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.

Final Family Summer Fling

This week our daughter, Maddie, returns to school, and next month our older son, Jake, heads off to college. As a final summer fling, we camped this past weekend at Muskallonge Lake, on the shore of Lake Superior.

State Park

On Saturday, we hiked the 10-mile long Chapel Loop, which took us through beautiful forest, a few waterfalls, a river emptying into Lake Superior, and breathtaking views of the Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.

Chapel Loop

Chapel Falls

Chapel Rock


Kids at Pictured Rocks

The trail winds along the shoreline through thick forest that constantly opens up to amazing views over the lake.



Riley & Maddie


Pathway along the edge

Sunrise, Lake Superior

All in all, a wonderful final weekend of a very satisfying summer.


The Gift and Its Obligations

Many Christians have trouble with the paradox in Paul whereby salvation is both a gift and involves obligations. Salvation as divine gift makes sense, but the demand for human response raises the specter of “works righteousness.”

Some solutions to this apparent contradiction diminish the human agent (“it’s not really you acting, but the Spirit”) in some way that does violence to the character of Paul’s texts. Others stress the passivity of the human agent’s reception of the gift in ways that overshadow the attendant obligations.

I suspect that this is an ongoing theological problem because of the conceptual frames in which we wrestle with the tension between divine and human action (e.g., human action must in some way marginalize divine action).

The relation of divine and human action is one of many issues riding under the surface throughout the essays in the fascinating volume Apocalyptic Paul. Reckoning with this tension (between divine and human action) within Paul’s apocalyptic frame of thought opens up fruitful avenues, and I found John Barclay’s essay illuminating in this regard.

Apocalyptic Paul

He notes that Paul shows no reticence to speak of gospel obligations inherent in the divine gift. This is so because believers are made alive from the dead and brought into an alternative cosmic sphere of existence. Their participation in resurrection life is a participation in Christ, a field or matrix of divine power and presence that is also an enjoyment of new creation life. Paul can, therefore, speak of believers as responsible agents and of their obligation to obey without worrying that he’s lapsing into some sort of monergism or “works righteousness.”

I’ve been thinking about pursuing this further in future posts, arguing that for Paul reception of the divine gift is not merely passive. Reception of the gift is embodied through obedience to the new lordship of Christ in his reign of grace. To receive the gift is to live into the fullness of the new life granted by God in Christ. For now, however, I’ll just cite this paragraph from Barclay’s essay:

The theological logic of the Pauline imperative is to live the life that has been given. Paul is not requiring them to turn theory into practice, or possibility into reality: joined to Christ in baptism they really and actually share his risen life. Nor is he requiring them to turn an “objective” truth into a “subjective” reality since they are “alive to God” in every dimension of their subjectivity by participation in Christ. Nor is the imperative the supplement to the indicative in the sense that something incomplete has to be completed in further degrees. The theological logic of indicative and imperative is in one sense much simpler than all of these inadequate conceptualizations. They have been given a new life which can be lived only in activity and practice: this “newness of life” is essentially and not just contingently a matter of peripatein (6:4). Practice, action, and obedience are the mode of this new life. In every move they make, believers are either living this new life or living according to the flesh (8:13), the latter still possible because, for as long as they live in the realm of mortality they can fall back into the force-field of sin and death and repudiate the power that tugs them towards life. The imperative is thus to practice (and thereby demonstrate) the new life given, which cannot be said to be active within them unless it is acted out by them” (pp. 74-75, emphasis added).

Making the Stranger Human

This is excerpted from Roger Cohen’s column in the New York Times this past Sunday. I found his account of his friend Andy Bachman compelling on several counts, especially the persistent effort to resist the temptation to give in to fear and hatred:

THERE are good people and bad leaders the world over, but perhaps nowhere more so than in the Middle East. Plenty of Israelis and Palestinians work to build bridges, but their voices are lost in the stampede of zealots schooled in hatred and cynics adept in the manipulation of fear for the consolidation of power.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

I talked to Andy Bachman, an American rabbi and friend. He is just back from two weeks in Israel. “I hear vile stuff,” he said. “My job is hope.” Never, he believes, has it been more critical for moderate Israelis and Palestinians to raise their voices in common cause. If Hamas is to be disarmed, as it must be, the only way in the end is to win the hearts and minds of other Palestinians through economic progress and justice.

Bachman, reflecting on the war’s moral dilemmas, cited the biblical story of Samuel. As Samuel ages, people see that his bribe-taking sons are not leadership material. They ask him to find them a king. Samuel consults God, who laments that “they have rejected Me, that I should not be King over them.” If the people only followed God’s law, they would not need a ruler. Samuel warns the people of the future predations of any king, but they will not be swayed. They insist “that we also may be like all the nations; and that our king may judge us, and go out before us, and fight our battles.” In the end, God acquiesces.

For Bachman, the tension between living in a divine world of perfect justice and the violent human realm of imperfect choices is captured here. Zionism was just that: the desire to be “like all the nations,” a normal people with a leader — but that also means, in Bachman’s words, “making pained and sometimes horrible choices.” He said, “As a parent, I mourn so greatly the loss of innocent life. And equal to that feeling is one of horror and shame that Hamas ran a campaign knowing that would happen, making it part of their strategy.”

In Israel, Bachman works with Rebecca Bardach on a project called Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel. It now runs five bilingual schools with 1,100 students, children learning Hebrew and Arabic and, above all, how coexistence works. The aim is to grow to as many as 15 integrated bilingual schools over the next decade.

Like individual voices of conscience, such undertakings seem flimsy beside walls, blockades, bullets, bombs, rockets and the relentless process of separation and division that pulls Jews and Palestinians apart. They are flimsy but no less important for that. They make the stranger human. They are interceptors of fear. The most useful commodity for the merchants of war and hatred is fear.

The Importance of Redemptive Community

Susan Eastman, in her chapter in Apocalyptic Paul, provides an excellent reminder for Westerners that salvation is not found in life-in-community or corporate identity. We are in a very different world from the world(s) in which the Bible was written, and one of the main differences is how we conceive of ourselves.

Apocalyptic Paul

Yet it’s not that communal identity is the solution for individual identity. Redemptive community dynamics are the solution to corrupted community dynamics.

Eastman shares this conversation with an African woman she met on a cross-country flight:

She told me she had immigrated to the United States. I asked how she found American culture and society, in comparison with her own, and she said that she much preferred it. That surprised me a bit, so I inquired further: don’t you find our culture isolated and individualistic, in comparison with a more communal society? I added that I always had been impressed by the well-known African saying, “I am because we are, and because we are, I am.” “I hate that saying!” she exclaimed. “Don’t talk to me about community! I cam here to get away from all that! Here, I create myself; no one tells me who I am or what I can do. I want autonomy. I celebrate American individualism! I love it! I could never go back.”

Life in community is not always good news!

Eastman continues, in a footnote:

As my colleague Esther E. Acolatse has written about pastoral care with African women, “what is termed ‘relational ethos’ benefits only some of the people” . . . She continues, “[T]he need of the female for connectedness is seen as essential for the survival of the self, and yet this need in certain cases also becomes the source of the death to the self.” Connection may mean death, not life. Acolatse is speaking about a particular gendered cultural experience, but surely her observations can be applied more widely; in any community, social harmony in effect may be maintained by an unequal distribution of burdens and goods. Furthermore, corporate solidarity can issue in violence every bit as much as individualism can. The idea of self-in-relation per se, let alone communal solidarity or corporate identity, is no panacea for humanity’s ills.


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