Monthly Archives: October 2014

The Cultural Value of Baseball

Mark C. Taylor, who teaches religion at Columbia University, has an opinion piece in the NY Times on the timeliness of baseball and its deliberate pace in a world that is increasingly frenetic. Here are a few highlights:

It has perhaps become commonplace to claim that sports have acquired the status of religion in the United States. But the deeper implications of this insight are rarely recognized. Religion is about more than belief and fanatic devotion; there can be no vital religion without rituals. Rituals, religious and otherwise, are designed to change the pace and interrupt the rhythms of our daily lives. This is what makes them special and, when effective, allows participants to return to everyday life renewed.

What critics of baseball often dismiss as a waste of time that slows the pace of the game are actually the rituals (and rituals within rituals) that make baseball so timely: the catcher sending too many signals to the pitcher, the pitcher repeatedly backing off the mound and checking the runner on first base, the batter constantly stepping out of the batter’s box to adjust and spit on his gloves, coaches and managers visiting the mound far too often, the seventh-inning stretch, breaks between innings. I miss the days when pitchers took long, leisurely strolls from the bullpen to the mound, while players stood idly by, sometimes chatting with one another. The relief these pitchers offered was for fans as much as teammates. When players take their time, fans must slow down to stay in the game. All these seemingly pointless rituals do have a purpose: They keep the frenetic pace of the everyday life outside the sacred precincts of the game.

We live in a world that is obsessed with speed. Fast is never fast enough, everything must be done now, instantly. To pause, delay, stop, slow down is to miss an opportunity and to give a competitor the edge. Speed has become the measure of success — faster chips, faster computers, faster food, faster networks, faster connectivity, faster news, faster communications, faster transactions, faster deals, faster product cycles, faster brains, faster games.


Faster is not always better — speed has limits. Acceleration cannot continue forever. But when people are afraid to unplug because they will miss a deal or lose their job, a leisure activity like a three-hour baseball game can seem to be a luxury no one can afford.

The only way to break this cycle is to call a time out. This is precisely the possibility rituals create. To enter the space and time of ritual is to participate in an alternative reality that allows one to see the world differently. As traditionally played, baseball encourages a sense of leisure and cultivates the virtues of caution, delay, deliberation, patience and reflection. These values are important precisely because they stand in critical tension with the revved up pace of everyday life. To increase the speed of the game would make it an extension of, and not an alternative to the high-speed world that never leaves people enough time for themselves and for others. Far from a threat to its viability, the slow pace of the game is what makes baseball increasingly valuable in a world that is moving too fast for us ever to catch up.

Johannine Theology

We had a lively discussion of 1 John in exegesis class today and we were struck by the epistle’s (mostly) straightforward Greek and its brilliance of weaving together relationality with God and with others in the Christian community.

Our all-too brief engagement with 1 John has motivated me to jump into Paul Rainbow’s Johannine Theology, which treats the Gospel, the epistles, and the Apocalypse in an exegetically sensitive biblical theological manner.


I carefully worked through Rainbow’s previous work, The Way of Salvation: The Role of Christian Obedience in Justification and found it a nuanced and creative theological engagement with some difficult texts. It looks like this new work is more of the same, which is certainly a welcome development. It looks like the perfect textbook for a course on New Testament Biblical Theology.

Awkward Endings

The other day in class we discussed endings to biblical narratives. Some of them don’t end with what we might call a “satisfying resolution.” This is certainly the case with Mark’s Gospel, which ends abruptly and on a very awkward note.

Such endings, however, are very effective, depending on the author’s intentions. Mark is destabilizing throughout – jarring, even – and it’s likely that he means to provoke a reaction among hearers with his abrupt and surprising ending.

If a writer wants to agitate readers, provoking them to reflect on what they’ve heard and what it means for them, then a satisfying resolution may hinder his aims.


I remember the first time I watched “No Country for Old Men” with some friends. Being unfamiliar with the story, I was very upset with its ending. I’ll never forget my friend Bob turning to me and saying, “think about it.”

I did. I couldn’t get it out of my head for about a week.

Then I read the novel and watched the film a few more times, continuing to converse with friends about various characters and turns in the plot.

Awkward endings provoke reflection. U2’s song “The First Time” has an ending like this. It’s a lovely song from their album “Zooropa.”


The first verse is about a lover. The second verse seems to be about Jesus:

I have a brother, when I’m a brother in need
I spend my whole time running
He spends his running after me.
I feel myself goin’ down
I just call and he comes around.
But for the first time I feel love.

As the final verse begins, it’s about a heavenly Father:

My father is a rich man, he wears a rich man’s cloak.
He gave me the keys to his kingdom (coming)
Gave me a cup of gold.

In their book U2 by U2, Bono said that as they wrote the song, they got to the end and just couldn’t bring themselves to end it tidily. It just wouldn’t do to bring about an easy resolution. So they wrote:

He said “I have many mansions
And there are many rooms to see.”
But I left by the back door
And I threw away the key
And I threw away the key.

Why did they do this? That may be the wrong question. Bono has expressed frustration at times when fans assume that U2’s songs are all autobiographical. It’s not that Bono himself is choosing to remain (or become) a prodigal, or throw away a relationship with God. None of that is in view here.

They’re weaving a narrative and they recognize the incongruity of a tidy ending with how untidy life is, how much the life of faith lacks easy or simplistic resolution.

I still wrestle with that song. Why does he throw away the key? What could he possibly prefer to the Father’s goodness? Is he bent on self-destruction and just can’t help himself? Am I like that? Are there times when I prefer the route of folly and self-destruction rather than receiving a good gift and entering into blessing?

An awkward ending. A brilliant song.

Satan & the Secret of the Kingdom

In the Gospel of Mark, Satan is obviously the enemy of God and of Jesus and the people of God. But his opposition isn’t merely generalized. It’s very specific, taking the form of preventing Jesus from being the cross-shaped Messiah who goes the way of weakness and self-giving love.

Mark doesn’t say much about Jesus’ temptation by Satan, and it seems that readers should regard the temptation in 1:12-13 in light of Jesus’ rebuke to Peter in 8:33. Peter is enthusiastic about Jesus as Messiah but doesn’t want to hear any talk of going to Jerusalem to be betrayed and put to death. The temptation in 1:12-13, involves, presumably, Jesus embodying his role through some spectacular display, through grasping after power and prestige, leading a revolutionary movement to get rid of Rome and establish the Kingdom of God.

So, as others have suggested, in Mark’s Gospel, Satan is opposed to the cross, to a cross-shaped Messiah, and to a cruciform people of God.

It seems to me that the specific opposition of Satan should inform the parable of the soils and its interpretation in 4:1-20, especially Satan’s action of taking away the seed sown in v. 15. Like birds that pick up seeds scattered along the path (v. 4), Satan takes away the seed that is sown in some people.

I don’t think this is a generalized action. That is, it doesn’t involve gospel preaching in general, as if Satan snatches away the force or the content of what we might understand to be gospel proclamation so that a person doesn’t repent and believe the gospel.

The action of Satan seems specific here because the “word” also seems very specific. It is the gospel of the kingdom (here, the “secret of the kingdom”) that Jesus has been proclaiming. Now, it appears that all of Galilee is rife with kingdom fever and longing for the arrival of God’s anointed. But Jesus knows that this fervor is corrupted by a desire for a powerful, revolutionary Messiah who will rally a military revolt through spectacular displays of heroism leading to an uprising.

In this context, the preached word is specifically the word of an unexpected kingdom, an unanticipated Messiah, a countercultural people of God. This is why Jesus keeps tamping down expectations, keeps telling people to keep quiet and not spread the word about him. If momentum grows, the expectations will get out of hand, and people won’t understand that Jesus is not bringing in the sort of kingdom they imagine.

All of this is to say that the way Satan “snatches away the word” is not necessarily by removing from a person’s consciousness gospel preaching as we might conceive of it – a generalized announcement. Satan does so by taking away Jesus’ message of a Messiah who goes to the cross, who refuses to grab for power, who gives his life for others, who calls for kingdom participants to take up their crosses.

Satan takes away the word by clouding Jesus’ message of the cross with the mounting revolutionary fervor so that people respond positively to Jesus because they think he’s going to be the sort of Messiah they want him to be.

Perhaps this is why throughout Mark, the crowds that gather around Jesus and press in on him are not regarded positively. They prevent Jesus from carrying out his ministry and from clarifying his role as Messiah.

Ironically, for modern readers of Mark, it can only be a great thing that there is popular and enthusiastic response to Jesus. And certainly in an American culture of celebrity, cravings for prestige and power, the gospel gets corrupted so that ministries are evaluated by their size and the celebrity magnetism of the pastor.

Where we see signs of ministry “success,” Mark might see Satanic opposition to the “secret of the kingdom” – the gospel of the cross.



Exegetes at Church

Repost: This topic has come up a few times in conversation, so I thought I’d repost this.

A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.

Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work.  Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church.  If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?

Good question.

Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.

First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit.  A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life.  A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying.  Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.

Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher.  Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes.  The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out.  Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.

Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down.  I take it up and consider it.  I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits.  Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.

Fourth, ministry is hard.  It’s lonely.  Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements.  Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you.  I appreciate that.  I hope you have a good week.”

Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian.  That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ.  That aim must orient my behaviors.  So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing.  I try to have some good laughs.

Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.

Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?

Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?

Philosophy & Sport

Mark Edmundson asks whether collegiate athletes should be taught Plato, who reflected at length on reason in relation to passion. I wonder whether athletes at Christian colleges should be required to reflect theologically on a range of issues that might transform how they envision spirit, mind, body, and community (bodies in relation).

It’s not only the athletes that need to (re)think these things, but more importantly college and university trustees, administration, and athletic departments whose accumulated pressures result in a perverse formation of athletes as whole persons.

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 /

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.