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.