Saturday, July 31, 2010

What Does Jerry Maguire have in Common With Persian Era, Post-Exilic Hebrew Narrative? (Or: Why Nehemiah IS Tom Cruise.)

I dread the question. It often comes up when conversation between acquaintances has stalled? I suspect it is a second hour staple of blind dates.

“What are your five favorite films?

I have been asked this enough times that I have developed a fixed list.[1] And, to be honest, there is a movie on the list that I find embarrassing. But the more I think about it, the more certain I am that Jerry Maguire has to be on the list. Now Jerry Maguire is essentially a romantic comedy for dudes.[2] It doesn’t seem like it belongs on the same list as Braveheart and Fight Club. But I have thought about why I like this movie so much and figured out a one sentence answer.

“I love Jerry Maguire because the wedding happens in the middle of the movie.”

Most romantic comedies end with the wedding. In fact it is common for the wedding montage to happen during the credits as kind of an afterthought to the actual story of how these crazy kids overcame their neuroses and finally got together. The problem I have with this formula is that anyone can ‘fall in love.’ The story doesn’t get interesting until after the wedding. Sustaining love after chemistry…that is the real drama. So many romantic comedies work so hard to generate some contrived obstacle to keep the lovers apart for the second act. But the ultimate obstacle to narrative love is familiarity…time…boredom.

The thing I love about Jerry Maguire is that the wedding happens in the middle of the movie…in the second act. The wedding is part of the complication that needs to be transcended. The third act is about finding love in a problematic marriage. Instead of a wedding, the final scene of the movie is of a young family walking together in the park…it is a picture of the man who defined himself by influence and power finding a settled, domestic contentment with the people he has chosen to love.

“I love Jerry Maguire because the wedding happens in the middle of the movie.”

And this is also one of the reasons I love Nehemiah.

The First Testament book of Nehemiah is presumably about building a wall.[3] In the first half of the book the narrative tension arises from the question ‘will they complete the wall.’ Narrative tension comes in the form of threats of violence, oppression between the workers, discouragement, lack of expertise[4], and even a Law and Order style legal battle.[5] So it seems like an egregious offense to all that is axiomatic about narrative structure when we hit this verse in the middle of the book:

6:15 “So the wall was completed on the twenty-fifth of Elul, in fifty-two days.”

Really? That’s it? We were building up to this all along and then it is essentially a footnote? [6] But that is the big surprise. The book of Nehemiah was never about building a wall. Like the wedding in Jerry Maguire, the wall is completed in the middle of the book as a sign that the book was never about the wall.[7] The great narrative twist of Nehemiah is that it was not the story we thought it was.[8]

The rest of the book tells the story of a greater building project. It asks the question: “Well, we built this wall to protect us from THEM…but now what is going to protect us from US[9]?” Who will save us from ourselves?

The second half of Nehemiah demonstrates that building a community and the hard work of heart formation makes building some wall look trivial in comparison. The real work is to build a people. The ultimate drama is in the fashioning of our affections.

This post was written while listening to We Are Not Alone by Breaking Benjamin

[1] Brave Heart, Fight Club, Pulp Fiction, Millions, Jerry Maguire
[2] In its defense, it is relatively well written, the acting is great and it was perfectly cast.
[3] You have got to love a book whose hero is a Civil Engineer. OK, well, maybe you don’t, but I do. On a side note, it is notable that Nehemiah is not a religious professional. He is a dude with a job. God doesn’t check where a person paycheck comes from before he chooses to use them.
[4] Chapter 3 goes out of its way to point out that some of the people wielding ‘swords and trowels’ came from such hard labor backgrounds as ‘Bible scholar, priest, goldsmith and (everyone’s favorite) perfume makers.
[5] If you read Ezra 4 and 5 (Ezra and Nehemiah are one book in the original text) on the backdrop of the historical and political milieu it reads like a serious legal drama where those trying to rebuild Jerusalem are shut down for over 10 years by what amounts to a cease and desist order.
[6] And a footnote in the classical sense, not in the way I use them in this blog.
[7] Dan, my co-teacher, said about this “If you are feeling a let down by the anti-climax of the completion of the wall…you are on the right track.”
[8] Cue Denny Green “They were(n’t) who we thought they were.”
[9] This is foreshadowed in chapter 5 where the poor of the movement are being exploited by their more resourced members of the movement to build the wall.
Next Week: Fragments and Links 8

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Augustine as Comedian: Part 2 – Intentional Comedy

Several months ago I posted the first part of a two part series on Augustine’s City of God. It was not a particularly popular post, so I have delayed the sequel.[1] But as I looked over it the other day…I decided it was freaking hilarious. So I am posting it. You can read this one of two ways. You can either find Augustine funny…or you laugh at me for being a big enough nerd to find him funny.

The first post covered Augustine’s unintentional comedy. It mostly emerged from stuff he wrote that was so culturally foreign to a modern reader that it struck me as absurd. This post is more fun. It includes his intentional comedy and demonstrates a little bit of why he was one of the most famous orators of the Roman world.[2] I have organized the quotes and brief commentary under several categories.

Stupid Human Tricks:

“We do in fact find among human beings some individuals with natural abilities very different from the rest of mankind and remarkable in their rarity…Some people can move their ears, either one at a time or together. Others without moving their head, can being the whole scalp down towards the forhead…some can swallow and incredible number of various articles and …produce, as out of a bag, any article they please in perfect condition…A number of people can produce at will such musical sounds from their behind (without any stink) that they seem to be singing from that region…” (588)

…and while we are on the topic of smells…

“that those angels enjoy the smell of dead bodies is false. It is divine honors that really delight them. They have a plentiful supply of smells everywhere; and if they want, they can produce them for themselves.” (400)


At one point Augustine tackles the inordinately long lives of the patriarchs and comes to the following conclusion:

“…we must assume that men took rather more than a hundred years to attain puberty and to become capable of procreation.” (632)

The very idea of a century long puberty makes my head explode. But it seems that Augustine shares our cultural expectations of the general funess of adolescence:

“In fact is there anyone who, faced with the choice between death and a second childhood, would not shrink in dread from the latter prospect and elect to die?” (991)


“Why fill the bridal chamber with a mob of divinities? And what is the purpose of crowding it? That the thought of the presence of the gods should make the couple more concerned to preserve decency? Not at all. It is to ensure that with their cooperation, there shall be no difficulty in ravishing the virginity of a girl who…is terrified by the strangeness of the situation…If the husband finds the job altogether too much for him and needs divine assistance, would not one god or one goddess be enough…I feel sure that the belief in the presence of so many divinities of both sexes to urge on the business at hand would so embarrass the couple as to quench the enthusiasm of the one and stiffen the reluctance of the other!...(he goes on to spend several pages describing the minute individual functions of each of many sexual Roman deities finishing with)…what is the function of the goddess Pertunda[3]? She should blush for shame and take herself off. Let the bridegroom do something himself. It would be most improper for anyone but the husband to do what her name implies.” (245-6)

“(Adam and Eve) opened their eyes to their own nakedness, that is, when they observed it with anxious curiosity, and if they covered up their shameful parts because an excitement, which resisted voluntary control, made them ashamed.” – Is it just me, or is he talking about an erection…and if so, is he suggesting that Adam experienced no pre-fall erections? Why was the thing there to begin with if not for some purer version its post-fall purpose?[4]

“It is not only the mimes who give Priapus[5] an enormous phallus; the priests do the same.” (239) - This one is funnier with no context or explanation.

Also Funnier without Context:

“Perhaps it may be suggested that demons act like sponges or something of that kind.” (363)

“the Egyptians, who were addicted to geometry.[6] (646)

You’re Right, That Would be Surprising:

“such as male and female mules. It would be surprising if they were in the ark.” (647)

Who Indeed?

“For instance, would not anyone prefer to have food in his house, rather than mice, or money rather than flees.’ (448)

Augustine Takes his Arguments From Wonder a Little Too Far:
“Let us consider the marvels of lime.” (969)

“There are some details in the body which are there simply for aesthetic reasons, and for no practical purpose – for example, the nipples on a man’s chest…” (1074)

“Take the case of a man’s visible appearance. An eyebrow is virtually nothing compared to the whole body; but shave it off and what an immense loss to his beauty! For beauty does not depend on mere size, but on symmetry and proportion of the component parts.” (545)

Dark Humor:

“In the city any Sullan supporter struck down anyone as he pleased and the consequent murders were beyond all calculation, until it was suggested to Sulla that some people should be allowed to live so that the conquerors should have some subjects to command.” (129)


“No one therefore must try to get to know from me what I know that I do not know, unless, it may be, in order to learn not to know what must be known to be incapable of being known!”[7] (480)

The Bat Signal:
“Rome had collected for her protection far too many gods, summoning them, as it were, at a given signal by the immense volume of smoke of the sacrifices.” (101)

There might actually be something to this. In the Batman myth the bat signal calls a morally ambiguous individual with no real power, to solve their problems and bring them prosperity. That sounds like the definition of an idol to me…even if the idol has Christian trappings.

And Finally:

“Could a man escape starvation by licking the painted picture of a loaf, instead of begging real bread from someone who had it to give.” (165)

This post was prepared while listening to The Shepherd’s Dog by Iron and Wine
[1] I know it is problematic at best to evaluate a post’s popularity by the number of comments, but I don’t have a good alternative and am a compulsive self-evaluator.
[2] The role of humor in oration is underrated, particularly among preachers. I simply do not understand how you would try to communicate with emerging generations without giving some thought to what we find funny. It is no accident that Jon Stewart is the ‘most trusted name in news.’ Humor earns credibility because it shows care for the listener. But it only ears credibility if it shows care. We can sniff out emotional manipulation with uncanny ease.
[3] The goddess of penetration.
[4] On a serious note, Augustine had a history of sexual sin so, as a cleric, he had trouble seeing any good in it. I am convinced this is the way a lot of legalism goes. Someone who once abused one of the good things God gives us, has had their capacity to see its goodness seared. From their perspective the risks of its abuse far exceeded the benefits of its proper use. But it was given for enjoyment within prescribed boundaries. And so we guilt each other out of a wide range of seared enjoyments and end up being a community of prudes. This is exacerbated by ascetic religion that fails to see any purpose for pleasure in a penultimate existence.
[5] In medicine a priapism is a dangerously long lasting erection (the kind of thing they warn about in the Viagra adds).
[6] I love this idea. There is a great historical note about Pascal that his father refused to introduce him to math in the early stages of his education because he believed that “Mathematics was too intoxicating for the young mind.” But then walked in on him deriving Euclid’s triangle and realized that the time had come.
[7] This could have been filed under ‘unintentional comedy’ but it is just too obtuse for me to think he wasn’t being a little bit cheeky here.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Testing the Simmons-Klosterman Hypothesis

The greatest development of the podcast era[1] has been that about twice a year Chuck Klosterman comes on Bill Simons podcast and I get to listen in as my two favorite cultural exegetes[2] (vintage X) discuss a wide range of topics that (with the exception of Reality Television) never fail to engage me. Simmons-Klosterman share the uncanny ability to bring unparalleled analytical analysis and carful thought to total trivialities that are, in fact, not remotely trivial. For example in the opening five minutes of this episode Chuck gives THE definitive answer about why the rock music of my childhood was so bad.

But my favorite moments in these podcasts are when Bill and Chuck talk about craft. They have both carefully projected images as shiftless Xers…but the secret that seeps out when you get to listen in on a casual conversation is that they both think very carefully about their craft…and work very hard. At one point in their first podcast (which does not appear to be extant) they argued that writers (including themselves) improve with age while musicians make their best contributions early in their career.

The great irony of this discussion is that I think that, while they both remain worth reading, I think both of these guys peaked in the early years of their careers. While all of his works are worth reading, Chuck’s fist widely published book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs was unquestionably his best. And Simmons early columns were so shockingly original that they created culture at an astonishing rate.

Anyway, I am fascinated by the creative process and am particularly fascinated by the contrast between momentary virtuosity and sustained excellence.[3] I consider engineers and scientists participants in the creative process (at least the ones I respect). But we unquestionably improve with time. You could plot the quality of an engineer’s work with time and apart for loss of interest or the cognative hardening that affects advanced life stages, it would plot as a steady increase. [4] So, I thought I’d test the Simmons-Klosterman Hypothesis with bands I have enjoyed in the last year or so.

My data set includes seven bands that fit the following criteria:

1. I have listened to most of their music to the extent that I have an opinion on it
2. They have 3 or (preferably more) albums spanning a decade
3. At least one of their albums was outstanding


I’ll open with the Killers because Simmons has, himself, expressed an opinion on their trajectory:
“I don't want to say The Killers are going in the wrong direction, but their third album made their second album sound like a cross between "Born in the USA" and "Nevermind" ... and I'm currently using the second album's CD as a coaster for ginger ale.” –Bill Simmons

Well, I thought Hot Fuss was very good, but Sam’s Town is their finest work in my opinion. [5] I loved the concept and while none of the songs were as subversively original as “Mr Brightside” they were consistently excellent (and on themes I found more enobling). “When we Were Young” can still make me shudder from time to time. Then they fell off a cliff. The only memorable song on the overlong Sawdust is a remix of “Mr. Brightside”. Day and Age was a slight improvement due entirely to the comedic possibilities surrounding lines like ‘are we human or are we dancers’.

And this sets the template. It appears that several of the bands I like reverse the assumption of a sophomore slump. Instead we see a sophomore surge. A very good debut is followed by a phenomenal second album, after which, things fall off.

Paramore follows this trend precisely.

mewithoutYou also demonstrates this pattern, but their albums are all so good, that, while there is a relative tailing off between album 2 and 3, the latter albums are still exceptional.[6] In fact, Brother Sun Sister Moon, still cracks my all time top 10…but it is a ‘drop off’ from Catch for us the Foxes which is my favorite album of all time.

Sufjan is more like an engineer. His music starts good and just gets better. Avalanche cannot be considered a drop off because it was the compilation of the 21 tracks that were not good enough to make it on the 22 track Illinoise. It is a double length B side of a double length album and is still excellent. Sadly, it seems that Sufjan has gotten board with pumping out phenomenal albums. But I have to respect the impulse to not make music rather than putting out art that is less than he knows he is capable of just to make another paycheck.

Death Cab for Cutie is a special case. They do not have a transcendent album…but they also do not have a bad one. When Death Cab puts out an album you know what you are getting. [7] They are indistinguishable…but they are indistinguishably good.

The Decemberists started strong and peaked four albums in. Crane Wife would be a perfect album if it wasn’t for two conspicuously sub-par songs in the middle. But then The Hazard of Love did not live up. (Note: Hazard of Love is a serious piece of concept art. I have not really gotten into it since I got it for Christmas, but I have not really invested the work it probably deserves. While the album failed to make me want to do the work it is possible I just don’t ‘get it’ yet. And this band has certainly earned the benefit of the doubt).

Finally, Modest Mouse is the quintessential late bloomer. This first couple albums are pretty brutal. But he tinkered with his sound and themes in Good News for People Who Love Bad News and the results were fantastic. Long time fans saw it as a sell out, but count me in the camp that considers it his greatest work. He kept the pieces in place for We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank and the quality remained high.


No definitive trend emerged. I had long held that a bands best album (or a writer’s best book) was usually their first, because they worked on it for a decade, and then were pressured to produce a follow up in a tenth of that time. But it seems like the second or third album is the sweet spot. The band is still raw and hungry enough to resonate but has learned the lessons of the early work.

Post Script: The KLOV-ification of Christian Music

I found my mistaken hypothesis (that bands peaked with their first album) interesting and gave some thought to its genesis. I believe I have identified the culprit: the most promising bands of the late 1990’s Christian Music scene.

I spent the 1990’s listening exclusively[8] to Christian music[9]…and I wasn’t even interesting enough to listen to Five Iron Frenzy or The Choir.[10] So you have to believe me when I tell you that you cannot understate the sub-genre renaissance represented by 1995-1997. Not only did DC Talk put out an album you could listen to without embarrassed smirking[11], but three new bands came on the scene that seemed to actually be doing art. We thought we were witnessing Vienna at the turn of the nineteenth century or Motown at the beginning of the last one. Jars even got some mainstream attention for their driving ‘Flood’ which was excellent but wasn’t even the second best song on the album.

But here are their subsequent time series[12]:

All three bands quickly traded in their gritty, driving, and/or experimental flavors for bland easy listening. We never got another ‘Consuming Fire,’ ‘Bus Driver,’ or ‘Liquid.’[13] We never even got another ‘Flood.’ And I blame KLOVE. KLOVE was the Walmartification of Christian music.[14]

With the exception of ‘Flood’ the bands weren’t quite good enough to get mainstream play[15] the only way they could get exposure is through the historically tepid ‘contemporary’[16] Christian radio stations that market themselves as ‘safe for the whole family[17].’ It might just be me, but it does not seem like ‘safe for the whole family’ is the head space in which great art thrives.[18]

So instead of a sophomore surge, these promising young bands quickly gave us, what I will call ‘music for vacuuming.’ Our best chance at resonating with Xers turned their talents to the middle age house wives that drive Christian radio giving. And it seems like the powers that be have actually convinced the artists that it is for the better. Amanda and I went to a concert a couple years ago where Aaron Tate joked that they had tried to destroy every copy of their first album out of embarrassment. The only song that gets play from those three seminal works is the tepid ‘Love Song for a Savior’ that might not even exceed the median quality of the album it appeared on, but is sufficiently tepid for the airwaves.

Anyway, because the first three bands I cared about as an adult followed this trajectory, it became my default hypothesis. Bands come on the scene with the pent up creativity of hungry decades, and then follow up with lesser works.[19] But I have come to believe that this is not so much a general insight on the creative process but an artifact of the structure of late 90’s Christian music.

This post was written while listening to We Were Dead Before the Ship Even Sank by Modest Mouse

[1] Here I am talking about podcasts proper, not the explosion of outstanding, free, MP3 content. A close second is the Economist podcast.
[2] I talked about my affection for these guys in one of my favorite posts.
[3] Sometimes, when I write fiction, I write a sentence and then sit back and say “I can do this.” But then it is a week before I write another…meanwhile there is a 500 page Updike novel in my backpack that conspicuously lacks a single pedestrian sentence. Last week some golfer I have never heard of hit a single round all time low score…something Tiger et al have never done. When interviewed he said the reason that Tiger et al were great and he was just good is that he has amazing days and bad days…they consistently have great days. Consistency seems to be the currency of greatness…unless you are Nirvana…then you just have to write the single greatest song of a generation and the rest of discography gets a mulligan.
[4] An interesting counter-example to this appears to be Mathematicians. Apparently if you haven’t made your mathematical contribution by 25 you resign yourself to mediocrity.
[5] He wrote this right after their 4th album, so I am going to chalk it up to a mistake…I think he is saying that Sawdust was terrible and Day and Age was worse.
[6] I have written about this before and they will eventually get their own post, but part of this sustained greatness is a complete reinvention of their sound for each album.
[7] Good lyrics, a great but familiar sound, some compelling story telling and mopy themes…essentially country music for hipsters.
[8] Someone at the time told me that I was being ‘too Christian’ by limiting my artistic appreciation to a sub-culture. The irony was that I wasn’t being Christian enough.
[9] Whether ‘Christian music’ is a helpful or even a meaningful label will eventually be another post if I can edit it to the point of less-than-disturbingly-bitter.
[10] In a related note, I did not have much interest in music in the late 1990’s. And, yes, I know that that means I missed grunge in real time, the quintessential artistic voice of my generation…please don’t rub it in.
[11] Seriously, Jesus Freak was a water to wine (2 buck chuck, but wine none the less) transformation that could be cited as evidence for a all powerful and benevolent creator. I know this sounds silly, but going from being as bad as they were and then suddenly listenable still strikes me a requiring divine intervention.
[12] It is worth noting that I probably grade Christian music on a curve. These bands’ good albums probably get overrated because they were getting compared to Carmen, Sandi Patti and DCT’s early work at the time. But the latter albums are probably not as bad as I am remembering. The grades are likely the residual physic effects of my disappointment.
[13] In their recent album, Jars included a song ‘O God’, which was a refreshingly honest song about the hiddeness of God that had a distinctively ‘Worlds Apart’ feel to it…the primary reason this album didn’t suck.
[14] Over the course of the 1990’s and 2000’s the localized Christian radio stations that offered mostly radio preachers, children’s shows, goofy reenactments and hymns were gradually replaced by and expanding juggernaut, KLOVE, that offered exclusively musical content. This played out like the premier of V. At first the V’s appeared to be benevolent allies, but soon the dark side emerged. Having a single centralized entity determining national radio play acts as quality control on the industry but it also militates against niche (the force that has driven the greatest era of musical creativity since Motown and Vienna) and results in a bland, lowest common denominator selection process.
[15] And, it is possible that they suffered from anti-religious bias…but Christians have hidden bad art behind that boogieman for so long that I hesitate to invoke it, even in part.
[16] I love Driscoll’s thoughts on the Christian use of the word ‘contemporary.’ He likes to say that ‘Most contemporary services wouldn’t even be contemporary for 1984.’
[17] Actually, this is the tag line for KLOVE’s commercial competitor, but they both say the same sorts of things, and seem to share play lists.
[18] My friend Dan actually objects to this idea more broadly suggesting that there may not be a more alien idea to the teachings of Jesus than the pursuit of personal safety.
[19] As a side note, Switchfoot’s time series looks much more like those previously documented. Their best album was their second, the 1999 New Way to be Human (which would not get a sniff of KLOVE play time) and subsequent work did not fall of quite as precipitously.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Three Generations, One Mountain

Last week, I gave a presentation on a sediment model I helped with on the Cowlitz River…the main waterway impacted by the devastation of Mt St Helens. My involvement with this project has afforded me the opportunity to visit the mountain a couple of times (including once by helicopter). It is a truly dramatic sight…4 billion tons of mountain is no longer mountain.

There was a special poignance to this presentation, because two weeks ago, I was home helping my mom go through stuff to get ready to sell her house. Amanda and I spent most evenings scanning old pictures.[1] I found the single roll of film my Dad shot while stationed in Washington State during Vietnam[2] including this picture of the same mountain. It was taken just a few years before the eruption and, as I hinted at in the Portland post, it is indistinguishable from Rainier, Hood or Shasta.
But then, just to give us the generational hat trick of Gibson men and this epic mountain, I was going through the attic on my last day in town and I came upon a collection of old postcards, circa 1944. They bore the signature “Stanford”[3] in my grandfather’s unmistakably illegible hand. I had never pictured my grandfather anywhere but at the camp or in Korea during the war, but there, forgotten on a shelf since Dad moved grandma to assisted living over a decade ago, was the evidence of an extremely adventurous youth. And, sure enough, about half way through the book, I found this:

This post was prepared while listening to the Brand New channel on Pandora
[1] I have two additional posts started about this project.
[2] Dad’s coke bottle glasses disqualified him from the jungle, but his integrity got him a position guarding top secret technology. He could not tell anyone what he did for 15 years. His ‘cover story’ was that he was a cook. We believed this until Mom took a class in the evenings one year. The fifth week in a row we had beans and hot dogs, our combined 13 years of life experience outed him…though he didn’t actually tell us about it (in even the vaguest terms) until 10 years past the silence period.
[3] My Dad’s name was Edwin Stanford Gibson. If he had been a Stanford, I would be something between Stanford Gibson the 5th and 8th, from what I can tell. Somehow, my parents still felt the need to give me a name that peaked in 1910 and fell off the plot by the time I was born.