May 27, 2014 / Theology
Over the past several decades, theologians have turned to new methodologies to better understand how …
August 22, 2016
For any middling athlete whose best (sporting) days are behind her, to read David Foster Wallace’s “Tennis, Trigonometry, Tornadoes: A Midwestern Boyhood” is to open a storehouse of memories.1 It is to laugh, and to cry, as Wallace’s tragedy—the descent of his own amateur career—mirrors and melds with one’s own. It is not, however, first and foremost an athletic tale but rather a memoir about the boundedness of human life; it is about becoming an adult, about growing up.
Wallace, we read, grew up in Philo, Illinois, and it is this place which sets the backdrop for so much of Wallace’s reflection. Philo is a “boxed township of Illinois farmland” marked by “lines and lines athwart lines, grids,” or, from above, a patchwork of “anally precise squares of dun or khaki cropland all cut and divided by plumb-straight tar roads.” Its weather is no better: “summer heat and wet-mitten humidity; moths and crap gnats forming an asteroid belt around each tall lamp at night, the whole lit court surface aflutter with spastic little shadows; mosquitoes that spawn in the fields’ furrows and in the conferva-chocked ditches that box each field; and, most of all, wind.”2
It is precisely in this place, however, that Wallace feels so comfortable and in which he is, at least in tennis, “near great.” He is not athletic, but he knows the terrain and most of all, the wind:
I couldn’t begin to tell you how many tournament matches I won between the ages of twelve and fifteen against bigger, faster, more coordinated, and better coached opponents simply by hitting balls unimaginatively back down the middle of the court in schizophrenic gales, letting the other kid play with more verve and panache, waiting for enough of his ambitious balls aimed near the lines to curve or slide via wind outside the green court and white stripe into the raw red territory that won me yet another ugly point. It wasn’t pretty or fun to watch, and even with the Illinois wind I never could have won whole matches this way had the opponent not eventually had his small nervous breakdown, buckling under the obvious injustice of losing to a shallow-chested “pusher” because of the shitty rural courts and rotten wind that rewarded cautious automatism instead of verve and panache.
Cautious automatism it may have been, but cautious automatism in this place won, and by his early teenage years, Wallace was “regarded as a kind of physical savant, a medicine boy of wind and heat, [who] could play just forever, sending back moon balls baroque with ornate spins.” He had developed, in his own words, a sort of “Taoist hubris about my ability to control via non-control. . . . I was at my best in bad conditions.”3
Of course, bad conditions do not last forever, and it was the pristine courts of “midwest junior tennis”—the annually refinished surfaces of the Arlington Tennis Club or the windscreens of the Lincolnshire Bath & Tennis Club—that proved to be Wallace’s downfall. Playing in conditions scrubbed of place was “disorienting . . . like treading water out of sight of land: I never knew where I was out there.” For Wallace, “The wind and bugs and chuckholes formed for me a kind of inner boundary, my own personal set of lines,” and in one of his most arresting lines, he concludes, “I was disabled because I was unable to accommodate the absence of disabilities to accommodate.”4 The reader may want to read that again. The loss of limits—“disabilities” in the form of a malformed court or an ever-present wind—proved too much for Wallace; he became disabled.
This loss of limits entailed a certain loss of identity: “My vocation ebbed. I felt uncalled.” It was, ironically, the removal of limits, and the creation of an artificial space unstained by the natural limitations of place, that doomed his tennis career by stripping him of his unique talent—the creativity to thrive within boundaries. And this was, for Wallace, his “initiation into true adult sadness.” To grow up was to become unbound—a sort of tyranny of freedom.5
If Wallace’s memoir probes what it means to be human, using the particularity of sport as a lens to focus the question, Andrew Edgar’s 2012 article “Sport as Liturgy” works in a similar way, albeit in a very different genre. Edgar leans heavily on theologian Catherine Pickstock’s identification of the “failure of modernism” as the “refusal of liturgy” and the production, in its place, of an “anti-liturgy liturgy” that trains individuals to live in a world devoid of transcendence.6 That is to say, the very shape of life in modernity—the things we do without thinking, because we have always done them, and without which it would be impossible to function in society—imprisons us and blinds us to the possibility of transcendence. When Sunday, for instance, becomes merely another day for work and consumption, and a child grows up in a world in which this is normal, the anti-liturgy liturgy of modernity has done its work. Because normal activities are no longer halted, the rhythm of time marches on without disruption. This dissolves the boundary between sacred and secular time, leaving no time for transcendent worship. In modernity, we become liturgically closed in, flattened down, and hollowed out.
In particular, Edgar traces how this same flattening of liturgical structures, and therefore of ontological horizons, has occurred in modern sport. In contrast to the Olympic Games and the ancient Mesoamerican ballgame, which have origins that are fundamentally religious in nature, modern sports can no longer be defined by their participation in transcendent realities.7 Whereas ancient games, or what Edgar calls “Ur-Sport,” participated in the myths of the gods, either as “liturgical offerings” to the gods (e.g., in the Olympics) or as dramatic reenactment of human/divine encounter (e.g., in the Mesoamerican ballgame), modern sports do not appeal to, or self-consciously participate in, anything beyond themselves.
In the Mesoamerican ballgame, for instance, the rubber ball represents the movement of the sun and the moon, which are themselves players in the cosmic myth of creation. As Edgar explains, “To play the game is therefore to perform a liturgical act that participates in the mythical events. Mythical heroes become present in the bodies and actions of the ballplayers, and the game’s arena becomes the meeting place of this world and the spirit world.”8 In contrast, the meaning of sports today is typically reduced to, and only explicable with reference to, the rules of the various games themselves. Thus, golf is not simply an attempt to get a small white ball from one location to another, which would be quite easy if one could pick it up and walk; it is an attempt to do so using only strange wood, steel, or graphite sticks, without going out of bounds, in a certain number of strokes, all while avoiding obstacles meant to impede this quest—a position that Edgar, following Bernard Suits, calls “formalism.”9 In contrast to the celestial allegories of the Mesoamerican ballgame, the white ball in modern golf is just a white ball, and the first tee just a large square of finely cut grass. Ancient games, as part of the liturgical structuring of society, appealed to and participated in something beyond themselves. Modern sports no longer participate in transcendence; meaning is internal to the game itself, explicable only by appeal to invented rules. That is to say, modern sports only make sense from the inside; they are fundamentally arbitrary.10
Now, many of my readers will be thankful for this shift. It is nice to walk eighteen holes, for instance, without imagining that one is engaged in a war of the gods. But this materialization of the liturgical ordering of our lives comes at a cost, namely, the further flattening of our ontological horizons. Sports become just one more arena in which the modern world trains us not to think about anything beyond the mundane. As such, Edgar argues that modern sport is an instance of precisely the anti-liturgy liturgy that Pickstock describes.11
But crucially, within this basically immanentized frame, sports also function as what Edgar calls a “negative liturgy,” highlighting the “absence of—and yearning for—meaningful liturgical structuring in everyday social life.”12 “In sport,” he continues later, “the participant and spectator alike potentially confront and engage with the lack of transcendent meaning in modern life.” Or, to put it another way, we are adrift in a material cosmos where our modern liturgies—including our sports liturgies—no longer trade in transcendence; and so modern sports, as anti-liturgy liturgies, actually reveal something of the vacuity of our situation. What are victory and defeat when set in a day and age that allows no final telos? What are success and failure when the game is just an arbitrary game, taking place in an arbitrary world? They are meaningless—which is precisely Edgar’s point. On his account, the positive role of sport in modern society is, ironically, a negation: to confront us with the “contingency, waste and potential meaningless of human existence.”13
Why kick this ball toward that rectangle? Why hit this round object with that stick? Why run endlessly around this oval? To develop character? To enjoy ourselves? To win? Outside a transcendent frame, victory and defeat, happiness, and even character development are transitory; they do not ultimately participate in anything beyond themselves. And this is why, as wonderful as the celebration is when one’s team wins a championship, one still wakes up the next morning and is confronted with the fact that nothing really has changed about the world. Joy, in this instance, comes not with the morning but seems to fade overnight.14 Sports, then, are not fundamentally an alternative to the modern but a participation in it. They lack any notion of the transcendent, for which we yearn, but which sports themselves seem never to provide.
What can sport do, then? And how might we think Christianly about it? Few will want to go back, even if they could, to the model of the Mesoamerican ballgame and its reenactment of the comings and goings of the celestial sphere. Christians will (rightly) feel a certain unease about a game that recounts a creation myth in which human beings are decapitated by the gods only to be resurrected and transformed into the sun and the moon. But should we feel any less unease at, or any more comfortable with, games that mean nothing at all? Is the meaningless any more Christian than the mythical? Christians who like sports and care to participate in them, either as players or as fans, should not simply avoid this question, as if sports were a neutral category. If Pickstock is right about the truncated horizons of modernity, contemporary sports are just like all other anti-liturgy liturgies in that they train us away from transcendence and, potentially, into a vice list that would make Saint Paul proud.15
Even within Edgar’s account, however, there are inklings that sport offers something beyond simply a window into meaninglessness, and in a fascinating correspondence, these inklings find a parallel in the more autobiographical testimony of David Foster Wallace. I am thinking here of the complementary realities of givenness and limits—notions that are not only rooted in a Christian vision of reality but that also emerge as central to the liturgical training of sport. With such liturgical goods to disburse, sports do not constitute just a negative liturgy. They may no longer participate in any real way in supramundane reality, but they can train us in a few of those things which the Christian tradition has, historically, associated with human life as it is lived before a transcendent God. In this way, sports do not simply reinforce at every point the ontological flattening of the cosmos. There are elements inherent to sports, in other words, that bite back from within against their modern secularization.
So, I would argue that even within a formalist account of sport—an account in which meaning is internal to the game itself, in that it can only be explicated with reference to the rules of the game—there is still a certain givenness that sports train into athletes. The sports themselves may be arbitrary, but they nevertheless constitute a world in which the athlete is who he or she is. That is to say, the quarterback is only a quarterback within a rectangle that measures 120 yards by 53.33 yards, a rectangle within which eleven players on each side of the ball struggle for ground gained and lost and within which he serves as the primary facilitator of the movement of that ball toward an end zone. Outside of this given situation—say, the same person now in a backyard with his daughter—the quarterback is no longer a quarterback but just a man throwing an oblong ball. In a real way, then, the quarterback is not an autonomous individual, free to create his own identity; he is who he is only in the context of the parameters of the game. The sport constitutes the person.16
The same could be said of Wallace’s childhood tennis career. It is telling, for instance, that Wallace begins with a description of Philo, for as the essay moves on, it becomes clear that the tennis court is, for Wallace, an allegory of the “boxed township” in which he grew up. If life in Philo was lived inside of “lines and lines athwart lines” and “anally precise squares,” life inside of the tennis court was much the same. “From ground level,” Wallace writes, “the arrayed fields of feed corn and soybeans look laned like sprint tracks or Olympic pools, replete with the angles and alleys of serious tennis.” One of Wallace’s greatest assets as a player was feeling “extremely comfortable in straight lines”—a situation Wallace calls “environmental.”17 And it is precisely this givenness about the tennis court that Wallace likes. On the tennis court, as in Philo, Wallace knows where he is and, more importantly, who he is.
There is something profoundly Christian about this notion in Edgar and Wallace. The human being is not simply one who makes her world; she is also the one who receives it. To be sure, she actively participates in the ongoing forming of her world, but she works with stuff already given to her and within boundaries already set for her. She knows who she is because she knows where she is—namely, God’s creation, and in this space she is free to be a creature and not the creator. Blissfully, then, there is a givenness to creation that stands prior to all human activity. To be a human is to live in this place, in relationship to this God, within these boundaries.18 Like the quarterback who leaves the football field, to move outside of the givenness that makes us who we are—to reject it—is to become less human. To attempt to construct our own world, in which we are no longer creatures but gods, is to lose what we already had; it is to reject the gift of being images in order to pursue being gods. This is the tragedy of Genesis 3—a failure to rest in the goodness of creatureliness and a grasping after a knowledge that proves, in the end, too much for us. True Christian freedom, then, is not freedom from boundaries but freedom within boundaries. And sports, even sports that have been severed from participation in transcendence, provide a sort of liturgical training in this—the freedom to be who we are and to flourish within the boundaries and the givenness of the game.
Closely connected to this givenness are the limitations inherent to the sports within which athletes function. For Wallace, as we have seen above, these limits may be extrinsic—the geography or the weather—but they may also be intrinsic. All athletes face limitations that are not only imposed on them from the outside but also from their own unique selves. Repeatedly throughout his essay, Wallace draws attention to the fact that he was not naturally very good at tennis. Despite his limitations, however, Wallace could still win because of what he called an “odd détente” he had with the elements. While the other physically superior boys became embittered at the limitations of tennis in Philo—“bitterly expecting to get screwed over by wind, net, tape, sun”—Wallace felt at home in them.19 He made up for the limits nature set for him, in other words, by partnering with the extrinsic limitations that nature imposed. As he grew older, however, the physical limitations of his frame became too much, and the talent gap between him and his competitors widened. At the same time, when Wallace did advance in tournaments, the matches were increasingly played on courts no longer marked by the limitations which made his game what it was.
It is fascinating, then, that Wallace places his sad initiation into adulthood precisely in the midst of his struggle with these limitations. Nothing is straightforward for Wallace here. Growing up is marked both by his resentment at limits and his resentment at the removal of limits. He struggles to come to terms with a body that does not grow—he calls it his “recalcitrant, glabrous little body”—and tennis courts that remove the elements—he calls them a “different world” without “flaw, tilt, crack, or seam.” In short, he now knows the pain of those other boys, whose limitations came not in the form of thin wrists or concave chests but in the glare of sun and the rush of wind. Nature had placed restrictions on each of them, and growing up involved coming to terms with the limits he could not control and letting go of the limits that had provided him with a sense of stability—a “scary and disorienting” process to say the least.20 In this way, tennis does for Wallace specifically what Edgar suggests about sport more generally: it invites him “to confront [his] physical and mental limitations.” Insofar as it does this, “Sport as a whole . . . may then be understood as an embodied exploration of the human condition.”21
Here, again, there is something Christian in this notion as we have it in Edgar and Wallace. To be a human being, to be a creature, is to be limited. We are bounded on a grand scale by space and time, and on a smaller scale we are bounded by an admixture of our own weaknesses and the countless decisions made by others that limit the possibilities available to us. And crucially, this is not inherently a bad thing.22 A sort of libertarian notion of freedom, in which the individual is free from the intervention of others, is not a Christian notion of freedom. To be human is not to be free from others but to be free with and for others, which immediately is to recognize that our freedom is now bounded by the other. On a small scale, I would suggest, sports invite us to explore precisely that boundedness and those limitations by participating in them.
Any athlete who has participated in a team sport will know that his ability to perform his task is largely governed by the simultaneous decisions of teammates and opponents alike. In an obvious way, the opponent attempts to close down possibilities, to limit options, and to foreclose freedom. In a more subtle way, however, individual freedom is also suppressed by a teammate’s every decision. To make the obvious point: one is not free to shoot if one does not have the ball. My freedom to shoot, then, depends on the free use of the prerogative of my teammate to pass me the ball. In this sense, the athlete engaged in a team sport is trained on a daily basis that who he is and what he does is to a large degree both limited and made possible by the actions of others.
To be human, then, is to experience the twin realities of givenness and limitations, and I would call these Christian realities. We are human beings in a world of “lines and lines athwart lines.” Sports open us to the possibility of the goodness of such lines—of seeing boundaries and limitations not as problems to be overcome but as gifts that mark out the sphere of human flourishing. That is to say, lines properly drawn reveal the boundaries within which we become more human, not less.
But as an anti-liturgy liturgy, sports also have the habit of celebrating the erasure of such lines. Whether in something so mundane as the windscreens of Lincolnshire Bath & Tennis Club or so serious as the doping of Olympic athletes, sports have the potential to inculcate vice, to so despise limitations that athletes reject, or seek to transcend, their creatureliness. But to obliterate lines is not only to transgress creatureliness; it is to lose it. What are steroids if not a rejection of the athlete’s humanity, consumed in the pursuit of being a god? And so, it should come as no surprise to the reader of Christian Scripture that for Wallace, the removal of lines represents his “initiation into true adult sadness.”23 When humans give up limitation, choosing instead an undelineated cosmos, we lose the garden.
Yet even when rejected, lines have a sutble way of being redrawn; anti-liturgy liturgies have a difficult time screening out transcendence completely. And so, at precisely that point in his career when the lines which constituted him were being erased, Wallace narrates an encounter, on a tennis court, with a tornado—the “z-coordinate” to the “little stretch of [x–y] plain” that was Philo. Coming out of nowhere, like a mini-apocalypse, the funnel lifted Wallace and his playing partner off their feet and carried them the fifty feet to the fence on the easternmost side of the court. Thrown into this boundary, they were saved, but they were not unscathed: “We both got deep quadrangular lines impressed on our faces, torsos, legs’ fronts.”24 The fence—their salvation—had left its mark, and the lines which Wallace had lost had now been redrawn on him. The modern world has scrubbed itself of lines, has ignored notions of givenness and limitation, and it is difficult to see their being redrawn absent an apocalypse. Until that time, sports ought to point to the beauty and desireability of such Christian realities instead of fostering a need to transgress them.
Benj Petroelje is a doctoral student in New Testament and Christian origins at the University of Edinburgh. Prior to moving to Edinburgh, he received his MDiv from Regent College. Over the last decade, Petroelje has pastored in several church contexts—most recently in Vancouver, BC—and he is currently pursuing ordination in the Christian Reformed Church.