On Hating & Loving the Old Course

The Dunhill Links Championship was played last week over the Old Course at St. Andrews, Kingsbarns, and Carnoustie. I’ve played all three and the Old Course is certainly the least immediately impressive.

So it wasn’t too much of a surprise when Rory McIlroy said that when he first played the Old Course he hated it. Bobby Jones felt the same way when he first played it, but came to love it over time. Not only this, but McIlroy’s home course is Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, one of the top few links courses in the world and certainly one of the most beautiful.


Getty Images / SI.com

His comments sum up the reaction of most golfers who get to know the Old Course, its quirks and its continued challenge to modern golfers:

“Thought it was the worst golf course I’ve ever played,” he said. “I just stood up on every tee and was like, ‘What is the fascination about this place?’ But the more you play it and the more you learn about the golf course and the little nuances, you learn to appreciate it. Now it’s my favorite golf course in the world.”

Postures of Fear

Just over a decade ago a conversation about fear-based motivations in relationships sparked some extended and seriously fruitful reflection about hopeful versus fearful postures toward others. The beginning of this NYT article about Marilynne Robinson, whose new novel is just out, brought much of that back to me.

This June, as a grandfather clock rang the quarter-hour in her modest Iowa City living room, the American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson, a woman of 70 who speaks in sentences that accumulate into polished paragraphs, made a confession: “I hate to say it, but I think a default posture of human beings is fear.” Perched on the edge of a sofa, hands loosely clasped, Robinson leaned forward as if breaking bad news to a gentle heart. “What it comes down to — and I think this has become prominent in our culture recently — is that fear is an excuse: ‘I would like to have done something, but of course I couldn’t.’ Fear is so opportunistic that people can call on it under the slightest provocations: ‘He looked at me funny.’ ”

“ ‘So I shot him,’ ” I said.


“ ‘Can you blame me?’ ”

‘‘Exactly. Fear has, in this moment, a respectability I’ve never seen in my life.

Academic Inquiry & Practical Relevance

I frequently supervise student research projects and I occasionally hear something like this: “I don’t want my research to be merely academic. I want it to have practical relevance for the church.”

When I heard this from undergrads I would nod and say, “sure, I get it, relevance, so how about you engage these two or three views on this issue and then also reflect in a final section of your paper on the relevance of this discussion for the church?”

I don’t quite like hearing students say this, but to this point I haven’t made a fuss. I encountered this sentiment again recently and it became the occasion to clarify some thoughts.

It strikes me immediately as laudable to desire that one’s research have eventual payoff for one’s practice, for Christian discipleship in general, and for relevance to the church. But I think this goal ought to be kept at arm’s length. Students should not assume that they already have the capacity to determine when they have arrived at something that is practically relevant or that they know how to determine what is relevant and what is not.

Some areas of research that students tackle are massive and complex and students should seek to get their heads around them as much as possible as a purely academic exercise. They should get to grips with how people have configured the problems and how they have sought solutions. What is the range of opinions? Where are the fault lines? What solutions consistently rise to the top? Rather than cherry-picking what is “practical” while gaining only a general acquaintance with the larger issue, students should sit before the discussion and its history and learn it thoroughly and humbly.

I recently told a student that he wouldn’t be struck by anything “practical” or worth passing on to anyone else in the first few weeks of his study, or even after 8-10 weeks. I told him, however, that the whole time that he was learning, he’d be grappling with the overall issue and coming to a deeper understanding of the field not for others, but for himself. But this would lead to seeing the biblical text in new ways. He’d begin to discern strategies of biblical writers like never before, and all of this would enhance his ability to describe what is happening in biblical texts to lay people more effectively.

Students should not be trying to find the practical aspect of Issue X, to shake loose what is dispensable from what is crucial. They need to understand Issue X more deeply so that they can explain it more simply and clearly.

Student research involves penetrating deeply into a topic, understanding its complexities so that they themselves arrive at a deeper, more involved and profounder grasp of it. This ought to reconfigure their ideological frameworks and transform their vocabulary and conceptual grammar, making them better equipped to explain realities more plainly and more compellingly to others. Further, it will allow them to make connections with a range of other concepts and prepare them to grapple with ones they haven’t encountered yet.

The “purely academic” pursuit is the prelude to a person’s wearing her or his learning lightly, gaining the ability to attain the simplicity on the far side of complexity.

It seems to me that the alternative approach that raids the field for practical “nuggets” often reinforces the assumption that the academy is detached and irrelevant. This is the student who is only vaguely familiar with an issue, who can throw out some terms and refer to concepts, but who doesn’t actually grasp them and leaves others confused and with the impression of what is “merely academic” in the worst sense.

It is an illusion is that the more one gets lost in complex and involved discussions the less relevant and useful that person becomes. This is precisely wrong. Rather, such a pursuit opens the possibility of having a greater capacity to enrich others.


It’s been a bittersweet year for us as we’ve seen two kids off to university. While we’re delighted for them, we have felt and will feel their absence keenly.

Last year, during our final camping weekend of the summer before Maddie left for school, Sarah took this shot that captured the moment beautifully.


I felt much the same about this shot of Jake.


These are some of the best and happiest times for us. As our children turn and walk down new roads, however, I’m finding that it’s not nearly as easy as I thought it would be.

Football, the Reality

Hypocrisy abounds, along with the ugly exposure of interests and ham-fisted public relations, in the range of issues professional football has had to face. I’ve been thinking recently about how easy it is to point fingers at certain players, teams, and league officials, when there’s a larger complex of forces, including fans and media outlets (e.g., ESPN, major networks that carry football) that work together to create the kind of people that many football players have become.

Serge Schmemann, summarizing the news over the past week, puts this quite well in his final paragraph:

Disclosure: I love football, and when stationed as a correspondent in Moscow in the 1980s I had video cassettes flown in so I could watch games. But football fans can no longer close their eyes to the price the game exacts on the players and their families.

For one thing, there is no longer any dispute about the damage to players. The N.F.L. has acknowledged in federal court documents that it expects nearly a third of retired players to develop long-term cognitive problems.

Then there is that video of the running back Ray Rice knocking out his fiancée in an elevator, and the revelation that Adrian Peterson, perhaps the best running back out there, viciously beat his 4-year-old son with a switch. More names are coming out and more will surely follow, raising all sorts of questions about the N.F.L.’s standards and leadership, about the maturity of the players, and of course about us, the fans, who like ancient Romans in the Colosseum cheer on the latter-day gladiators to ever greater “hits.”

Interchange & Improvisation

There’s a fascinating piece on the Kronos Quartet in the NY Times where they discuss their communication with one another and how they improvise. It’s fascinating in itself and beautiful to watch, but it also might serve to illuminate the manner in which we speak of relationships and community dynamics.


I was especially struck by David Harrington’s comment about the necessity of openness. He might prepare and practice and come to resolution about the manner in which a piece ought to be played, but when he joins the others, he needs to be open to the manner in which interaction with other members of the quartet will shape how he must play.

Clarifying the Privileged Imagination

In assessing Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony, by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, Jennifer McBride offered the following comments clarifying the manner in which white American Christians envision their situation within the wider culture and how they ought to do so.

It is disingenuous for white Protestants to deem ourselves alien to a culture and society we benefit from and have created. Certainly, the call to think of ourselves as resident aliens is normative: we should be resident aliens in that we should not participate in the destructive forces of American society even if, at present, we foster and maintain them. But their use of the term is also descriptive—as Christians, we are resident aliens—and this description is profoundly self-deceptive.

Given the dominance of white Protestantism in our liberal-capitalist-democratic culture and given the privilege that naturally follows, the first step toward a more faithful existence is not to deem ourselves alien to this society but to name our complicity as residents in its sin and repent in concrete ways: by becoming allies in our everyday lives or joining coalitions working to undo racist structures like prisons.

See the rest of McBride’s comments.

Dear Committee Members

The academy’s a funny place. And by “funny” I mean pretty bizarre.

I’m reading Dear Committee Members, a novel by Julie Schumacher that wonderfully captures the character of relationships and the varieties of inter-departmental dynamics on a college campus. It reminds me of Stanley Hauerwas’s comment, in Hannah’s Child, that academic departments are hives of envy and professional jealousy.


The novel consists entirely of letters of recommendation that English professor Jason Fitger writes for students and colleagues for jobs, applications to grad school, and faculty promotions. He’s angry about his failed marriage and several other relationships, about a variety of professional slights, the university administration’s treatment of his department, and also filled with angst over the general state of the academy. What’s hilarious is that much or all of this comes out in his letters of recommendation.

This is an excerpt from one of his letters in support of a student applying to law school:

I have known Ms. Zelles for approximately nine months. She sat in on my undergraduate workshop last spring—boggling the minds of the younger students with irrelevant theoretical asides—and is currently enrolled in what may be the last graduate-level fiction class ever taught at Payne. (I’m sure you read my screed last month in the campus rag.) Her work is meticulous but not very interesting. Moment of truth: personally, I don’t care for Ms. Zelles, who may be ideally suited to law school. She is obviously brilliant, but I find her off-putting and a bit of a cipher. She has a mind like a bric-a-brac storehouse of facts: a surplus of content put to questionable use.

Fitger weaves into many of his letters complaints about the state of the humanities in academia, takes shots at former colleagues to whom he’s writing, and often berates companies to which he’s writing for not being worthy of employing a student whose application he’s writing to support.

I’ve found it brilliant and difficult to put down. And I must say that I’ve been struck that perhaps I haven’t really explored the possibilities afforded by the letter of reference genre. Perhaps some creativity is in order, next time I’m asked . . .

The One-Handed Backhand

The U.S. Open is underway this week, the final major championship event of the tennis year. The New York Times had a marvelous article on the increasingly lost art of the one-handed backhand. To me, there is a handful of beautiful athletes to watch — their motion is gorgeous. Fred Couples hitting driver comes to mind, as does Roger Federer hitting his one-hand backhand.

Credit: Gallo Images

Credit: Gallo Images

I’d have to agree with this article, however, that almost no one hits the shot as well as Wawrinka. It was devastating when he won the Australian Open in January and it’s helped him climb in the rankings to number four in the world.

Here’s the article, and here’s an interactive video presentation focusing mainly on Stan Wawrinka’s effective stroke (scroll down to go through it).

Forgive Mark Driscoll?

Mark Driscoll’s recent troubles have been well-documented. It seems that he is facing the consequences of his behavior and mode of discourse over the last decade or so.


A few weeks ago, Jonathan Merritt wrote about forgiving Mark Driscoll and then several days ago about not celebrating his downfall.

I think that Merritt’s impulses are good ones. There’s nothing good about delighting in someone else’s suffering, even if self-inflicted. And it’s destructive to hold on to bitterness and to refuse to forgive.

Yet I don’t think that the responses Merritt suggests are appropriate.

Forgiveness is something that must take place between parties that have a relationship or some kind or share a covenant bond. It is up to Mars Hill Church members and staff to decide whether or not to forgive Driscoll. It isn’t up to me or Jonathan Merritt or anyone else who isn’t part of that church.

Further, the alternatives of whether or not to delight in my enemies’ calamity likewise confuse the situation. Mark Driscoll isn’t my enemy. He isn’t anything to me other than a well-known media figure in Seattle.

I think that a more appropriate biblical response to much of what has happened is found in Proverbs where the young person is urged to observe and to learn. “Critically examine and observe carefully what happens when a person behaves like this.” “Take note of the lazy person and see how he has nothing to eat in times of need.” “Look at the ant and learn from how it stores up for when there is nothing.” “Identify the angry man and do not associate with him. Those who hang around him become angry, too.”

The father in Proverbs exhorts his son to develop wisdom by clear-eyed observation of life. He teaches him to sharpen his skills in critical analysis, taking note of what happens to people who act honorably and dishonorably, people who are generous and those who are stingy. How do things go for them? How might it have been otherwise?

Watch carefully and learn.

Without having destructively critical spirits, we can critically examine the dynamics of the situation and learn from what we see. We can quietly but closely observe how Mark Driscoll’s behavior and speech has affected others and learn from the consequences.

What happens over the short term and long term to people (ministry leaders and pastors) who act like Mark Driscoll did? What are the dynamics of the celebrity pastor and the high profile ministry? Is it inevitable that they are internally destructive while outwardly impressive?

I think Merritt’s motives are right for commending forgiveness and rebuking a self-assured and smugly celebratory spirit. But the postures that Merritt suggests are misguided. To follow them would be to miss a good opportunity to learn.

I won’t be exulting in Mark Driscoll’s trouble nor do I need to forgive him. But I’ll quietly watch and store away some lessons from what I see.


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