional intensity that we cannot sustain. Trying to earn God’s love and stay off his naughty list is not unlike trying to earn the love of a parent or avoid our daddy’s belt…it can motivate behaviors but it leaves you disappointed and bitter. It can make you do stuff but it can’t change your heart.

2. Offer a Greater Love

But it would be absurd to suggest that Christianity does not have relatively rigorous behavioral prescriptions. So those of us who are ‘all in’ on Jesus are constantly looking for licit ways to bring our behavior in line with many of these counter-cultural practices which, we believe, are fundamentally pragmatic.[9]

The reason that simply telling people to knock it off because God is gonna get em doesn’t work, is because we are fundamentally motivated by what we love. You hear people say all the time that we should all ‘follow our hearts[10].’ This is an empty cliché. But it is not absurd because it is false; it is absurd because it is trivial. We all, always ‘follow our hearts.’ We, without exception, behave in accordance with what we love. If you are going to give yourself or your community a significant chance at spiritual progress, you can’t just try to modify behavior you have to help develop better affections. You have to cultivate and offer a better love that can supplant the parasitic, destructive things that currently fill our hearts. You have to reintroduce us to a God whose beauty and worth dwarfs the paltry half loves that currently motivate us.[11]

Sin is fundamentally a worship issue. It is organ failure of our capacity for wonder. If someone is stuck in a behavior that diminishes them, strategies will help[12], but fundamentally, they need a bigger God. They need to love the good and the beautiful more intensely. And the role of the preacher is to reveal it to them. You need to exalt a beautiful God and call us to his beautiful mission…so that the bleak life of self centeredness looks as pitiful as it actually is.

[1] I am now well into my third year of regular preaching.
[2] i.e. prejudice or the more insidious racism
[3] I recently made one of the strangest resolutions of my life. I resolved to watch more football this season. I love football (for reasons I will cover in an upcoming post) and watched less than 4 hours of it last season. This is symptomatic of self importance and an unhealthy addiction to productivity. So this year I am going to try to prioritize Sabbath and rest by watching more football. So far, so good. I am already up to 6 hours for the season.
[4] I realize that ‘preaching to cause behavior change’ sounds arrogant…almost like a violation. But in the Christian community it is consensual. We all recognize our need for help and look to each other for spiritual resources. Preaching is one of the formal methods we utilize to look together at the scriptures to find that help.
[5] Credit, Keller…I know, shocking.
[6] Way too many marriages work this way.
[7] The most glaring example of this in college ministry, where spiritual zeal is hypercharged by sexual tension, is students whose confuse their desire to impress cute Christian girls with their motivation to live the Christian life. I honestly think this is an underrated reason why so many people find the transition from Christian community in college to the Church (as a married adult) to be underwhelming…because they lose the powerful sexual components of their motivations and it feels a little flat.
[7.5] This is at least one reason why Jesus recomended that so much of Christian practice should be done 'in secret' whether acts of personal devlopment (e.g. prayer and fasting) or acts of social justice (e.g. generosity). By taking the opinions and reactions of other humans out of the equation we are freed of many (though certainly not all) of the illicit motivations for these activities. You simply cannot read the Jesus narratives without coming away with the overwhelming impression that motivation is more important to him than act. He is more interested in who we are becoming than what we are doing.
[8] I started this paragraph by stating categorically that Christianity is not a religion. But, of course, it often is. Many self identifying Christians have no idea that it was never meant to be a merit based worldview. And even those who understand the rescue narrative find themselves lapsing often into moral performance categories. So, Christianity is not a religion but it is full of religious people…like me…which is why we have our share of self righteous prudes. But the goal of spiritual formation (and, therefore, preaching) is to move from a self righteous merit based belief and praxis to a grace based self understanding and lifestyle.
[9] In that, they do not feed our physical or even social appetites, but we believe they are fundamentally for our good. This is what Piper means when he bombastically claims that Christians are just hedonists with perspective. We are looking to maximize our good on a cosmic scale. The idea has rhetorical flourish and some theological issues but is interesting.
[10] This, it seems, has become the only acceptable polemic for contemporary art to assert. Either art has to be non-polemical (as if that was possible) or it has to offer this cliché.
[11] What the Hebrew Scriptures like to call idols.
[12] Preaching has to be practical. It HAS to engage with the daily life and felt needs of a non-religious-professional. But it is an error to think that practical means non-theological. If worship is the engine of behavior…if we do what we truly love…then it is highly practical to paint a picture of God’s worthiness that creates more space for him in our hearts. But we would also error to think that this justifies turning preaching into a regular lecture in academic theology. Worship is fundamentally holistic, so preaching that generates worship has to engage the mind, emotions, volition and soul.

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cities Part 3: A Grand Experiment in Simulation - Las Vegas

Las Vegas and New Orleans are among our nation’s most unique cities.[1] In a sense, I know that they are both one of a kind. But in my mind, I have always grouped them: Places someone would go for an epic bachelor party and, if I was invited, I would have to decline.[2] So when my work travel schedule sent me to both within a couple months, I thought it might be a fun exercise in compare and contrast.

This was not my first time in either of these cities, but it might as well have been. My only other time in Vegas was for a 3 day conference. I stayed on the edge of town,[3] got sick on the flight in and stayed in my hotel bed when I wasn’t at the conference. I walked over a mile to the conference each day through low end red light districts and I could not have been less impressed. It just seemed like a ‘dirty little town.’ But I knew that I hadn’t given Vegas a fair chance and looked forward to inevitably getting back there someday.

I have flown into New Orleans a half dozen times. I go to Vicksburg, MS a lot for work[4] and after Katrina it was $1,200 cheaper to fly through New Orleans and drive to Vicksburg…so I did.[5] But these trips were immediately post-Katrina and I was mainly in the suburbs, so the city mostly made me sad, but I looked forward to getting a chance to experience the city on its own terms. It took me years to get back to either city…and this summer, I got back to both. I’ll cover Vegas in this post and a New Orleans post will follow in a couple weeks.

My trip to Vegas began with a study in contrast of its own. For convoluted reasons, I flew directly to Vegas from my childhood home in rural Northern NY. Since I have lived there the family farms have almost entirely disappeared.[6] Farms have either made the transition to industrial farms or they have gone fallow or they have gone Amish (because only a lifestyle of radical simplicity and communal labor can be make a go of the family farm any more).

So Sunday morning I went for a run and on my way home I passed 14 Amish buggies on their way to church.[7] That night, I was in Las Vegas.

The event that brought me to Vegas[8] also brought two of my closest work friends and several other people I know from across the country there. Most of what Vegas has to offer could not interest me less. But fortunately, I my friends and I have one shared interest for which this town provides unparalleled opportunities…poker. So the first two evenings revolved around poker.

The World Series of Poker was going on at the Rio while we were in town. The tournament that was going on the night we went out was a $40,000 buy in[9], short handed table tournament.[10] This was fortuitous, because this is one of the most popular events with the pros. Since the explosion of popularity of the WSOP the pros have sought out refuge in the events that emphasize skill over luck and attracts fewer internet players. So we saw ‘everyone.’ Now, I can only name 5 or 6 professionals…and saw them (Phil Ivy, Daniel Nigranue, Furgeson, Lilly…um, maybe it is not quite six) . But my friends pointed out a couple dozen more. It was fun.

The next night we played in a big tournament at the Venetian. I ended up at the same table with one of my buddies and we both played really well through the first couple hours…and then poker happened. We both got bad beat, but it we had a blast.[11]

The last night in town we ‘did the strip.’ The strip is impressive. Billion dollar casinos. Giant monuments simulating ancient Rome or modern Paris.

Roller coasters inside of buildings…

…chocolate fountains…

…and, of course, the water show (which is even more impressive to a bunch of hydraulic engineers).

It was impressive, but not really beautiful in any way I could discover. The overwhelming impression that Vegas gives you is that of simulated reality. Everywhere you look, something is trying to be something it actually isn’t. There are cheesy replicas of Ancient Rome, Venice, and Paris (complete with a scale model of the Eifel Tower).

The air is artificially oxygenated, there is conspicuous water usage for a desert community, and no list of things that aren’t what they seem would be complete without mentioning boobs. Even the buses were inexplicably decorated to look like light rail.

Come to think of it, poker is fundamentally an exercise in simulation, as you are almost always trying to represent the opposite of whatever your situation of power is.

But the ironic (aihctbk[12]) thing about all this simulacrum is that it generates an environment where people heedlessly engage in being who they actually are.[13] Somehow, being surrounded by simulated reality produces license to drop the social coping superstructure and do the sorts of things that ‘stay in Vegas.’[14]

My conclusion on Vegas is that it is more interesting than my first visit suggested, but it is still one of my least favorite cities.[15] One of the things I think I am pretty good at is enjoying cities that seem unremarkable. My method is to try to figure out “why do the people who live here love it here?” Why don’t they move somewhere else? But Las Vegas is a town that exists almost entirely for people who do not live there. It is the first town I have encountered that completely defies my method.

However, while there was no discernable local community that I could anonymously experience, I ended up enjoying Vegas because I got to experience it with an imported community of people I enjoy.

This post was written while listening to the Vast Pandora channel

[1] This is a part of an ongoing series I am doing where I reflect on the various cities my work travel takes me to. I describe the motivation of the series here. Also, I will continue posting retro-journal entries on the Odyssey blog for another week or so. Indecently, if you are new to this blog, it is worth noting that it is not primarily a travel blog…it only seems that way because travel has supplanted philosophical and cultural reflection in my life recently.
[2] I had a group of friends that used to take an annual trip to LV. Once, they were making plans while I was hanging out and one of them told me “You know Stan, you would totally be welcome to come with us. It’s just that we gamble, golf, drink and go to strip clubs…and you kind of aren’t into any of those things.” I expressed appreciation for the invitation but affirmed their instinct to exclude me.
[3] It was just after 9/11 and I had just started at my current job. The hotel was $12 per night and the whole trip cost under $250. I didn’t feel like I could ask my work to send me because I had just started, but the conference looked incredibly helpful (and it was) so I planned to take vacation and pay for it. When my work found out why I was taking vacation, they sent me.
[4] The other main lab for my agency is there…and I did my PhD research at their facility.
[5] Once the guy in front of me was complaining about how everyone in the federal government was only self interested and could not pass up opportunities to waste money…as I stood in line, waiting to voluntarily drive 7 hours round trip, on my own time, to save my project $1200.
[6] This was going on when I was a kid, but now the process is mostly complete.
[7] There was a fun trend among the buggies. The first ones had old people in them and traveled slowly (I easily outran the first of them). As I passed the buggies, the families got younger and had more children and were traveling faster (and were, in general, friendlier). I thought it was pretty fun that even Amish families have trouble getting out of the house for church on Sunday mornings.
[8] Every three years all of the federal agencies that encounter sediment problems have a joint sediment conference. This without exception is the most helpful professional event I attend and I go every time. This year I presented two papers and was a judge for the student paper contest (which was way more interesting than it sounds…but sadly I am sworn to secrecy. Um, seriously, I’m not kidding. The deliberations of this contest are strictly confidential. Weird, right?) I know that a federal conference in Vegas sounds like an atrocious boondoggle, but one of the biggest problems I see in the engineering community is the lack of technical development. There are very few forums where we can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. The journals have become playgrounds for academics such that most practicing engineers couldn’t read one even if, by some miracle, there was a paper that they might find helpful. Conferences are really the only place that we find out about new technology (or, in my case, get the word out on new technology), hear about catastrophic mistakes, meet the people who could solve our problems and get exposed to new ways of thinking about our field. I’m almost certain that a good conference pays for itself several times simply in increased efficiency, contacts made and mistakes avoided. If I ever have a private firm, I will consider good conferences (and, yes, there are bad ones) for self motivated employees a good investment.
[9] One friend tried to win a seat in the Main event in a tournament going on in the other room, and we went to watch. But it turned out to be a fun night to be there.
[10] 6 people per table instead of 10.
[11] The highlight of the evening involved a boisterous Drunk Canadian at our table. Now, since I was just there to have fun, I loved that our new Canadian friend who was sucking back vodkas and red bulls at the rate of about 5 per hour got the table talking…but the serious poker players hated it. They like a somber mood where they can intimidate. Several serious players were visibly flustered by the banter and my buddy and I think it worked to our advantage. Anyway, the highlight of the evening was when another inebriated gentlemen with a European accent joined our table and took the banter up a notch. So the Canadian asked “My friend, which part of Russia are you from?” To which he replied, quickly and with a smile “The German part.”
[12] I always want to use the word ironic in its contemporary vernacular even though I know that it is ‘wrong’ because I lack a really good alternate linguistic construction. In a sense, ironic has expanded its semantic range to fill a linguistic gap. So, from now on in this blog, instead of a long self justifying footnote every time I use ironic “as it has come to be known” I will simply include the abbreviation (aihctbk)
[13] This makes more sense in light of my thoughts on ‘being yourself’.
[14] Mark Driscoll has a great line about this. He likes to say, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless it is itchy.’
[15] My friend asked me if I would bring my wife back. I thought about it and decided, I would spend a night on the strip with my wife if Vegas was on my way somewhere, but it is not worth its own trip.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Call me Laertes…or Tiresias (I can’t decide)

I mentioned in the last post that the blog has been a little quiet due to travel and illness. But the travel included a seven day introductory field trip across California with the incoming UCD ecology graduate students (called the Odyssey, hence the post title). I kept an old-fashioned[1] journal during the trip (we did not have internet access). So over the course of the next week or two, I am going to turn it into a retrospective travel blog at:

This post was written while listening to The Mars Volta station on Pandora
[1] Of the moleskine variety