Category Archive: Miscellaneous

« Previous PageNext Page »

October 6, 2010

Sports Stars and Sports Writing

Category: Miscellaneous,Sports :: Link :: Print

In his essay “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart,” David Foster Wallace talks about his (and, by extension, our) obsession with sports autobiographies.  We read the things, he says, because

we want to know them, these gifted, driven physical achievers.  We too, as audience, are driven: watching the performance is not enough.  We want to get intimate with all that profundity.  We want inside them; we want the Story.  We want to hear about humble roots, privation, precocity, grim resolve, discouragement, persistence, team spirit, sacrifice, killer instinct, liniment and pain.  We want to know how they did it….  and of course, we want to know how it feels, inside, to be both beautiful and best (“How did it feel to win the big one?”) (143).

And yet, when sports stars tell their own stories, they are almost always disappointing.  In fact, they are often banal, whether they appear in books or in interviews:

Turn on any post-contest TV interview: “Kenny, how did it feel to make that sensational game-winning shoestring catch in the end zone with absolutely no I mean zero time remaining on the clock?”  “Well, Frank, I was just real pleased.  I was real happy and also pleased.  We’ve all worked hard and come a long way as a team, and it’s always a good feeling to be able to contribute.”  “Mark, you’ve now homered in your last eight straight at-bats and lead both leagues in RBIs — any comment?”  “Well, Bob, I’m just trying to take it one pitch at a time.  I’ve been focusing on the fundamentals, you know, and trying to make a contribution, and all of us know we’ve got to take it one game at a time and hang in there and not look ahead and just basically do the best we can at all times” (152).

So these stars are stunningly inarticulate, especially right after a demanding game (which is something Wallace doesn’t factor in: ask me a detailed, heavy, challenging question right after a sermon or a lecture and I may not be as articulate as I’d like either; ask me how it felt to give that lecture and I’d probably say something banal: “Um … fine”).  But the inability to articulate and the tendency to the banal pervades the autobiographies, too, which are not composed on the spur of the moment after the game was won.

Are these athletes dim?  Hardly.  Their sports require “extraordinary mental powers”:

Anyone who buys the idea that great athletes are dim should have a close look at an NFL playbook, or at a basketball coach’s diagram of a 3-2 zone trap … or at an archival film of Ms. Tracy Austin repeatedly putting a ball in a court’s corner at high speed from seventy-eight feet away, with huge sums of money at stake and enormous crowds of people watching her do it (153).

Where most of us, under such circumstances, would freeze up, overcome perhaps by our own internal voices, great athletes aren’t.  Wallace suggests that these great athletes aren’t analyzing what they’re doing or what they’re supposed to do; they’re bypassing the mind and acting:

The real secret behind top athelete’s genius, then, may be as esoteric and obvious and dull and profound as silence itself.  The real, many-veiled answer to the question of just what goes through a great player’s mind as he stands as the center of hostile crowd-noise and lines up the free-throw that will decide the game might well be: nothing at all (154).

He adds:

It may well be that spectators, who are not divinely gifted as athletes, are the only ones able truly to see, articulate, and animate the experience of the gift we are denied.  And that those who receive and act out the gift of athletic genius must, perforce, be blind and dumb about it — and not because blindness and dumbness are the price of the gift, but because they are its essence (155).

The same, it occurs to me, may be true not just of sports, but of a lot of work.  I spent a week out in the wilds of British Columbia planting trees when I was in college and I wasn’t good at it at all.  Part of the problem, it seemed to me, was that I was bored; I couldn’t turn off my mind and I couldn’t entertain my mind.  Where others simply got out there and planted, climbing every mountain and fording every stream in their way, I thought about it all and couldn’t get the job done.

One thing that’s going on here is what is sometimes called “poetic knowledge”: the knowledge that comes from experience, not from analysis.  What Tracy Austin could do with a tennis ball wasn’t the result of analyzing the game of tennis, let alone analyzing what she herself was doing, but was simply something she did.  So, too, with an experienced carpenter: Where I have to think about where every nail goes and how exactly I ought to hold it and what force I ought to swing the hammer with, a carpenter simply bangs in the nails — and he may not be able to explain all the questions I’m thinking about.  He just does it.

Another thing to consider in this connection is that, as Wallace illustrates throughout his essay, a high degree of poetic knowledge does not necessarily correspond to a high degree of analytical knowledge.  Put another way, just because you can’t talk about your touchdown — let alone about how you felt about it, when feelings are notoriously hard to put into words and harder still to put into words that are not banal or cliche — doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re stupid.

What’s particularly impressive, though, are those people who manage to achieve both great technical prowess and a great ability to think things through and communicate.  I’ve met several in churches, men who can work hard in construction without having to analyze everything they do (as I would) and who can then come to a Bible study and grapple with the text of Scripture or go home and read a book and follow a complex argument.  They’re the really impressive ones.  But apparently, if Wallace is correct, they aren’t writing sports autobiographies.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:03 pm | Discuss (0)
October 1, 2010

Humility & Education

Category: Education,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

In September, I lectured for the Bucer Institute on “Genesis and the Future,” focusing on what Genesis teaches us about eschatology and our hope for the future.  But I also got to speak at the Institute’s convocation banquet, and there I talked about humility and education.

Much of what I said was probably obvious.  Humility includes recognizing that we all have a lot to learn and that God puts us in certain environments — such as the Bucer Institute — to learn from others.  That learning may start with being silent.  As Anselm says in his “Duties of Clergy,” “Now what ought we to learn before everything else, but to be silent, that we may be able to speak?”  And so we must humble ourselves to learn from our teachers and to recognize that they are, in some way, superior to us.  Likewise, we must also humble ourselves to learn from our fellow students, not just to learn but to learn together.

In fact, sometimes shyness can be a form of thinking too much of ourselves (though I am not saying that this shyness is necessarily the sin of pride): “I don’t want to ask a question and have people think I’m stupid.”  Or: “I don’t want to raise my hand and interact with the prof as if I think my opinions are worth his time.”  On the contrary, I said: Humble yourself and ask in order to learn.

But I also wanted to speak about something perhaps less obvious, namely,  humility before the subject, putting the subject ahead of yourself.  If your goal at a particular school is simply to use it as a stepping-stone to advance yourself, if your focus is on your marks or on impressing teachers or on impressing future employers or whatever, you will not learn the way you could if you were really interested in the subject.  I’ve often said that I would rather teach someone who is interested than someone who is simply intelligent.

And what’s the mark of that sort of humility, that sort of fascination with the subject that puts it ahead of yourself?  Perhaps one mark is that you sometimes bore people by talking about the subject.  Which brings me to G. K. Chesterton and to the following quotation, which was, in fact, a major impetus behind my entire talk:

Neither in public nor in private life … is it all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person.  It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow.  The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest.  The man who talks too much   generally has a great deal of humility.  Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.

It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious.  The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject.  He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better.  If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing: and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.

A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man.  He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship.  He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.

No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows.  They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine.  The loud talker is humble.  The very phrase you use about him proves this.  If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.”  It is the very ecstasy of altruism — an impersonal apotheosis.  You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.”  What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? — Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News, 1905-1907132-133.

If you never bore someone with any subject, then you have a problem: either nothing in the world fascinates you (how sad!) or the thing that matters most to you is how you appear to others.  But if things do grip you, you’re going to end up boring your wife or a friend or someone at church by talking too much about them from time to time.

On the other hand, as I went on to add, if you don’t forget yourself and the subject you love in order to love others — which in this case means to shut up about your subject and talk about what interests them — you also will not excel in your learning, because truly learning anything means learning how to use it to serve others.  The goal is not just to be so full of your subject that you forget yourself and spill out onto others from time to time, important as that is.  The goal is, with your love of the subject subordinate to the love of others, to be the servant of all.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:40 pm | Discuss (1)
August 5, 2010

Sea Serpents

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

The other day, I read M. T. Anderson’s The Serpent Came to Gloucester to my daughter, Aletheia.   The book is a lot of fun, but even more fun (for me) was the historical note at the back about the many sea serpent sightings along the New England coast throughout the nineteenth century and particularly between 1817 and 1818.  I appreciated Anderson’s comment on the back flap of the book:

For generations, fishermen took for granted the existence of long, snakelike animals in the North Atlantic.  It takes a peculiar kind of snobbery to believe that men who worked on the sea all their lives — though illiterate — were by nature superstitious, confused, and gullible.

And what were these sea serpents doing?  According to the story, exactly what Psalm 104 says they do: they were playing (Ps. 104:24-26).

Posted by John Barach @ 1:58 pm | Discuss (4)
May 25, 2010

Two Kinds of People

Category: Literature,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

The opening paragraph of P. G. Wodehouse’s novel Sam the Sudden, it seems to me, could well apply to southwest Lousiana … except that it starts in May, not August:

All day long, New York, stewing in the rays of a late August sun, had been growing warmer and warmer, until now, at three o’clock in the afternoon, its inhabitants … had divided themselves by a sort of natural cleavage into two main bodies — the one crawling about and asking those they met if this was hot enough for them, the other maintaining that what they minded was not so much the heat as the humidity. — P. G. Wodehouse, Sam the Sudden, p. 11.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:22 pm | Discuss (0)
December 3, 2009

Turning Back the Clock

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

We’ve all heard it said that “you can’t turn back the clock.” Obviously, that’s true. Even if you regret what you did in the past, you can’t go back in time and do things over differently. But that’s not what people mean when they trot out this tired old line. What they mean is that we’re all doing things a new way now and we have to keep up with the times . You can’t go back and do things the way they used to be done. Don’t you believe in progress?

Here’s C. S. Lewis’s response:

First, as to putting the clock back. Would you think I was joking if I said that you can put a clock back, and that if the clock is wrong it is often a very sensible thing to do? But I would rather get away from the whole idea of clocks. We all want progress. But progress means getting nearer to the place where you want to be. And if you have taken a wrong turning, then to go forward does not get you any nearer. If you are on the wrong road, progress means doing an about-turn and walking back to the right road; and in that case the man who turns back soonest is the most progressive man. We have all seen this when doing arithmetic. When I have started a sum the wrong way, the sooner I admit this and go back and start over again, the faster I shall get on. There is nothing progressive about being pigheaded and refusing to admit a mistake. And I think if you look at the present state of the world, it is pretty plain that humanity has been making some big mistake. We are on the wrong road. And if that is so, we must go back. Going back is the quickest way on — Mere Christianity, 36-37.

Yogi Berra, the master of funny (and unintentional) aphorisms, captures the spirit of these “progressives” perfectly: “We’re lost, but we’re making good time.”

Posted by John Barach @ 4:22 pm | Discuss (1)
May 28, 2008

The Long-Winded Man

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

In honor of his birthday, which is today, here’s a quotation from G. K. Chesterton:

Neither in public nor in private life, indeed, is it at all true that the man who talks a great deal is necessarily an offensive person.  It is an entire mistake, for instance, to imagine that the man who monopolises conversation is a conceited fellow.  The man who monopolises conversation is almost always modest.  The man who talks too much generally has a great deal of humility.  Nay, even the man who talks other people down, who argues them down, who shouts them down, does not in the least necessarily think himself better than they are.

It may seem a contradiction, yet the truth and reason of it are really very obvious.  The man who talks too much, talks too much because he is interested in his subject.  He is not interested in himself: if he were he would behave better.  If he were really an egoist he would think of what effect his ego was producing; and a very mild degree of mental perception would enable him to realise that the chief effect his ego was producing was a unanimous human aspiration to hurl him out of the window.

A man who fills a drawing-room for two or three hours (say) with a monologue on bulbs, is the very reverse of a selfish man.  He is an unselfish hero, courting the scorn and contumely of men in the great cause of bulbs, objects which are hardly likely to offer him in return any active assistance or even any animated friendship.  He is a Martyr, like Stephen or Joan of Arc: and we know that the blood of the martyrs is the seed (or bulb) of the Church.

No; the really selfish men are the silent men, those wicked and sinister fellows.  They care more for their own manners (a base individualistic asset) than for conversation, which is social, which is impersonal, which is divine.  The loud talker is humble.  The very phrase you use about him proves this.  If a man is rude, and bawls and blunders, the snub given to him would be “You forget yourself.”  It is the very ecstasy of altruism — an impersonal apotheosis.  You say to the cad, “You forget yourself.”  What better, what higher, could you say to the saint than that “You forget yourself”? — G. K. Chesterton, “On Long Speeches and Truth,”  Collected Works 27: The Illustrated London News 1905-1907, pp. 132-133 (paragraph breaks added).

Posted by John Barach @ 2:51 pm | Discuss (3)
April 22, 2008

Henry More: Holier Than Thou

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

I was reading C. S. Lewis’s letters the other day and came across some fascinating stuff about the seventeenth century theologian Henry More, whose writings on ethics Lewis was particularly interested at the time (1924).  Lewis writes:

He told me a great many curious “facts” in natural history.  You never knew that the leader of a flock of cranes carried a large stone in his mouth when in flight: the reason being, that when they alight, all the others go to sleep, but the leader, as soon as he does, is awakened by the sound of the stone falling.  Or who would have thought that elephants had a religion and performed purificatory rites to the new moon?  He was a very holy man, this More: his contemporary biographer tells us that his body “at the putting off of his cloathes, exhaled sweet herbaceous smells, and his urine had the natural savour of violets” (p. 623).

Lewis is paraphrasing, probably from memory, Richard Ward’s Life of the Learned and Pious Dr Henry More… (pp. 123-124).  And lest it worry you excessively, let me tell you in advance that “flavour” here has the meaning of “savor” or “scent”:

He hath told us … That not only his own Urine, had naturally the Flavour of Violets in it, but that his Breast and Body, especially when very Young, would of themselves, in like manner, send forth flowry and Aromatic Odours from them; and such as he daily almost was sensible of, when he came to put of his Clothes, and go to bed. And even afterwards, when he was Older, about the end of Winter, or beginning of Spring, he did frequently perceive certain sweet and herbacious Smells about him; when yet there were no such external Objects near, from whence they could proceed.

If these things are the measure of our holiness, then I guess I fall short.

Posted by John Barach @ 2:42 pm | Discuss (0)
April 21, 2008

Soda

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Yesterday, I came across this in C. S. Lewis’s diary entry for June 24, 1924:

Barfield had to go to a theatrical garden party of all things, and Harwood to his work.  I dawdled about for a bit, got my suitcase … and then, driven by thirst and curiosity, went for the first time in my life to a soda fountain — and the last.  A more disgusting drink I never tasted (All My Road Before Me, p. 340).

Posted by John Barach @ 7:18 pm | Discuss (1)
March 14, 2008

Bradbury’s Astounding Memory

Category: Literature,Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Recently, I’ve been reading a collection of essays on writing and creativity by Ray Bradbury.  In one of these essays, which was first published as the introduction to Bradbury’s Collected Stories, he talks about his memory, which, it turns out, is far, far better than mine.  The context is a discussion of his short story “The Veldt,” and, to give you the rest of the background you need in order to see why this comment astounded me so much, this particular essay was written in 1980 and Bradbury was born in 1920:

The lions in that room, where did they come from?

From the lions I found in the books in the town library when I was ten.  From the lions I saw in the real circuses when I was five.  From the lion that prowled in Lon Chaney’s film He Who Gets Slapped in 1924!

In 1924! you say, with immense doubt.  Yes, 1924.  I didn’t see the Chaney film again until a year ago.  As soon as it flashed on the screen I knew that that was where my lions in “The Veldt” came from.  They had been hiding out, waiting, given shelter by my intuitive self, all these years.

For I am that special freak, the man with the child inside who remembers all.  I remember the day and the hour I was born.  I remember being circumcised on the fourth day after my birth.  I remember suckling at my mother’s breast.  Years later I asked my mother about the circumcision.  I had information that couldn’t have been told to me, there would be no reason to tell a child, especially in those still-Victorian times.  Was I circumcised somewhere away from the lying-in hospital?  I was.  My father took me to the doctor’s office.  I remember the doctor.  I remember the scalpel. — Ray Bradbury, “Drunk, and in Charge of a Bicycle,” Zen in the Art of Writing, pp. 53-54.

Posted by John Barach @ 1:45 pm | Discuss (3)
February 22, 2008

Wrong

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

I laughed and laughed when I saw this xkcd cartoon (HT: Remy Wilkins):

Posted by John Barach @ 9:29 am | Discuss (0)
February 13, 2008

Tag

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Matt Bianco of The Bound Dragon let me know that he had tagged me for a book meme that’s making its way around various blogs.  Here are the rules:

1. Pick up the book nearest you with at least 123 pages. (No cheating!)
2. Turn to page 123.
3. Count the first five sentences.
4. Post the next three sentences.
5. Tag five other bloggers.

I don’t often do these sorts of things, but I did happen to be sitting here near a book.  The book is Andi Ashworth’s excellent Real Love for Real Life:

We are often guilty of taking on more than God ever requires of us simply because it’s the way people around us are living.  We may feel that the more we give care, the more valuable, productive, and helpful we are.  We may even think that if we just give a little more, maybe someone will recognize us the way we want to be recognized.

As for tagging other bloggers, I’ll tag Pete Scholtens, Michael Shipma, Charles Chambers, Garrett Craw, and Jake Belder.

Posted by John Barach @ 5:24 pm | Discuss (3)
February 12, 2008

Two New Blogs

Category: Miscellaneous :: Link :: Print

Here are two new blogs you ought to check out: The Avenue, written by Steve Wilkins and Duane Garner, the pastors of Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, LA, and Biblical Horizons, written by many, many people.

Biblical Horizons is the ministry of James B. Jordan and some close associates, and I’ve learned from the material BH has produced for many years.  Furthermore, I’ve been a member of the Biblical Horizons mailing list throughout my whole ministry.  I’m delighted to see that now several of the members of that mailing list are putting some of their thoughts into this blog.  Read and enjoy!

Posted by John Barach @ 12:48 pm | Discuss (1)

« Previous PageNext Page »