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What and Why with Max Roth
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What and Why with Max Roth

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What do we do and why do we do it?

To paraphrase Augustine, the questions are shallow enough for a child not to drown, but deep enough for an elephant to swim. (Augustine didn't have a podcast. He was talking about the Bible.)

The idea of What and Why with Max Roth is to spend some time with people who dive into deep waters and learn from them.

I'll be the child trying to swim with elephants.

Some of those elephants will be eminent scholars. Others will have life stories I want to hear.

Hopefully you'll want to hear them too, and they'll still be talking to me after seeing I've called them elephants.
22 Episodes
Shane Claiborne co-founded the Simple Way, a Christian activist community in Philadelphia. He leads Red Letter Christians, a justice-oriented movement of Christians who believe modern Evangelicals need to pay more attention to the words of Jesus, sometimes printed in red letters in Bibles. I talked with him as he prepared for a revival in North Carolina before flying to Salt Lake City for an event protesting gun violence. That event was inspired in part by the book he co-wrote with Michael Martin called Beating Guns: Hope for People Who are Weary of Violence. See for privacy information.
Jason Hanson was a CIA officer from 2003 to 2009. Now he runs a security firm and has written Agent of Influence: How to Use Spy Skills to Persuade Anyone, Sell Anything, and Build a Successful Business. We shoot the breeze about spy stuff and work our way to the advice offered in the book. See for privacy information.
In this week's What and Why, a conversation about violence aimed at people because of their beliefs. This was a television discussion I hosted with a rabbi, an imam, a priest, and a pastor in the wake of attacks on churches, synagogues and mosques around the world, originally aired in the first week of May 2019. See for privacy information.
"Snared: Lair of the Beast" is the second book in the "Snared" series by Adam Jay Epstein. These are books for middle readers, meaning they are officially intended for readers up to age 14 or so. Unofficially it means they are highly readable with a plot that moves and characters who you really like. Wily Snared is the name of a precocious kid who thinks he's a "hobgoblet" living in a dungeon as the "trapmaster." In truth he's a human with unusual and mysterious parents, something he learns gradually as he joins an adventurous group of dungeon raiders in book one, called "Snared: Escape to the Above." This is a fun father's day conversation and something you can share with kids who love adventure stories and wonder how an author goes about creating them. See for privacy information.
One of Germany's greatest scholars risked his life and lost his job standing up for Jews as the Nazis took power, protected minorities as a German army officer in Russia, and then died and was erased from history by the Communists in East Germany. Ernst Lohmeyer was just a name on a page when James Edwards stumbled on him as a graduate student. It took four decades, including trips behind the iron curtain, for Edwards to track down this life story of a man who did his best to be good in the worst of times. See for privacy information.
This is a funny book. There are quirky pictures, goofy lists, familiar scenarios, and odd observations all about anxiety. Jordan Reid is a blogger (see, an actress, a mom, and a good sport as I rambled and laughed my way through the interview. This interview is different because the book is meant to be something you can keep close by and dive into for the occasional break, or to provide ideas for conversations with a good, honest friend. With most interviews I go in with notes from a careful reading of the subject material, but this is a book meant to make you smile and forget your worries, so that's what we did in the interview. Enjoy! See for privacy information.
Does gratitude ever feel like a burden? It does to me. I think I should just naturally feel grateful, but I don't. In this weeks episode, bestselling author and historian Diana Butler Bass takes us on her journey to learn about gratitude at a time she didn't feel all that grateful herself. It's a worthwhile and fun journey. Her insight helped me and I hope it helps you too! See for privacy information.
Ugh. Computer stolen, which I realized as I prepared to upload the episode on GRATITUDE. Hey, could be worse. I'm grateful that you listen and the audio's on the cloud. God bless you all, even the a$$&^*!$ who took my Powerbook. See for privacy information.
WHY!!?? That's the question that comes to my mind when I hear about 100 mile runs. Any running race longer than a marathon (26.2 miles) is considered an ultra run or an ultra race. While it sounds downright insane to a lot of people, it's a genuine phenomenon with races through deserts, over mountains or just around and around the same track or city block. And if you're like me, maybe there's a corner of your mind where you're intrigued with the idea of learning how far you can really go. Adharanand Finn tried, and found out, and he shares his story. See for privacy information.
Tequila has been through a lot of transformation...not so much the drink itself, whose distillers pride themselves on consistent quality through the years. The transformation has been in it's role in Mexican and world culture. Alternately appreciated as the refined beverage of the hacienda and derided as an elixir of iniquity with body-shot fueled spring breaks. Sociologist Marie Sarita Gaytan guides us through the history and meaning of Tequila as we sample some common varieties. She's the perfect person for the job because she wrote the book, Tequila, Distilling the Spirit of Mexico. See for privacy information.
American Sumo

American Sumo


What exactly is Sumo? Why do people participate? This week four American Sumo wrestlers sit down to talk about why they chose a sport most of us think of as a curiosity from Japan. Trent Sabo has won silver and bronze at the world amateur championships. Cornelius Booker is the reigning American Lightweight champ. Heavyweight Mark Naas is in his first year in the sport. Carl Papalardo is 51 and no longer competing after several injuries. See for privacy information.
Brothels, paparazzi, Cinnabon big wigs and felons...What do they all have in common? They all provide excellent examples of people dealing with risk to varying degrees of success. Allison Schrager is an economist who decided to spend some time in all of these worlds in order to write a very entertaining handbook for those of us who are not that good at figuring out when it's worth taking that big step. Oh, and I got a great assist from my son Jackson! See for privacy information.
You've felt the believe strongly that recycling is important to cut down on resource extraction, but with no bin at work, it's just too much to haul all the cans home. You believe in taking responsibility for mistakes, but if you own up to scratching that car, it may cost you hundreds of dollars your family can't afford. That pang can be called "dissonance." In the book, Mistakes were Made (But Not by Me) Elliot Aronson and Carol Tavris say, "Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent, such as "Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill you" and "I smoke two packs a day." Elliot Aronson has written too many books to list, and is one of the most honored and cited psychologists of all time. His co-author on Mistakes were made calls him the "father of self-justification theory." Our conversation ranges from the political to the personal, and I mix in an interview I did with a Congressman who confronted me, saying I was ignoring facts. Hopefully you'll find it as interesting as I did! See for privacy information.
Jonathan Metzl looks at the outcomes of politics based on a backlash against perceived outsiders. The theory sounds provocative, but the book is really just full of individual stories and statistics. He says gun policy is based on the need for protection when the majority of gun deaths are white men killing themselves. He says choosing to block the Affordable Care Act's Medicaid expansion is often justified as not using tax dollars to subsidize groups of people perceived as lazy, but mortality statistics show white working class Americans are living longer and in better health in states that did expand Medicaid. I mix in some pieces of relevant debates in the legislature where I live because the issues in the book are so relevant in my state (Utah) and in communities around the U.S. Jonathan Metzl is the Frederick B. Rentschler II Professor of Sociology and Psychiatry at Vanderbilt University and director of its Center for Medicine, Health, and Society. He is the author of several books and a prominent expert on gun violence and mental illness. See for privacy information.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote Holy Envy, Finding God in the Faith of Others as a memoir of her time teaching Religion 101 to students at Piedmont College in Georgia. Taylor is an Episcopal Priest who worked in two congregations before going to work full-time as a professor. Taylor and I talk about our shared experiences as divinity students with a bit of an egghead bent. We talk about how her students changed over the years, and how she changed alongside them by learning from the experiences she organized for the class. We talk about the nature of a religious calling, the role of faith in the lives of modern youth, and how to balance sincere devotion in one's own faith to an openness to the wisdom of others. She's warm, fun, and engaging. You'll also hear from two of my great students from the youth group I coordinate at my church. I asked Luke and Madison about some of the subjects in the book, to get a little bit of a case study of today's young adults. They are a couple years younger than the students in Taylor's classes, but they had terrific insight. See for privacy information.
Sociologist Tony Campolo has preached to tens of thousands of people, he's taught in the Ivy League, he's counseled a President of the United States and he's been tried for heresy. Rudyard Kipling could have been talking about Campolo when he wrote, "If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/or walk with kings, nor lose the common touch." Campolo has written bestsellers and he's founded a significant movement in American Protestantism but he never comes across as anything but the Italian kid from Philly who wears his heart on his sleeve. You'll hear his thoughts about the modern church and gay rights, about his friendship with Hillary Clinton despite disagreements, and you'll even hear him invite you to the little church he's been pastoring. See for privacy information.
How Your Social Position Determines Your Power, Beliefs and Behaviors, is the Subtitle to Matthew O. Jackson's new book, The Human Network. That's a lot to promise in a few words, but Jackson has the intellectual chops to deliver. Jackson is a Professor of Economics at Stanford University and he's made a name worldwide as an expert in how humans interact as members of various social networks. It's fascinating stuff, though much of what he's done has been written for academics. Lucky for us, The Human Network is meant for those of us without a degree in economics. He talks about why Chris Rock wasn't just being funny when he said, "All my black friends have a bunch of white friends. And all my white friends have one black friend." Rock was also correct mathematically, and that matters as we look at how different people experience communities. It also makes sense when your daughter says, "Everyone else has...." even if a small minority of people at school actually have whatever she's talking about. What your daughter sees is the outsized influence of girls with robust social networks. It's also true that there's wisdom in much so that a crowd in England over a hundred years ago almost perfectly guessed the weight of an ox without ever talking to each other. See for privacy information.
On a regular basis, do you Tweet? Instagram? Facebook? Snapchat? If you do...your way of understanding people and politics is radically different from any previous generation. Still, it's hard to say anything about the internet without sounding hopelessly cliche. Good thing Dr. Shannon McGregor actually does have new things to say about our lives online. In one research study she collected information from millions of social media accounts, studied who used what words, and quantified the results according to the subjects political leaning and frequency of social media use. In another study, she surveyed working journalists around the United States and learned how Twitter has become embedded in newsrooms for better and worse. See for privacy information.
It might seem like we humans are violent, but we really aren't compared to other creatures. Really, how many times have you been in a knock-down drag out fight over a meal or a mate? We outlaw that kind of individual violent behavior. At the same time, we plan, justify and sanction violence on a mass scale. In The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, Harvard biological anthropologist Richard Wrangham presents an explanation that is convincing, a little disturbing, and also pretty hopeful. It involves chimpanzees and bonobos, capitol punishment and an idea called "self domestication," and our disturbing capacity for planning violence. See for privacy information.
The whole interview with Richard Wrangham, biological anthropologist and author of The Goodness Paradox: The Strange Relationship Between Virtue and Violence in Human Evolution, in which I was trying too hard to prove I'd done my homework and didn't explain things very well. Wrangham himself is brilliant and charming and worth the listen. By the way, when I say "whole interview" I admit I edited out a really dumb question that made so little sense the good professor had to say in more gentle terms, "Say WHAAAA?" See for privacy information.