Thursday, April 21, 2011

Easter Reflections on...the Honey Badger

This is the Honey Badger…He doesn’t give a s#$%![1]

At 5 million views[2], it is likely that you have already seen this. But what you may or may not have seen is the connection between the climactic confrontations with the King Cobra @2:33…and Easter. Of course that is the sort of essential analysis you have come to expect from this little blog.

The first time I saw this clip, all I could think about was Gen 3:14-15 known as the protoevangelium:

14 So the LORD God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,

“Cursed are you above all livestock
and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly
and you will eat dust
all the days of your life.
15 And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”

Historically, Christians have seen in this verse, the seeds of the entire story…an epic foreshadowing of the entire narrative. Humans would live at odds with each other and a malevolent cosmic force until a special human child will take it on and bring down this enemy at huge personal cost. [3] “He will crush your head and you will strike his heal.”

That’s right, in this analogy, the Honey Badger is Jesus. The story of Holy Week is that a cosmic champion in mortal personhood [4] plays out this script from the opening pages of the Hebrew Scriptures. He takes down the serpant but is mortally wounded in the process.

The days that passed between the cross and the resurrection are like the moments in the video where our hero, the Honey Badger, is overcome by the snake bite[5]. In those seeming interminable clicks of the YouTube clock, his bravery looks like foolishness.[6] We don’t have the data to do the toxicology in our heads but we know that the King Cobra is mythically deadly. Surely the Honey Badger could not survive that. The first time I watched this clip, I mourned the protagonist in those moments, sure he was dead. But he knows something about being a Honey Badger that we don’t. He is actually far more bad ass than we ever guessed.

And that is the story of Holy Week. Jesus lets the serpent bite him instead of us…because he can take it. He can emerge on the other side of death and wrap up his victory over the decimated serpent.

In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (another, more intentional, illustration of the events of Holy Week), when Aslan emerges from death, he says:

“Though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know.[7] Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation.[8] She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor's stead, the Table would crack[9] and Death itself would start working backward."

The Honey Badger’s fearlessness (he really doesn’t give a s$#%) is motivated by appropriate confidence that the serpent mortal bite can only inflict a fleeting death…that he will emerge the victor[10] and that the cost is worth the prize. It is a deeply flawed illustration[11], but one that I has captured my imagination this week. I hope that you find this weekend reflective and life giving.

This post was written while listening to The Suburbs by The Archade Fire
[1] So, there is more colorful language in my latest two posts than in the previous hundred. This should not be considered a trend (though I really want to work a Tim Minchum song into a post I am working on…so there might be a little more to come).
[2] And rightly so. This is a perfect YouTube clip because it works on two levels. The narration is hilarious but the Honey Badger really is remarkable. It works on the levels of joy and wonder, two of the fuels of our humanness.
[3] Revelation 12 paints the picture of these events as an epic battle between a cosmic champion and a serpentine dragon. I am working on a post about how this chapter is like Lost episode 118.
[4] As long as we are making strained comparisons between the gospel accounts and a silly four minute YouTube clip…the comparison is actually uncanny. Jesus spends the first half to 2/3rds of the gospel texts declaring a new mode of humanness and a new reign of Yahweh…demonstrating his authority over the dark forces that plague our existence. Then each of these texts spends a disproportionate amount of time on the climactic confrontation in the final week. This is not unlike the Honey Badger wreaking havoc on lesser serpents and vermin in the first half of the clip and then turns to the climactic death to life battle at the end.
[5] This is really the only place where I question the artistic choices of our skilled narrator. He shows his hand too quickly, not allowing the tension of the perceived death of our hero to strike us with full force.
[6] Along the lines of Schweitzer’s ‘he threw himself against the cosmic wheel and it crushed him” Christology.
[7] Note: The mystery of the Atonement is a rich and multi-faceted idea. In this post I am stressing the Christus Victor aspects of the doctrine (the oldest and most culturally foreign to us), as Lewis did in his story. However, this does not supplant the Anslelmic ‘satisfaction’ aspects of the cross that evangelicals are more familiar with or the ‘moral example’ implications that Liberal (capital L to indicate a precise theological movement not a political leaning) theologians prefer. Any theology of the cross that champions one of these to the neglect of the others is flawed.
[8] My brother pointed out that the film changed this word from “a different incantation” to “another interpretation” and quipped: “a meditation on that script change will say everything about our culture and the caution I was trying to voice above”
[9] There is a picnic spot in Davis, where I sometimes meet the girls for lunch to watch the trains, that is a big slab of rock split in two…we call it Aslan’s Table.
[10] OK, one more strained parallel. In Christian theology, the cross and resurrection initiate the victory but, of course, the world in general and my heart in particular is still full of all manner of darkness. The victory is implemented over time. One author described the resurrection like D-Day. Once we took the French beach heads in WWII, the outcome of the war was determined. But there was still a lot of suffering, and work and war that was still ahead of them. Thus, after the climactic struggle with the King cobra, the Honey Badger turns his energy to a sustained program of snake eradication.
[11] I’m not suggesting that we respond to the liturgical prompting “He is Risen” with “Yeah, the Honey Badger doesn’t give a s$%^.” And like all parables, it is only intended to illustrate a central idea – not to correspond to the prototype in every detail.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

My Name is My Name: Four of my Favorite Clips from The Wire

I have a new favorite show. Sadly, (if predictably) I’m late to the party and it was over before I started. But I am willing to careen into hyperbole and deem “The Wire” the best television drama of all time.

Now, it took me a while to warm up to The Wire. After each of the first three discs (4 episodes each) I gave up on it. But critical acclaim and repeated urgings from people I respect made me give it second, third and fourth chances. But by the end of the first season I was all in.

I eventually came to realize that the very thing that made the series difficult to get into was the thing that made it transcendent. It is a character driven exploration of human nature. In order to tell real, sustentative, narratives about textured, carefully crafted, characters that behave consistently and ‘ring true,’ we had to get to know them. But once we knew them, they were worth knowing. I didn’t anxiously await each disc to see how the writers would resolve some contrive plot cliff hanger[1]…I stayed up late watching ‘one more episode’ because I wanted to see who these people became.

And then there was Baltimore. I have said all I have to say about art that has a sense of place, but the wire is the prototype. Baltimore is as textured and gorgeous, despite and because of its grit[2] and decay as Omar, Freamon, Snoop or Stringer Bell[3].

It is impossible to summarize the series in a post. Do I write about the moments that left me stunned and literally breathless?[4] Do I write about the grief I felt as ‘the game’ claimed character after character with brutal capriciousness and with indiscriminate ferocity? Do I describe the pervasive corruption in the police, politics and press that mirror the wickedness of the street which succeeded in skirting a preachy and false moral equivalency while illustrating the pervasive fallenness of our condition despite our circumstances? Do I pick out the hilarious moments like the British actor who plays Jimmy practicing a bad British accent or every single monologue by Sgt Landsman that registered a 7.5 on the rictor scale of crassness but managed to be not only hysterical, but sublime? No idea. So I thought I’d just post a little commentary on four clips that contain four of my favorite quotes.

Quote #1 - Dan, my preaching partner, and I could not be more different musically. I openly mock him for his love of Sheryl Crowe and he has declared that my indifference for James Taylor is my most glaring personality disorder. But we agree that The Wire is probably the best television show ever…which makes it awkward that we both love a show we cannot recommend in the college ministry we serve.[5] Plus, we both love to illustrate our preaching with our favorite art, and can almost always think of a perfect Wire clip that is totally unusable. But this clip I plan to use.[6]

“You want it to be one way…but it’s the other way.”

There may not be a better summary of Genesis 3.[7]

Quote #2 And while we are talking about Marlo…Marlo is probably the most chilling character in the series. He is devastatingly understated…almost emotionless. Which is what made this scene so powerful:

“My name is my name”[8]

That there is Marlo’s longest monologue of the show and the clearest insight we get into who he is.

Quote #3 Then there was Omar. Omar was, rightfully, the show’s most beloved character.[9] Picking a best Omar scene is almost impossible. But this one was great[10]:

“I shot the boy mike mike in his hind parts, that all.”

Quote #4 Finally, for all of great narrative and characters, The Wire was most powerful when it cashed in those narratives and characters to make some of the most powerful and precise observations about human nature I have encountered in contemporary small screen art. This is most compelling when the ‘heroes’ talk about ‘the job.’

““The job will not save you Jimmy.”

[11] ‘Righteousness’ can be as destructive as ‘wickedness.’ ‘The job’ can destroy you as sure as ‘the game.’[12] Tim Keller could have written this scene.

And a few more….

This post was written while listening to the Ivoryline Pandora station.

[1] Seriously, I loved Lost as much as the next guy, but I often felt manipulated.
[2] I am going to skip the whole ‘white guilt’ discussion. There were aspects of the wire that I appreciated because it drew attention to the ‘corner’ culture that my Buffalo kids interacted with. But The Wire isn’t great because of it provides a voyeuristic expose on urban life…the wire is great because it told stories that rung true and connected with my experiences of beauty and brokenness.
[3] Its funny how everyone else can be identified by a single name, but it takes two for “Russell.”
[4] E.g. the simultaneous tenderness and coldness of the Chris/Snoop executions. Or, one of my favorite scenes has two Baltimore drug dealers listening to Prairie Home Companion on their way to NY and one of them starts fiddling with the radio as the station begins to cut out. He thought it was broken. He’d never been far enough away from his corner to realize that radio stations are not static entities.
[5] I have written repeatedly about my frustration with HBO’s gratuitous exploration of ‘boob shots’ in what is otherwise excellent, nuanced, art. Also, I usually have a very high tolerance for words with social taboo, but I found myself thinking in a new and colorful vocabulary after banging through a couple discs of this show. Don’t get me wrong, the dialogue is amazing and the language is perfectly apt and believable, but there is one famous episode where the ‘dialogue’ consists of 38 F-bombs in a row (in about 3 minutes).
[6] I’m going to use the middle scene in the convenient store.
[7] Which I am preaching in the fall.
[8] One of the things I love about it is how it makes sense of a seemingly insignificant detail from a former season (this was always happening). There is a great scene when Marlo is in a power struggle with Bodie and decides to assimilate rather than destroy him. He walks up to Bodie and gets his name wrong a couple times. Bodie, responds “You know my name.” This all reminds me of the theme of Yahweh’s name and the demons asking Jesus his name and visa versa in the first and second testaments. It is the classic example of an illustration that ‘cuts the wrong way’ but there is a really interesting parallel here regarding name and power.
[9] SPOILER ALERT – IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE WHOLE SERIES DO NOT READ THIS FOOTNOTE– Nothing in this show was more controversial than Omar’s death. And, I felt outrage…because he was, in some ways, the show’s moral center. “A man has got to have a code.” But Omar had to die, and die unceremoniously, and pass without fanfare. That was the point. We loved Omar, because we knew him, but in the end, he was just another body. The rules were that ‘the game’ could and would claim everybody and an honorable life did not assure you an honorable death. Oh, and he was my favorite gay character in any art…ever.
[10] Though almost ruined by the overacting of the defense attorney.
[11] I think Freamon is my favorite character.
[12] There is an echo of this with Daniels, who has his S#$% together more than Jimmy, but still worships ‘the job’. ‘The job does not love you,’ in the mouth of his wife could be a straight up Keller Quote.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Fragments and Links 9: Zombies, Sex, Science, and the Creative Process (but not at the same time)

So, this is my 100th post…so I thought I’d do a Fragments and Links post to celebrate. Every once in a while I like to collect ideas, quotes and links that did not warrant their own post. This is one of those times. I like to start sentences with the phrase “speaking of…” to give the illusion of connection and coherence. But mainly it is just a bunch of things I think are interesting. Skimming is recommended:

Topic 1: Sex and Zombies (but not at the same time[1])

The OK Cupid blog[2] is worth checking out. The author has access to the data from a major dating site and essentially mines it for statistically interesting observations.[3] And some of them are VERY interesting.[4]

But this one was particularly interesting. He chose several questions that you might want to ask on a first date to get at information that is inappropriate to ask, looking for highly correlated information that it is socially acceptable to ask about.

For example, do you want to know if your date would consider sex with you on the first date but don’t have the bad manners to ask? Ask “do you like the taste of beer?” Answers to these questions are amazingly highly correlated.

The analysis gets more bizarre from there. But one question was particularly interesting: “Are you religious?”

Try to guess the correlated question. it?

Here it is: “Do spelling and grammar mistakes annoy you?” I was crestfallen. Seriously? People of faith (and presumably, Christians, as it is an American data set) are marked by their legalism and attention to behaviors that don’t matter? So lame. But wait, the question COUNTER-correlates. People of faith are significantly LESS likely to care about spelling and grammar mistakes. This was refreshing to me and should not be surprising to the frequent readers of this blog.

Speaking of having sex on the first date…my brother has documented some of his thoughts on the economics of modern sexuality and how it has been characterized by the “de-unionization of women.” It is a sober analysis (particularly for the father of two girls), but I have two favorite quotes:

“The functional value of male sex is zero.”
“this meant that the R&D cost of switching partners was high”

Speaking of my brother, he has a talk in which he asks the listeners to vote on the following question: Are we are mostly composed of “nature” or “personality”? (i.e. are we more like other humans or more uniquely ourselves)[5]: I think that this needs to be considered in that discussion.

Now I am an unapologetic facebook apologist, but while we are recognizing its flaws, it seems like this needs to be cited.

So as a Buffy fanboy, the current vampire craze leaves me with a “been there done that an order of magnitude better” feeling. But I have recently made a surprising entre into the zombie world. John Green’s opening chapter (which he reads in the below vid) of his zombie apocalypse novella is nothing short of gorgeous:

He released the complete novella “Zombicorns” online with the disclaimer that it is horrible. I disagree.[6] I really liked it. And you can bang it out in an hour.

This work probably resonated with me more than it might have because I have spent a good deal of time thinking about Zombie epidemiology. Two Canadian professors did an epidemiological study of how a zombie epidemic would spread. We learned about epidemiological modeling in one of my ecology classes and, while the prof never mentioned zombies, it was all I could think about.

For future reference, if you ever find yourself giving a dull lecture on epidemiological modeling and how that could interface with Lottka-Voltera predator-prey dynamics and you do not use zombies as your model organism, you can just consider it a breach of pedagogical responsibility.

A couple more things about the vlogbrothers (who are John Green of the zombie novella above and his brother Hank) I just realized why the intro to the old vlogbrother videos is familiar:

This is one of the things I like about these guys. They celebrate non-romantic love and deconstruct the centrality and ubiquity of the romantic connotations of this embattled word. Consider this line from a recent vlog by John.

“Valentine’s day is one of the most potent symbols of our weird obsession with romantic love…if you spend your life singularly obsessed with romantic love you are going to miss out on a lot of what’s fun about being a person.”

****Technical Language Alert**** (This is like a spoiler alert – it allows you to skip to the “end” of the section if it seems unnecessarily obtuse)

One more John Green quote that I really like. "for me fiction is the only way I can even begin to twist my lying memories into something true." - John Green

I really resonate with his epistemology even though I’m not entirely on board ontologically. John and I see the epistemological problem the same way (and we have a good deal of psychological research to back us up). We do not know most of what we know because we do not actually remember most of what we remember. The brain is a reconstitution software telling stories from relatively few fixed points of actual stored data. But I don't agree that fiction is the only way to deal with this. I think that spiritual disciplines have surprising utility in circumventing this problem. You could make an evolutionary case that this is why they exist…but I prefer the teleological version of this argument: That we were designed to require a regular calibration from a fixed external reality.

****End Technical Language alert****

Speaking of fun Youtube subculture…this is just about the greatest short film I have ever seen.

Topic 2: Weird Science

Speaking of[7] science that is part fun part serious and it is hard to tell how to partition it: I recently encountered the famous Pleistocene Rewilding paper. This is a paper that appeared in Nature (2005) and argued that our ecosystems are degraded because palo-native-Americans hunted the Pleistocene mega-fauna (mastodons and the “American cheetah”) to extinction. Mega-fauna (lions, elephants and cheetah) are also endangered in Africa. So the paper (which was co-authored by over a dozen professors from good programs) argues that we could ‘kill two birds’ with one stone by introducing the megafauna of Africa to the American plains. This is seemingly too bizarre to be true, but there it is in the pages of nature.[8]

Speaking of bizarre science and ‘killing two birds with one stone’…or rather unkilling birds (which also puts me in line with the zombie theme) I have also learned of active attempts to reconstitute lost species(like the passenger pigeon and the auroch[9]) by isolating them genetically from their closes living relatives.

As absurd as these ideas are, one quote at the end of the Rewilding paper really struck me. The authors pose the question: “We ask of those who find the objections compelling, are you content with the negative slant of current conservation philosophy?” I guess this articulates some of my frustration with my initial foray into conservation biology. There is a lot of gloom and a conspicuous lack of innovation. In many ways, it is a ‘conservative’ science. (I mean, there is a guiding principle called "the precautionary principle"). I know that this smacks of engineering arrogance. But I guess that is what makes me an engineer. I got into science to bring it to bear on social and environmental problems. These ideas may be absurd, but my inclination is to evaluate them with a hopeful rather than antagonistic posture…because the current trajectory is entirely hopeless. Which leads me to climate change… …the climate change story is as bad or worse than the biodiversity crisis. I have very little hope that human behavior will change in time to avoid an eventual total collapse of marine ecosystems.[10] Sociology is not going to fix this. In light of this, too little emphasis and too little research funding is going to technology. There is an excellent and accessible paper in Nature that lays out the relative potential of the options currently on the table. I am not a Steven Levitt fan, but he is getting unnecessarily criticized for essentially making the economic argument that we need to start thinking seriously about technological solutions.

Topic 3: Creativity and Music

Several months ago I wrote about the creative process and how most creatives I know or have read about live in constant fear of loosing the ability to tap into whatever it is that makes them creative. Elizabeth Gilbert did a whole TED talk on this that had two really interesting ideas:

1. This is why creatives go mad or turn to addiction or end their lives at a disproportionally high rate. The seemingly fleeting and capricious nature of creativity leaves them powerless.

2. She posits instead a personal version of this force that you can and should talk to…giving responsibility back. This generates a psychological distance between you and the art you participate in and protects you from it. If you work was good or bad, it didn’t reflect on you. “This is how creativity was viewed in the western world for a really long time.” There was a change from having a Genius[11] to being a Genius. “That was a huge error”

Speaking of TED talks I liked, there is also this one.
I feel like the movie Hurt Locker is an artistic expansion of one of the most compelling lines in Audience of One” by Rise Against: “Maybe we've outgrown all the things that we once loved.”

I wrote a bit about Sufjan’s new album and concert a couple months ago. My friend Justin has registered a pretty accurate critique of the new stuff: “It’s like Sufjan got drunk and made an album with Animal Collective, and then they never bothered to edit the raw tracks”

I have watche a little bit of Bones and a little bit of Castle recently and have decided that they are essentially the same show. Take a tall, attractive, professionally exemplary woman who lives by logic and algorithm and put them opposite an intuitive, gregarious Joss Wheddon leading man…boom…you have a show that is not great, but watchable. I think this pretty much sums up why this formula works.

I have been listening to a ton of Brand New lately. Love them. Their track “Jesus Christ” (off The Devil and God are Raging Inside Me) is amazing.

“We’ve all got wood and nails, we’re tongue tied to a hating factory”

Stuff I am working on:

-The Surprising Similarity of Two Uneven Finales: The Final Episodes of Lost and Battlestar Galactica

-“My Name is My Name”: Thoughts on The Wire

-The Two Great Manipulations: Fear and Guilt from the Right and the Left

-Photobox Stratigraphy

-Cities: New Orleans

-A Monte Carlo Statistical Analysis of Hi-Ho Cherry Oh!

-Backloading the Backstory to Maximize Narrative Utility: How Lost Episode 118 is like Revelation Chapter 12

-Theo-Coleoptaphelia: Upon further review, “An inordinate fondness for beetles” is precisely what I would expect

-The Secret World of River Gravel: A Photographic Expose of Riverine Benthic Communities (in 40X Magnification)

-We’ve Been Here Before, and It Wasn’t Good: Climate Change Precedent in the PETM[12]

This post was written while listening to God and the Devil are Raging Inside of Me by Brand New


[1] Because that would just be weird.

[2] I owe this to my friend Noam.

[4] Including the standard confusion between correlation and causation.

[5] This is a really interesting exersize, because if we are mostly like other humans, a universal worldview is more likely to be useful because we mostly have the same hopes, fears, and weaknesses. However, if we are all unique snowflakes, then it is absurd to think that one prescription of ‘disease’ and ‘remedy’ could hold universally. Of course, modern psychology has demonstrated that much of our drama stems from our failure to recognize that “we are not as special as we think we are.”

[6] Actually, I picked up a couple of his “real books”, and while I like An Abundance of Katherines and Will Grayson they were not nearly was not as good as Zobiecorns.

[7] You have to go back to the Zombie paper to pick up this train of thought.

[8] I have since learned that most of the authors saw it as a ‘thought experiment’ and not a real study.

[9] The ancestor of the cow. I told my friend Mark this story and he replied “that seems like a species no one has missed.”

[10] The tragic thing about these effects is that they will be locked in in the next 150 years and then will play out for the following two thousand. I am pretty skeptical that standard economic and sociological forces are efficacious against a lagged process.

[11] Which was a spirit that essentially chose to posses the artist.

[12] The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum is the only event anything like a historical precedent for the carbon loadings we are putting into the atmosphere. It provides a template for what the long term effects of our impact will be…and it’s not good news.