Bill Simmons’ Grantland–incidentally, a recent convert to the WordPress platform–released a fascinating video through its YouTube channel late last week that has caused a bit of a stir. ‘The Finish Line’ is a serial documentary following two-time NBA MVP Steve Nash through his most recent treatments and rehab. Nash, 40, is approaching the end of his career. ‘Finish Line’ is a rare, intimate glimpse into the mind of an athlete who not only is at the twilight, but recognizes it; he is candid and open about the doubts that plague his mind, his determination to dig deep and mine what talent and skill is left in what might be a futile reach at relevance on a last-place Los Angeles Lakers team.
Steve Nash is signed through Spring 2015 and is contracted to earn about $19 million.
Nash has enjoyed an excellent 17-year basketball career, made a substantial amount of money on the court and off through endorsements, and the first installment ‘The Finish Line’ is nothing short of a breathtaking, eerie piece of documentary film-making about him. The existential crisis which comes when one’s mode of living is threatened is something that few people even have the courage to admit and confront, much less have it committed to digital celluloid for anyone with a decent interwebs connection to see.
We place athletes on a pedestal, this is particularly–and literally–evident as we continue to have the Winter Olympics unfold in Sochi (…well, except for that one ring during opening ceremonies, but that’s beside the point.) What the athlete does to maintain peak physical condition to perform his or her respective sport at the highest level commands respect, as well as considerable financial gain. (We’ll leave the ethical nature of the latter alone for the sake of this post.) When that conditioning fails, either through catastrophic injury or the sheer and merciless course of time, the checks stop coming, the retailers and brands stop calling for endorsements–Michael Jordan and scant few others excepted–and the last person usually to realize it is the athlete.
There is a certain vanity to paying a person for his or her physique and the talents that come with such physical prowess. I do not say that athletes are vain across the board, though there certainly seems to be ample evidence to make that conclusion, but that at its core, professional athletes are paid because they have the body. If another Laker, Kobe Bryant, breaks a leg, he cannot do his job; if I break my leg, I still need to go to work. If an athlete gets flu-like symptoms, they typically are shooed away from the clubhouse and stadium and still receive substantial remuneration for services left un-rendered. If you get a stomach ache, you’d better be barfing up a lung in your cubicle before someone will send you home.
Who can blame an athlete for becoming detached from reality or succumbing to the burden of vanity? If you were being paid to look good and work primarily for a part of the year, you’d give in to the shallow, too. It’s good work if you can get it. To put a ball in a hoop, to hit a small white ball where people aren’t, or another small white ball straight down a fairway while strolling some of the finest and most picturesque spots in the world. These privileged few are living the dream, and we freely pay to watch them do so, sometimes with equal parts envy and admiration.
Watching Kareem Abdul-Jabbar at the close of his career was equal parts powerful and pathetic, one of the dominant offensive forces of nearly three basketball generations outlasted his talent and his contemporaries only to get swept out of his career by the Bad Boy-era Detroit Pistons. Jordan, too, was a shell of his transcendent self in Washington, the fire still burned in his eyes, but to see him as a straight post-up tweener rather than the slashing menace who could score and stop scoring seemingly at will in Chicago was pure tragic Greek theater. Whom the gods would destroy, they first drive mad. Beauty, even dominant, transcendent beauty, fades. And in Jordan’s case, that faded beauty still delivered a whoopin’ to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.
This is what makes Nash so compelling. He isn’t in the echelon with Jordan or Abdul-Jabbar or even positional contemporaries such as Isiah Thomas or John Stockton, though he is one of, if not the best 1s of his generation and will have a place in the Basketball Hall of Fame when his time comes. He sees the sand in the hourglass dwindling, and is playing out the professional Kubler-Ross stages for us all to see. Here, he is vulnerable, human and present. He still has the desire to work and work hard, his mind for the game is still sharp, but the body betrays him. Like so many of us at the end of our careers, our bodies give way before we do. Retirement for many of us isn’t a luxury–some of us youngish adults may never get the chance to–but a necessity. Health issues, children growing up and setting out on their own, spouses fading, many have no choice but to put themselves out to pasture.
Sport is our escape, a gate which keeps the existential barbarians out of the fortresses of our lives. To see an athlete cope with the fact that his life has been raided and is currently being pillaged is equal parts refreshing and disturbing. It’s nice to see an athlete be a human, but the fact that they’re only human only tells us how fragile our walls and gates are. We may not see it yet, but we all have a finish line, and we’re all running toward it.
I’m siding with Marcus Smart. Smart, a star Oklahoma State basketball player and likely NBA lottery pick in the summer, fouled a Texas Tech player on a breakaway last night, tumbled into the crowd, heard something a fan said, confronted the fan and shoved him. I’m sure the episode is all over teh interwebs.
I was watching it as it happened live on ESPNU; a person doesn’t snap to attention and face up another person like that unless that other person said or did something significant. My guess is that the guy said something racially-loaded or personally degrading–as though those are two distinct things–but who can know for sure?
The pundits, starting with the color commentator, instantly went into Ron Artest at The Palace mode, which ESPN’s Robert Flores shortly thereafter all but condemned–the damage was already done: the ticker already said that Smart ‘hit’ a fan, when it was a shove and he walked away of his own volition. Only later did they redact it to say he shoved a fan. I also agree that Smart should have been ejected, if for no other reason than his own safety.
What bothers me is that everyone jumped to, and will painfully continue to Monday, lecture Smart, vicariously through the TV audience, about how there is never an excuse to do what he did. This is a two-way street: the fan has an equal responsibility to enjoy the game, particularly a college basketball game when the NCAA talks up sportsmanship and class, without breaking the inherent social contract: cheer, root, chant, razz, whatever, just don’t let real life nastiness get in the way of the entertainment…after all, this is all this is. A game. Entertainment.
Buying a ticket does not entitle a person to push the envelope as far as possible just to see what may or may not happen. Crowds can be hit with technical fouls, too, and can even make a team forfeit a contest, which only makes the moralizing all the more absurd. Why should the man sitting behind the baseline be granted this obvious special pleading?
Marcus wasn’t very Smart–hope that line hasn’t been taken yet!–but the fan who instigated everything surely wasn’t, either. Act like you’ve been there before, right?
…not a moment too soon, but far too late.
Teh interwebs blew up earlier this week, thanks in part to a good old fashioned debate between two underqualified rhetorical combatants on a strawman subject laid out by the host participant which left all interested parties more convinced of their own respective positions–and convinced the other side was a bunch of morons–than ever before. Lincoln and Douglas, eat your dead hearts out!
No, this wasn’t an episode of Ed Schultz or Bill O’Reilly or Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith blustering through segment upon segment of complete nonsense, though it might as well have been. It was a debate between Ken Ham, of Answers in Genesis notoriety, and Bill Nye, ‘Science Guy’, on the subject of whether or not creation theory (such as found in Genesis) is a suitable explanation for the origin of the universe.
Much bellyaching has already been done over the subject matter, its participants and all the folderol surrounding the event. The debate itself isn’t why I’m here today–not directly, at least. For the record, I did not watch the debate, nor was there any need to: Nye was not going to be swayed by Ham’s arguments, and Ham certainly wasn’t going to yield, either. Neither Nye nor Ham have an education beyond undergraduate degrees, so any purported expertise either of them might have is expertise in the same way that I am a chef. I might like to cook, and I might occasionally be kinda sorta good at it and I certainly like to eat, but I’m not a chef. And, to top it all off, I highly doubt a single viewer’s mind was changed one way or the other.
People don’t engage in these kinds of things to change their minds, or to entertain the joy of pure pursuit of knowledge and understanding, but to act as cheerleaders in the culture wars. Hoorah-rah, siss-boom-bah.
In Christian circles, particularly within evangelicalism and fundamentalist circles, there is this niche that is viewed with fascination, intrigue and envy by the whole as a sort of elite special forces unit, the ones to call to defend the faith, protect the flock and prove the reasonability of Christian faith.
Apologetics has nothing to do with saying you’re sorry; an apologia is a defense of something. The apologist is the one who does the defending. And for too long, the defenders have been nothing but offensive. Ken Ham wasn’t out to change anybody’s thinking: he was, by design, out to prove the reasonability of his proposition, which is precisely that a creation account such as the one in Genesis is an adequate scientific explanation for the origin of the universe. The subject of the debate wasn’t actually up for debate, it was Ham’s to lose–his idea, his topic, hosted by his organization at his venue and Nye’s to win. (Whether or not Ham actually achieved his task is better left up to those who watched.)
The implication, of course, is that the Church is more or less a citadel, Christ is king and the apologist is tasked to keep the godless barbarians at the gates, turn them away, or get them to submit to the authority of the Church. It’s very medieval, very clumsy and very much out of touch with reality. Thus, where the classical apologists were widely influential on philosophy and Western thought as a whole–Aquinas, Augustine, Boethius all come to mind–these apologists, with their sense of entitlement and duty, knowing their place in a long, mutated lineage of those with faith seeking understanding, are now little more than one-trick doctrinal ponies, if they don’t just resort to the tested weapons of the cosmological, teleological, ontological arguments or Pascal’s Wager. People like Ken Ham–whose one position is that the earth is only a few thousand years old, proving the literal and historical accuracy of the Genesis account–need no parody, they make of themselves a more-than-adequate caricature. They also manage the impossible feat of pulling the curtain back on themselves.
What these apologists, and the churches who rely on them, fail to realize is that the West has changed and we have not. We are no longer at the center of culture (and haven’t been for some time, either by commission or omission.) Defending the faith is less an articulation of worldview or rational proposition than it is a Quixotic attempt to maintain a hegemony that has long been obliterated. At best apologetics reassures the faithful while maintaining a null result with anyone else. At worst, it further alienates others from the gospel because we were all too eager to be ready to give a defense, or makes the faithful ask questions they otherwise wouldn’t have, leading them away from the camp.
All of this dances around a more important question, though; what if apologetics isn’t the point?
I’m a staunch faith seeking understanding guy, so don’t misunderstand me here, but the conflation of apologetics with evangelism has always been a non sequitur to me. The reasonableness of Christian faith is not going to make a way for the compassion demonstrated by the Christian because of their faith. In fact, healthy theological development necessarily includes the fact that loving people is more important than being right and correcting others’ wrongs. Yes, it is important to know why we believe. Yes, it is important to be able to articulate these things. No, knowing and articulating is not going to convince anyone of the efficacy of the resurrection. (They too often fail to convince us Christians of it!) Only love and the Spirit can do that and, in most cases, those two are only coming into play if there is already established credibility.
Who profited from the Ham-Nye nonsense the other night? (Feel free to insert your own punchline.) Did anyone actually change their minds? Was someone won to Jesus thanks in part to a half-baked argument rooted in the flawed works of a British cleric about 400 years ago? What is the point of this kind of thing?
Frankly, there is no point.
Welcome to the end of apologetics. It’s long overdue.
Life just went from quiet to crazy over the past four days. And it’s only going to get crazier over the next few weeks.
I had one interview earlier this week, have another scheduled out of state next week and another pending, with other resumes outstanding and at least one other prospective employer seriously looking at me. It would seem that the breakthrough has finally happened. It’s nice to be wanted. And, while I’ve enjoyed this time I’ve been able to spend with my children and my wife, I’m ready to be the breadwinner again.
Not too long ago, I mentioned that I thought this season was drawing to a close. Now, it seems like a real probability.
I don’t like leadership. No, let me clarify: I loathe leadership — leadership classes, leadership books, leadership workshops, leadership leaders, leading leaders who lead by leading. It’s a pretentious system propped up by people who couldn’t do much else with their lives, so in an effort to reclaim their misguided adolescent sense of importance, they wrote books and wore bad Cosby sweaters and talked of synergy, mentorship and mentees, visioneering and other varied ephemera, which is to say, other varied bullcrap.
The biggest affront to our common sense from the leadership set was that leaders are made and not born.
In a desert of dry, self-congratulating, self-nullifying leaders, reading Edwin Friedman–a Jewish Rabbi and therapist who found himself working in the Lyndon Johnson administration–was counter-intuitively like drinking deeply at the oasis of sensibility; a forerunning kindred spirit who reassured me that there was, indeed, a place for blackish sheep like myself in leadership.
Ed Friedman has been dead for nearly 18 years.
“This book is for parents and presidents. It is also for CEOs and educators, prioresses and coaches, healers and generals, managers and clergy. It is about leadership in the land of the quick fix, about leadership in a society so reactive that it cannot choose leaders who might calm its anxiety,” Friedman asserts at the outset of his unfinished work–and required reading material for any and all of the above mentioned–A Failure of Nerve. “It is for leaders who have questioned the widespread triumphing of data over maturity, technique over stamina, and empathy over personal responsibility. And it is for anyone at all who has become suspicious of the illusions of change–suspicious of the modern fashion wherein solutions, as well as symptoms, burst upon us in every field of endeavor (management, healing, education, parenting) and then disappear as unexpectedly as they had first appeared, only to be supplanted by the fad of another ‘issue’ or cure, sending everyone back to square one.”
Needless to say, Friedman’s shotgunning resonated loudly with me. And–wouldn’t you know it?–he delivered the goods, right up until his death.
I keep coming back to Failure of Nerve because there hasn’t been a situation I’ve been in with regard to work, church or relationships that doesn’t ultimately get addressed by Friedman’s notions of emotional triangles, imaginative gridlock or data junkyards/junkies. (I also keep coming back to him because I keep recommending this book to people I know who really would benefit from it and they don’t bother.)
The make-up of a leader isn’t based on what they can regurgitate back, on how much they can relate to people’s pain or their methodology. I know plenty of wonks who make very poor decisions for themselves or those they lead. I’ve seen people who get so clouded by their sense of empathy or disregard better judgment in the name of attempting to relate and understanding–socially-acceptable sociopathy–and, as a result, end up in disastrous, often compromised positions. In both, a person’s leadership is self-sabotaged in the name of an ill-advised short-sighted pragmatism because either data or sympathy pains are making the decisions and not the rooted, differentiated self. This need not be exclusive to leaders, either: this can easily include friends, co-workers, peers, family members–anywhere relationships are present; which is to say, everywhere, because there can be no leadership without an established relationship. (Washington, are you listening?)
In any case, Edwin Friedman came along at the right time in my life, after the original critical thinking epiphany and during a period in my life when I was in the throes of being herded, isolated, maligned and left for dead by ‘leaders’ who were more interested in protecting their causes and their positions than they were in any sense of meaningful progress. Friedman helped restore my faith in the idea of a leader. If you’re disillusioned, I’m confident reading him will have a similar result.
Ed, this smooth cup of decaf is for you.
We will no longer live in our home in four weeks’ time.
Come the end of February, we will be in another city, possibly in another state. We’re not exactly sure where, that all depends on the promising leads I’ve stumbled into this week, or whatever might come up between now and the 28th. It’s an understandably anxious situation: things wouldn’t be so stressful if we knew where we were going to be laying our heads on 1 March, and if I were finally, mercifully delivered out of the bread line by then. (The prevailing sense I get is that this will be ending soon. Then again, my gut–with PG-rated apologies to Rob Gordon–has poop for brains.)
This home has been good to us, though it was clearly built as a rental for renters. It wasn’t exactly very well thought out, and previous tenants–some of whom I’m still daily discovering used to live here–didn’t care for the place the way we have. For the past two and a half years, though, it has been our home and, when the space is bare again in a handful of weeks, it will sting a little to pull away for the last time. Even returning home after signing the documents at the leasing office, I felt the disconnection starting to happen. I had forgotten this place wasn’t actually ours, we just bribed someone monthly to let us think it is.
We didn’t want to bid adieu to Mecca: we have wonderful friends here and love our church. Such is life post-pre-mid–it-is-recession, the things we’re supposed to really care–loved ones, causes, communities, etc.–about ultimately end up being the things that are optional. Nothing happens unless we are properly subsidizing ourselves. In fairness, this is the whirlwind reaped because of the all the wind that was sown for years. What went around came around. It had to. Still, it fundamentally seems unfair to be in this place, finally have some semblance of a social life, only to have the gainful employment piece taken out from underneath us.
So, it’s been a roller-coaster week, culminating in real job possibilities and real emotions that come with knowing that we’re going to have to say goodbye. Every new beginning is some other beginning’s end.
Hey, someone should use that line in a song.
Dispatches from the Bread Line are recurring blog posts until I’m employed again.
You’ll seldom find better liars than during the song portion of your local Sunday morning church service.
Note that I abstain from referring to it as ‘worship’, because the act of musicianship and singing is not inherently ascribing worth to any noun. There are no ‘worship leaders’, there are only musicians, and whether or not they lead people into worship is entirely outside of their control. They sing and/or play and the congregation responds in kind (hopefully.) The most earnest stage musician may be engaging in worship while the congregants aren’t, conversely, the musician may be up there in full sanctified rock star vanity while the gathered truly worship (also hopefully.) Further, what constitutes worship is not and was never intended to be encapsulated within a musical idiom in the first place. Ultimately, it’s not up to them: if they seek to, as Jason Lee’s character Jeff Bebe in Almost Famous put it, find the one person who isn’t getting off and make them get off–as many of them, wittingly or otherwise, tend to–they are in the wrong line of work and should wait for [insert horrible reality pop star competition here] to host an audition in a metropolitan area relatively near them.
All that aside, when we sing the songs on Sunday, we join not only in the attempt to ascribe worth to God, but we necessarily assent to the words being sung. And, as a result, we lie, if for no other reason that we sing. More often than not, there are ideas within some of these choruses (and, to be even-handed, in some hymns as well) which are theologically problematic–and I refrain from singing them–or are just not honest reflections of where people are in their faith life. While it’s easy to sing about how Jesus is everything and we are nothing and all we ever want to do is love God and sacrifice everything to serve God, let’s have a moment of honesty: none of us really feel that way, and certainly not all of the time. For instance, that was me Monday afternoon and evening, in the existential death spiral of application rejections and building anxieties. I’m human enough to admit that, for about 16 hours there, Jesus was not my all in all…and beyond that, seldom is he. The deficit there is not a reflection of my unholiness, but the ready and available surplus of divine grace. It is truly amazing.
For most of us, it isn’t that we intend to lie in song, but because the music-as-worship paradigm is so entrenched in the West, we don’t think about what it is we are singing. As a result, we miss out on personal theological development, an opportunity to define an ecclesiology where, for most of us, it is utterly formless, and we by default show that we’re more interested in the sound of the song than the content therein.
We also miss out on the opportunity to make impossibly attainable lyrics a confessional prayer.
Today, because I didn’t want to go digging through boxes of CDs, I found David Bazan’s recording of an old Irish hymn, Be Thou My Vision. (The irony of Bazan being at least agnostic now is not lost on me. It is also proof positive that one may sing and play theologically profound material and yet struggle with belief and faith, or not have it at all.) It’s been done and redone a million times, after being buried in forgotten hymnals for decades, in the past fifteen years or so, and many of these new renditions of it are still done within a church music-based paradigm, meaning that the content is suited to be ignored or forgotten. This version, the one in the YT clip above, is arranged for guitar and loses the traditional ecclesiastical trappings until the end. While the song is sung, the music virtually disappears: one has nothing to fall back on, save to focus on the words.
Be thou my vision, o Lord of my heart;
Naught be else to me save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night;
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.
Riches I heed not, nor man’s empty praise;
Thou my inheritance, now and always;
Thou and thou only first in my heart;
High king of Heaven, my treasure thou art.
I need to be clear: this is not where I am. At all. To assent to these words is to lie. That said, I do not sing them because I pretend to be someone I’m not, but I use them as prayer, to move me–from the uncertainties of my present state of affairs, the anxieties that are now plaguing me daily and the despair that hangs high overhead–toward an impossible ideal. It is a confession of my deficit of holiness–sanctity I never had and could never attain in the first place–and a collapsing into the surplus of divine grace. Resignation, not rejoicing.
Would that we would be more forthright in our gatherings. Sunday theatrics and stage antics tend not to lend themselves well to such vulnerability and opportunity for growth, which makes me wonder how our songs are little more than a vestigial part of a liturgy, formal or otherwise, devoid of the very purpose to gather in the first place: to grow. What is it we do on Sundays? We gather, we sing, we endure somebody talking, we smile and shake hands and we leave to go about the business of a day of rest.
You’ll seldom find a better liar than me.
Be thou my vision.