World serious

A brief introduction to baseball theology

Issue: "Who's marching now?," Oct. 17, 1998

Over the past generation those who aspire to be intellectuals have often won applause by putting down sports. Sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, formerly of The New York Times, grew tired of his calling and began to equate events like the upcoming World Series with scripted pro wrestling matches or roller derbies. "A baseball game is a staged entertainment, and baseball players are paid performers," he wrote.

That's obviously factual in one sense-Mark McGwire was on stage as he set a new home-run record-but also fundamentally wrongheaded. God wrote this year's home-run script in the same way that he is sovereign over all activities of life, but for Mr. McGwire and those of us watching, every pitch was a swing-or-not decision, and there was no guarantee that a ball hit hard would carry over the fences. That's like life: God ordains, and from our perspective we decide.

Baseball is also lifelike in that some right actions bring immediate reward, but others leave us sighing in failure. A player can hit the ball hard but right at an outfielder (failure) or he can swing mightily and accidentally bloop the ball just beyond a second-baseman's reach (success). What makes a World Series gripping for players and fans is the unpredictable alternation of apparent control and lack of control. Managers prepare for contingencies only to be confronted by the unexpected, with games decided often by what was not anticipated.

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Baseball a staged entertainment? Yes, but how different it is from a movie, or a play performed every night. A skilled writer or director can make us so identify with a character or a plight that we seem to be living out a book or film in real time, but we still know that is illusory. A spectator who identifies with a team and watches as it snatches defeat from victory's jaws opens himself up to agony.

The agony for fans is real, but defeat in baseball (and other sports) helps teach us to overcome emotional pain in relatively harmless settings. We learn that time does heal wounds, and by dealing with these small sorrows we may learn a little bit about dealing with the greater griefs that life will bring. Philosopher David Hume claimed there's a higher proportion of unhappiness than of happiness in life; Hume had a sub-Christian understanding of life generally, but many athletes as well as fans will say that losses have more of an emotional impact than wins. Nevertheless, players and fans come back for more, in the same way that folks get married even after they have seen their parents regularly fighting: Families bring miseries, but apart from them we are loners sitting in apartments with minimal furniture and newspapers stacked high.

If losses make us mourn, do victories in baseball and other sports give us joy inexpressible? Of course not, and it is valuable to realize that even the best of this life cannot produce ultimate satisfaction. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:24-25, "Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever." Many pro athletes have turned to Christ in recent years not because they fear the eroding of skills or a career-ending injury, but because they see the opposite: that winning is not enough.

Two closing thoughts: First, Christian schools that minimize sports miss much. They almost fall into a mind-body dualism, forgetting that in Christian thought (unlike that of the ancient Greeks) the body is important. Sure, early failures in sports can traumatize, but they can also teach us our own limits and the need for hard work to maximize whatever talents we have. Those who have contempt for sports often have a mechanistic and overly rational view of life, and often underestimate the discipline required for success.

Second, as for sportswriter Lipsyte: He was wrong to argue that politics is more important than baseball or other sports. Both activities are of eternal significance because they build our character; both also display God's common grace and man's ability to misinterpret it. Neither should be disparaged.

Calling politics merely corruption or sports merely entertainment is like saying that a father is only a caregiver, or music merely noise to fill emptiness. God gave us people and activities that grip our souls so that, if we pay attention to his gracious gifts, we will learn to grip him.

Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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