Monthly Archives: July 2012

“It Is Time for the Country to Grow Up”: On Penn State & Sports Culture

Howard Bryant of ESPN calls out American sports culture in the context of the recent Penn State football sanctions:

Penn State lost its fun and games, its diversion. It lost a fictionalized version of itself and its fallen, iconic coach. It lost numbers in a record book and money from its wallet. The sanctions against the football program were, in effect, significant only through one insular, unimportant lens: the overemphasis on football and big-time sports in general that created an environment for such a colossal mess to occur in the first place.

If anything of worth is to emerge, the Saturday afternoon tailgate, the bragging rights and the beer will be replaced by something far more valuable: responsibility. It is time for Penn State to grow up. It is also time for the rest of the country, those blinded by sports and money and power who think they can be smug because they didn’t attend or care about Penn State, to grow up as well. College is about building a foundation for seeing the world in its curious complex dimensions, and now the university community through the worst kind of scandal just received a heavy dose of reality. No one with a soul wanted it to be this way, but the students and the campus now have some necessary grit to accompany their stardust.

That’s a strong word.  Readers of this blog know that I really enjoy sports and consider them a common grace gift of God.  Furthermore, PSU is a school I’m familiar with, having had very close friends with ties to it.

But there’s a word we need to hear in Bryant’s piece.  You don’t need to be some sort of killjoy, sports-hating, unmasculine person to see that sports culture–clearly glimpsed in its worst, utterly-horrifying-to-the-point-of shock iteration in the Jerry Sandusky scandal–is, well, out of control in American society.  That’s true as well for American college and university culture.  I really wonder if we’ve reached a point where sports at many bigger schools are usurping the academic mission of the institution.  (I’ve written about an overemphasis on sports before, most publicly in the Kevin DeYoung-edited volume Don’t Call it a Comeback.)

Many of us sports fans are accustomed to hearing this kind of argument–and to dismissing it immediately.  Of course we need big-time sports.  How else are we going to raise funds for our schools?  Where else will we go as a cross-campus rallying point?  How could alumni possibly be connected to the school without major athletic events to attend?  Yeah, there’s some lack of balance nowadays, when coaches get paid more than university presidents, but isn’t the world a messed-up place in the biblical worldview?

I hear all of these objections, and there’s something to consider in each of them.  I’m not anti-sports on college campuses.  I’m all for them.  I went to a NCAA Division Three school in New England and really enjoyed the basketball and hockey games.  They do promote a “university culture,” and they’re fun.  But the good thing about sports at Bowdoin College and NCAA D3 in general is that sports are held in check.  They don’t dominate the life of the institution (at least, not yet).  There were no (official) athletic scholarships, so the athletes really were students first, not essentially hired professionals forced to limit earnings to the price of a scholarship.

My college was academically oriented (as most are, thankfully), and yet it had absolutely zero trouble raising a massive endowment (one billion dollars).  Neither have many other schools.  Ivy League institutions like Harvard (30 billion), Princeton (17 billion), and Yale (17 billion) aren’t having much trouble in this front despite their focus on academics, not sports.  Sure, those are Ivy League schools, but the same is true of countless lesser-known schools.  The point: you don’t need big-time athletic programs to raise money for the school.

I really wonder about divorcing major sports from American universities.  British schools, for example, know no such uneasy marriage.  If you are going into a career in soccer, you enter the club system and pursue an education independently or through a sports academy.  American tennis works in much this way.  I don’t mean that even this system is perfect, of course.  But it seems to me a better model than our current one, in which–let’s be honest–sports are displacing academics as the core of college life.

Here’s a snatch from a recent hard-hitting article in the New York Times that illustrates the point:

Glen R. Waddell, associate professor of economics at the University of Oregon, wanted to know how much. In a study published last month as part of the National Bureau of Education Research working paper series, Oregon researchers compared student grades with the performance of the Fighting Ducks, winner of this year’s Rose Bowl and a crowd pleaser in their Nike uniforms in crazy color combinations and mirrored helmets.

“Here is evidence that suggests that when your football team does well, grades suffer,” said Dr. Waddell, who compared transcripts of over 29,700 students from 1999 to 2007 against Oregon’s win-loss record. For every three games won, grade-point average for men dropped 0.02, widening the G.P.A. gender gap by 9 percent. Women’s grades didn’t suffer. In a separate survey of 183 students, the success of the Ducks also seemed to cause slacking off: students reported studying less (24 percent of men, 9 percent of women), consuming more alcohol (28 percent, 20 percent) and partying more (47 percent, 28 percent).

This is disturbing stuff.  I’m reminded of Tom Wolfe’s depiction of whole packs of male college students glued to sports programming in the brilliant I Am Charlotte Simmons.  These boys–and sports are really the primary province of kids, right?–took sports incredibly seriously, and cared little about their studies.  I think we’re seeing the spread of this trend on a national level, and that does not bode well for our society, for our schools, and especially for young men (and the young women they fail to win).

So what does all this mean?  I think it means as Christians that we push in our little corners of life for sports to occupy an appropriately chaste place in public life.  We enjoy them, but we enjoy them in moderation (a HUGE challenge today, especially for men).  Perhaps we lend our voice to the side of the discussion that urges for the full professionalization of major sports.  It’s not really fair, after all, that universities profit massively from student-athletes.  I think our society might be healthier be shifting football, basketball, and other major sports away from the university model and moving them toward the professional model.  Let’s reclaim the idea of the college and university (and high school!) as an academic entity first.

It also means that we continue to take the life of the mind seriously, for our sake, the sake of the church, the sake of American culture, and most importantly, the glory of Christ, the one who is king over all things, including our sports and our minds.

(Image: Patrick Smith/Getty)

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Jared Compton of Detroit Seminary on Women Having it All

My friend Jared Compton, finishing a PhD on Hebrews under D. A. Carson at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, just published a thoughtful and constructive blog on Theologically Driven, the excellent faculty blog of Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary.

Jared wrote about biblical womanhood, riffing off the recent Atlantic essay by Anne-Marie Slaughter that explored why modern women still, after so many years of seeming advance, have so much trouble “having it all.”  Here’s a snatch:

[U]se Slaughter’s piece to remind and encourage the women in your life with young children that their present calling requires just as much intellectual energy, ambition, creativity and sheer effort as do the more high-profile jobs Slaughter describes. The goals of motherhood are just as noble, just as important, just as demanding as any of these more glamorous careers. Mothers are tasked to shape and nurture creatures made in God’s image to fulfill God’s purposes in the world. Those of us with young children know well that motherhood isn’t for the faint of heart or the weak-willed; it’s not simply for those who couldn’t make it into law school or who don’t have an M.B.A. It may take nerves of steel to negotiate a multi-million dollar contract, but at least these sorts of deals don’t normally occur in the dead of night or involve anyone vomiting. Motherhood is a calling for the best and brightest. It’s not simply something a woman does because she failed to dream big enough.

Read the whole thing.

Keep an eye out for Jared–I remember taking “The New Testament Use of the Old Testament,” a legendary TEDS doctoral seminar taught by Carson, with Jared.  He consistently sparked the most discussion and drew the most praise from Carson, who does not exactly throw praise around.  God willing, he should author some serious scholarship that will bless God’s church (and if you play basketball with him, he’s got that gritty Detroit style going on).

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Buckle Up: The “Culture Wars” Are Only Heating Up

There’s been a lot of talk about evangelicals opting out of the culture wars recently.  Some of that could be good.  Few of us want to identify the church with the Republican Party, or to act as if anything is more needful than the promotion of the gospel.

But some of this discussion, led by folks like Jonathan Merritt and Rachel Held Evans, is deeply harmful.  Why those strong words?  Because there is a desperate need for the church to be the church in this fallen world.  Now is not the time to back off from a robust cultural ethic.  Now is the time to engage.

Some will read this and still think that they have the luxury of sitting out the national debate over homosexuality.  They’ll think, well, the battle over marriage is for those frothy-mouthed Christians who send out the weird newsletters and are always sounding the doomsday bell.  I don’t really have the stomach for that; I don’t want, after all, to be weird, or unliked, or out of tune with the New York Times + NPR crowd.  I’m educated and above the fray.  Culture wars, as I’ve come to understand from the media, are for hillbillies and fearmongerers, the God-and-country set.  Nope.  No thank you.

Others will be more biblical in their convictions, but still will think that they can opt out of the conflict over marriage and homosexuality.  They’ll think, I don’t want my Christianity to be political.  The church should do what the church does.  I’ll sit this one out, as I usually do, and go on my way, trusting in a sovereign God.

Both positions suffer from a common flaw: lack of moral realism as it relates to our cultural moment.  You see, there is not going to be an “opt out” option in coming days.  Actually, let’s change that–there no longer is an “opt out” option.  The conflict over homosexuality and marriage is here to stay.  It’s only going to pick up steam.  Barring a miracle from God, the clock will not be turned back.  Most every Christian in every place in America is going to face a direct, confrontational challenge on this issue.  You can’t escape this.

Do you see this?  It’s different from abortion, which everyday Christians didn’t have to really get involved with.  Because abortion happens behind closed doors in nondescript clinics, Christians like you and me could pretend it didn’t happen.  We could occasionally pray, and occasionally give and serve, but because this menace was unseen, we didn’t have to get whipped up about it.  We could leave that to “weird,” “in-your-face” Christians, who we would subtly demean for their outspokenness.

But things have changed.  I just saw from Facebook that gay pride groups marched in my hometown of Machias, Maine (and other Maine towns–note the picture above).  Machias, for those who haven’t heard of this teeming metropolis, is a tiny coastal town.  It’s a long ways from Manhattan, culturally speaking.  But just a few weeks ago, in the Fourth of July parade, a group of gay and lesbian supporters marched, just as they did in numerous other small Maine towns.

I’ll ask this again: do you see this?  Do you get what’s happening?  This is a Fourth of July parade.  Over the years, there’s no more “safe” cultural event for Americana.  Everyone cheers the Shriners, the small but vigorous community band, the fire department as it blares its siren and throws candy to skittering children.  Everyone.  But that’s all, in a flash, changed in Machias, Maine.  Here’s what I can guess: this will happen all across America.  Bet on it.

There is no perfect nonbiblical argument we can make to repudiate and oppose same-sex marriage.  We can cite statistics and studies, and we should.  We can offer sound logic and clear moral guidance.  But at the end of the day, you and I have a choice as Christians: we can either sit this one out and let our society embrace a flagrantly sinful lifestyle.  Or we can stand up and oppose these efforts.  That’s it.  Two options: capitulation or challenge.

This doesn’t mean that we can’t fully trust our sovereign God to work out his perfect will, which may mean hardship and many earthly defeats for American and Western Christians.  Sometimes God wills this for his people, who are then challenged to remember that we serve a spiritual kingdom, not an earthly one.  Our hope is the gospel, not a political end.

But these glorious truths should not cause us to retreat from the world.  Pastors, churches, and individual Christians will all have to work out their own unique ways to engage this and other pressures.  There is not a one-size-fits-all approach here.  Churches are not to be political bodies or PACs.  But no Christian should excuse themselves from this fight–and make no mistake, it is a fight.  You can engage the other side in a godly manner, yes, and you must as a believer.  But do not stoop to such breathtaking naïveté as to think that if you are clear on the issue of same-sex marriage you can avoid being disliked and even hated by unbelievers.

An hour of winnowing is coming and has come to America, even as it has already come to other western countries.  Those who have previously defended marriage from a “neutral” set of presuppositions are not going to last; see one-time traditional marriage advocate David Blankenhorn’s recent defection.  That will happen in increasing measure in coming days, I think.  Get ready to feel lonely, Christian, and to be unliked.  It’s unavoidable for ethical, gospel-driven evangelicals who know that they cannot sit this one out.  Actually, we may even see a measure of unity in this battle; complementarians and egalitarians, for example, must and surely can find common cause on this issue, to cite just one common point of division.  We need to do so.  This is by no means only a complementarian issue.

Step up.  Contribute to organizations that are contending in the political realm for biblical marriage.  Contact friends to alert them to this hour of need.  Figure out a way in your own corner of the world to get involved here.  Collect signatures for petitions and send them to your legislators.  Do whatever you can.  Above all, pray.  And do not–please do not–opt out.  As always, engage this issue and those with whom you disagree with the love of Christ.  We’re not opposing flesh and blood here, and even as we contend for biblical truth (Romans 1), we seek to win those who are lost just as we were lost before God’s marvelous grace saved us.

Lastly, remember Matthew 5:10-12.  Let these familiar words ring in your ears, and let the resurrection hope of the one who said these fateful words wash over you even as you celebrate righteousness and oppose darkness.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.


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Why Tipping at Restaurants Speaks to Your Walk with Christ

Raymond Johnson, a PhD student at Southern Seminary, just published a very helpful essay on tipping and the gospel at Baptist Press, the official media outlet of the Southern Baptist Convention.  It’s worth reading and considering.  Here’s a snatch:

Whether Christians are aware of it or not, a subpar tip is a stumbling block in communicating the Gospel. It causes unbelieving servers to think that we, as Christians, value money over everything and everyone else (1 Timothy 6:10). So, my coworker, like many other servers, interprets such actions (poor tips from alleged Christian people) as stingy. Tragically, the result — though it may be unfair — is that many servers have identified the majority of Christians as a contingent of people who care little for others. They hear Christians promise them that God is just and fair and that He is a generous King who is lavish with His mercy and kind toward others. Christians promise them that the Gospel they preach is for all people right before they metaphorically clinch their money in their fist and tip poorly; refusing money to laborers who are worthy of their wages (1 Timothy 5:18; Matthew 10:10).

Read the whole thing.


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Were Fundamentalists Defeated in the 1930s and 1940s?

Nope.  At least not if you consider their amazing missions output in these decades.  This is my summary from Joel Carpenter’s marvelous Revive Us Again (Oxford, 1999), pages 28-29:

Modernism wrought devastating effects in the Northern Baptist Convention. It sent 845 staffers overseas in 1930; it sent 508 in 1940. From 1920 to 1936 the Northern Baptist budget for missions plummeted 45%. In 1936, no new missionaries were sent out from the Northern Baptists. In this same time, fundamentalists sent about 3000 missionaries to the field, and by the early 1950s had sent about 6000 of 19,000 total Protestant missionaries on the field. The China Inland Mission, for example, sent out about 700 new missionaries between 1930 and 1936. The Sudan Interior Mission had just 44 missionaries in 1920 but by 1945, it had 494 in active service. Between 1932 and 1942, at least 500 Moody Bible Institute alumni became missionaries, which brought the school’s total missionary production since its founding to about 2500 alumni.

If you want to understand the marginalization and building period of fundamentalism, get this book.

Carpenter’s text turns two ideas on their head: 1) that fundamentalists merely withdrew from culture (they were forcibly expelled as well) and 2) they fell into a state of senescence and defeat in the 1930s and ’40s.  Not true!  On the contrary, they began and strengthened many heroic and important works, as you can see above.

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Jonathan Edwards: The Infinite Highness and Condescension of Christ

One of three favorite sermons of Jonathan Edwards is “The Excellency of Christ.”  If you have not read the sermon, print it out and read it over the course of two weeks in your devotional time or your lunch hour.  You won’t be the same afterwards.  Jonathan Edwards was brilliant, but he was primarily a preacher, and an exquisite one at that.

Here’s a snatch to consider.  This is preaching at its best–soaring, richly biblical, bringing you face to face with the Son of God.

1. There do meet in Jesus Christ, infinite highness, and infinite condescension. Christ, as he is God, is infinitely great and high above all. He is higher than the kings of the earth; for he is King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. He is higher than the heavens, and higher than the highest angels of heaven. So great is he, that all men, all kings and princes, are as worms of the dust before him, all nations are as the drop of the bucket, and the light dust of the balance; yea, and angels themselves are as nothing before him. He is so high, that he is infinitely above any need of us; above our reach, that we cannot be profitable to him, and above our conceptions, that we cannot comprehend him. Proverbs 30:4, “What is his name, and what is his Son’s name, if thou canst tell?” Our understandings, if we stretch them never so far, can’t reach up to his divine glory. Job 11:8, “It is high as heaven, what canst thou do?” Christ is the Creator, and great possessor of heaven and earth: he is sovereign lord of all: he rules over the whole universe, and doth whatsoever pleaseth him: his knowledge is without bound: his wisdom is perfect, and what none can circumvent: his power is infinite, and none can resist him: his riches are immense and inexhaustible: his majesty is infinitely awful.

And yet he is one of infinite condescension. None are so low, or inferior, but Christ’s condescension is sufficient to take a gracious notice of them. He condescends not only to the angels, humbling himself to behold the things that are done in heaven, but he also condescends to such poor creatures as men; and that not only so as to take notice of princes and great men, but of those that are of meanest rank and degree, “the poor of the world” (James 2:5). Such as are commonly despised by their fellow creatures, Christ don’t despise. 1 Corinthians 1:28, “Base things of the world, and things that are despised, hath God chosen.” Christ condescends to take notice of beggars (Luke 16:22) and of servants, and people of the most despised nations: in Christ Jesus is neither “Barbarian, Scythian, bond, nor free” (Colossians 3:11). He that is thus high, condescends to take a gracious notice of little children. Matthew 19:14, “Suffer little children to come unto me.” Yea, which is much more, his condescension is sufficient to take a gracious notice of the most unworthy, sinful creatures, those that have no good deservings, and those that have infinite ill deservings.

–Yale Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 19, 565-66

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Things You Should Watch: Scott Klusendorf on Ultimate Ethical Issues

Scott Klusendorf recently taught an ethics course at Biola University.  It included the above lecture.  You can find the whole sequence of lectures on ethics here.  Klusendorf is clear, convictional, and speaking words we need to hear.  Check out his books here.

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Carl F. H. Henry on the Theistic Foundation of Knowledge

Carl F. H. Henry:

“Human knowledge as human activity has its ultimate ground in God.  Such knowledge involves at once a knowledge of God, of the universe, and of human selves.  Since man is by creation a psychosomatic entity, his knowledge involves intuition, religious faith, psycho-introspection and -extrospection, as well as sense perception.  But what makes human knowledge ultimately possible is God’s revelation of himself and of the universe he orders and in and through which he also make himself known.” 

God, Revelation & Authority, vol. 5, 384.

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