November 12, 2015 / Perspective
In their collaborative search for “a new political imagination for today’s church,” Kingdom Politics authors Kristopher Norris and Sam Speers put into practice their own form of ecclesial witness.
October 1, 2013
All baseball games begin with no runs, no hits, no errors, a player scuffing his shoes at the plate, and nobody on base, but I’m going to start by telling you the final score: John Sexton’s Baseball as a Road to God is a flawed but insightful look at how something as ordinary/pedestrian/unchurched/free from theology/etc as baseball can help us explore the deeper meaning of things.
Sexton loves the game of baseball. For many years he has taught about the game at New York University, and now in this book and its nine chapters, or innings—a structure I playfully mimic here—he makes the case that science and traditional religion aren’t the only lenses through which we can see truth:
Baseball, as it turns out, can helps us to develop the capacity see through to another, sacred space. Indeed, the more we come to appreciate the sport’s intricacies and evocative power, the clearer it is that it shares much with what we traditionally have called religion. (5)
This sacred space of baseball has, to Sexton, the power and intricacies that we traditionally associate with religion. But if Sexton means to write an apologia on baseball, I doubt he’ll have many takers. As the book continues, however, he clarifies that his emphasis is on “our capacity to see through another, sacred space” (5). In this endeavor, baseball is but one means of asking questions about what it means to see.
If you are of a certain mind, particularly the kind that reads a theology publication like The Other Journal, you are likely to make several uncharitable (and likely true) assumptions about a book like Baseball as a Road to God. You might be reminded of pseudophilosophical books like the Gospel According to the Matrix, and you’re likely skeptical of the book’s ability to articulately woo you to its topic. And if you don’t already have an interest in the beauty of a sport that gives rise to romanticism and near religious devotion, a sport with a deep and wide history, you probably won’t consider reading this review, let alone Sexton’s book. In the case of Baseball as a Road to God, your assumptions would be both right and wrong.
There are times that the book seems on the level of the old preacher’s joke that states that God must be a baseball fan. Why? Because the Bible begins in the big inning (202). The book contains many examples of this simplistic mode of comparison—conversion as a shifting alliance of baseball fandom, saints and sinners signified by Christy Mathewson and Ty Cobb—but it also has moments that move from these simple comparisons to deeper insights about the nature of the game as it relates to God.
Two non-baseball words help guide Sexton’s apologia: hierophany and ineffable. Sexton takes hierophany from Mircea Eliade, a Romanian philosopher, and defines it as producing a “moment of spiritual epiphany and connection to transcendent plane” (211). To illustrate hierophany, he describes a childhood scene where he is in the basement of a friend’s house holding a crucifix and praying for the Brooklyn Dodgers as they win their first World Series in 1955. This is the kind of collective experience that reaches beyond ourselves to something else, and it is the impetus that initially sets Sexton on his quest to explore the interplay between baseball and God, a quest that culminates in this book. Sexton uses the other word, ineffable, to refer to an experience we cannot reduce to words. These are the things we can experience and know but that we can’t easily quantify. These are the things “that cannot be defined or captured by words” (7), such as two young boys on their knees, praying before a crucifix for some hope from beyond.
By the fourth inning, the starting pitchers might be beginning to show signs of flagging or they might be on a roll, striking out the sides on the way to that elusive perfect game. One area that Sexton’s book starts strong and then might begin to flag is in its discussion of race. To say that baseball has a checkered racial past would be an understatement, and yet it is a past that we tend to ignore and romanticize. One of the most telling examples of this kind of romanticism is in the classic baseball film Field of Dreams, which, as part of its ethereal plot, brings several players from the all-white baseball era (circa 1919) to the present without a single mention of racial divisions. Sexton doesn’t go quite so far as to call the color barrier baseball’s original sin, but in considering Ty Cobb (a notorious racist) or the Red Sox history, he names the racist nature of the earlier parts of the game.
Sexton gets credit for a good start here, but he doesn’t finish well. Compared to his other jaunts down baseball’s memory lane, he doesn’t spend much time musing about the Negro leagues or, for that matter, the incredible achievements of Jackie Robinson. He pays little attention to the statistical disparities related to segregated eras (and if there’s one sport that’s about stats, it’s baseball), and he generally takes a pass on this giant flaw in the history of the game. It is conceivable that he avoided this history because it would hurt his overarching thesis concerning baseball as a road to God, but what religion doesn’t have a checkered past? From Christianity’s crusades to Hinduism’s caste system, all religions have dark periods, and all have needed leaders who show a better way forward. As far as baseball is concerned, some historians argue that the emergence of Jackie Robinson did more for black Americans than Martin Luther King Jr.
Baseball as a Road to God is a book that is unabashedly written by a Yankees fan. Sexton grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, but when they moved and through the birth of his son, he became a Yankees fan. I mention this because I couldn’t imagine a Cubs fan writing this book. Sure, baseball’s romanticism knows no bounds, and the infatuation of Cubs fans with Wrigley Field may make us open to similar charges of romanticism, but we are a fan base that knows little of baseball’s glories. The last Cubs championship was in 1908, and we have learned other ways apart from winning to appreciate the game. From keeping day baseball alive to keeping phrases like the “friendly confines” to describe our home field, Cubs fans must see beyond championships in order to appreciate the sport.
Sexton, in contrast, spends much of the book talking about the quest for championship. As the fan of a franchise that has won twenty-seven World Series, this tactic leads Sexton to confuse the ecstasy of winning with that of hierophany. It should then be no surprise that a Yankees fan would forget that one of the most pressing examples of hierophany is the stigmata, the bearing of the marks of the crucified Christ. Or as the writer of First Peter reminds us: “But rejoice inasmuch as you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (4:13 NIV). All that to say, Sexton should have consulted with some Cubs fans so that he did not overlook the greater complexity of winning and losing as it relates to God.
In my undergraduate years, I took a baseball class, though not from Sexton. AA constant theme of my class was that baseball was a great equalizer, almost classless in nature. In the early years it was a working class game, and all you needed to catch a game was a few dollars for a cheap ticket. When I was growing up, I could walk around whole stadiums and see the games from all the angles. I could get up close to the action or get a bird’s eye view, and in doing so, I’d be rubbing shoulders with people from both upper and lower classes. I could even move to better seats if they were empty. Those days are long gone. As Sexton mentions several times, he sits near the high brass of his teams; there is even a photo of him throwing the first pitch at a game. Sexton’s experience of baseball is in a separate class from most fans. His seats are the kinds that are now walled off in many stadiums, with security prohibiting the entry of the common man, the kinds of seats that now make it impossible to walk all the way around many MLB stadiums. Some of these seats go for $10,000 a year, a price tag that has washed away baseball’s status as an egalitarian experience. Like most things in our culture, baseball is now a game of the haves and the have nots, kind of like the Yankees and the Cubs. Lamenting this loss and the transition of baseball to a machine that is only concerned with making money might have been a helpful addition to Sexton’s book and one that might have led to more profitable introspection on his own place in the classes of baseball fandom.
He showed me a little thing, the quantity of an hazel-nut, in the palm of my hand; and it was as round as a ball. I looked thereupon with eye of my understanding, and thought: What may this be? And it was answered generally thus: It is all that is made. I marveled how it might last, for me thought it might suddenly have fallen to naught for little. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasteth, and ever shall for that God loveth it. And so All-thing hath the Being by the love of God.
—Julian of Norwich
Another way to read the game of baseball would be to replace Sexton’s two words, hierophany and ineffable, with the words quotidian and . Several times in the book, Sexton describes how baseball helps us look beyond ordinary time. Yet according to the Christian calendar, most of the baseball season is played in and climaxes near the end of ordinary time. Sexton does a great job showing how baseball and other regular things can bring about a religious, transcendent feeling, but he neglects the fact that Christianity—and baseball—also has a unique place for the quotidian, the unique everydayness of life. Easter Sunday kicks off a season that is 162 games long—that’s more than four thousand pitches, four thousand movements of a ball from the pitcher’s mound to the batter’s box, each a little different and yet very much the same. There is an everydayness to baseball: we are sitting here on this day, with a hot dog and a beer, the sun is shining, people are watching the angles and movements of the game, watching the other fans. In watching baseball, we join in a chorus of watching a regular day pass in perhaps the most regular of ways. This quotidian trait of baseball gives it a lightness that may allow us to see something beyond, just as Julian of Norwich found God in the simple pondering of a hazel-nut. For Sexton, the hierophany is the upward movement of a victory, of a prayer answered for a World Series, but if he had focused on the quotidian, he might have also offered us some reflection on ordinary hierophanies, the pondering of a baseball in hand.
The Seventh-Inning Stretch
From Christianity’s earliest moments, there has been an imprecise division, imprecise but no less real, between the preparatory part of the service and the part where believers affirm their central faith of take communion. . . . Baseball fans get this.
—Sexton, Baseball as a Road to God, 165
Baseball, for Sexton, has its own kind of liturgy, one that helps us mark the time. It has places where we sing, we stand, we participate, but also where we observe. It is this kind of rhythm that Christians should learn to see in our own places of worship. We should learn to be attentive to the ways that liturgical movements work together to shape us, and we should learn to make that attention participatory, to actively join our own thoughts and actions into the divine mystery of the Sunday service or morning mass. Entering to the space of stadium baseball fans feel the act of watching something take place, of being part of an experience, but also they know ways that the participate in event. During the seventh-inning stretch the liturgy of the baseball games becomes clear as fans, often unprompted, rise and sing together. The dual roles of watcher and participant at baseball game are the same we move through in Christian worship.
The other word I mentioned was order. Science has given us a great way to order our understanding of the things that surround us, from the starry skies above to our cells within, and likewise, it may bring its order to the art of baseball. Baseball, for the scientist, could be broken into angles, momentum, the bounce of the ball, and a giant mess of equations that would make us wonder why we even play the game. And there is a different kind of order, an order to the way the game is played, an order that makes us rest in the game’s rhythms: nine innings, three strikes, 90 feet to first base, 400 to center field, curveballs, fastballs, runs batted in. But even with the advent of advanced statistics we see that the things that happen within this order—comebacks, perfect games, home runs, stolen bases, blown calls, blow outs, extra innings—can’t be accounted for by numbers or by Sexton’s apologia science. This complexly ordered thing has a place for surprising and unpredictable results. Being able to explain the science of the game hardly means that we have come to the place where we can enjoy the ordered chaos that follows an umpire’s cry of “Play ball!”
One poem I always revisit on Easter Sunday is John Updike’s “Seven Stanzas on Easter,” a poem that poignantly describes Christ’s resurrection in vivid material terms. Another Updike poem, “Tao in the Yankee Stadium Bleachers,” begins with the memorable line “Distance brings proportion.” It’s a poem about baseball, for sure, but it’s also about life and death, the unity of things, and history. It’s best to read Sexton’s book as testament to these two poems. Sexton might earnestly ask us to consider baseball as the transcendental force that holds these two poems together, and that would be taking things too far, but his exploration of baseball is valuable in that it invites us into a different kind of seeing, one that looks beyond cold hard facts and opens us to the meaning of a sunny day in the bleachers. By embracing this kind of sight, perhaps we will gain the distance that brings proportion to deep things. In the end, even Sexton admits that baseball “is not the road to God—indeed it is not even a road to God” (220), and that’s a conclusion that should sit well with most of us. But his book still testifies to a love for the game, and it is this contagious love that should cause us to stop and wonder what else we aren’t wondering about enough so that we too can find places to see through the universe of facts to another more sacred realm.
Matthew Shedden is Praxis editor at The Other Journal and an associate Pastor in rural Oregon. He writes more at mshedden.com and on Twitter @sheddenm.