Just Wondering: Pujols, Greedy Christian?

First, read or skim this.

Every sports fan and his dog is talking about Albert Pujols right now, in light of his extended contract negotiations, potential divorce from the St. Louis Cardinals after the season, and his demand (or his agent’s, possibly) that he become the highest-paid player in the game (a potential contract upwards of $300 million).

An interesting angle is developing for 21st Century Christians, who are increasingly wary of extreme personal wealth in an “age of hunger.” Pujols is a pretty outspoken evangelical and started the Pujols Family Foundation, which supports Down’s syndrome research (Pujols’ adopted daughter has the syndrome). But now, Christian baseball fans are going to have to reconcile Pujols’ genuine religious faith with his outright demand for lots and lots of money.

GetReligion.com’s Mollie Ziegler cites St. Louis Post-Dispatch religion reporter Tim Townsend, who wrote this about Pujols:

The Rev. Darrin Patrick, pastor of The Journey, a church in St. Louis that counts a number of professional athletes as members, said Jesus warned against greed.

“Nobody really confesses to that sin,” Patrick said. “Lust, anxiety — sure. But very few people say, ‘I’m greedy,’ and I absolutely think that (Pujols) should be on guard for that.”

But also this:

The Rev. Scott Lamb, a Baptist pastor, formerly with a church in St. Louis and co-author, with Tim Ellsworth, of a new Pujols biography called “Pujols: More Than a Game” that focuses on the first baseman’s faith, said the contract talks have opened up an interesting debate in Christian circles that goes beyond baseball to the uncomfortable intersection of the New Testament and capitalism. […]

“I reject any idea that a person’s Christianity should cause them to step away from what the market would demand for them,” said Lamb. “Albert will go down in history as one of the great ones — someone who grabbed the money, and gave it away at the same time.”

These two thoughts (shying away from extravagant material gain and intentionally getting rich in order to be generous with it) are not necessarily mutually exclusive. It’s perfectly reasonable to be strongly against the idea of a Christian hoarding the money he makes (regardless of the size of his paycheck, I might add) and still rejoice that a Christian freely gives away most of that income (again, no matter how much that might be — Pujols could give away 95% of his $30 million a year and still have 1.5 million for himself. Also: uh, wow).

It’s a touchy but important question. And there aren’t really easy answers. But Pujols has shown extreme generosity before, even when he was an impoverished nobody seventh-round draft pick from the Dominican Republic. Who’s to say that will suddenly change when he goes from rich to richer (or maybe richest)? As Zeigler says, “Some groups stand to do very well if Pujols lands a major contract.”

Could it be that the best thing for everyone is for Pujols to become the highest-paid baseball player, knowing that he’ll likely give most of it away? Is that a better alternative than, say, Alex Rodriguez making all that money—given that Rodriguez likely won’t give a dime to Christian organizations? Or should we—and Pujols—shun all that money because it gives the wrong impression? Talk to me.


Monday Morning Press 2.28

White-Collar Football. If you follow football long enough, you start to become aware of some glaring platitudes that are at best trite and at worst vaguely racist. Black guys are always fast and athletic; white guys are always “tough, gritty, always in the right place.” They’re never just, you know, fast. And the black guys are never gritty-gritty or “smart and heady.” They’re flatly athletic. So if the white guy messes up it’s because he doesn’t have the God-given speed; if the black guy messes up it means…what exactly? He’s not smart?

In the same way, teams from Pittsburgh and Green Bay are called “blue-collar, tough” football teams (not top-tier athletes in excellent shape, of course). EDSBS wonders: What would a white-collar team look like?

Goodbye, ‘Mister.’ This is interesting: The Wall Street Journal’s sports section is dropping the paper’s policy of referring to sources by “Mr.” and “Mrs.” I guess that makes sense (Mr. Manning sounds okay, but Mr. Jeter? Ulgh) , but I kinda liked how distinctive it sounded. Oh well.

What to read if you want to write better. Spring break is coming up, and plenty of college students use the free week to do some reading for pleasure instead of professors. John Starke, an English professor at Houston Baptist University and Gospel Coalition editor, suggests some good books to aspiring (Christian) writers. (HT: JT)

Pastoral Search Committees? Mark Dever and Bobby Jameison offer some thoughts on pastoral search committees. Dever lists nine way (as is his wont, I guess) that pastoral search committees are a bad idea; Dever and Jameison together offer reasons why an elder-led pastoral search is a good alternative.

Friday Fiction: Grass

The man topped off the gas tank of his lawnmower and twisted on the fuel cap. The gasoline bubbled each of the four times he pressed the rubber primer. He pushed the mower across the driveway and set its wheels and tugged the rewind. It sighed and the engine sputtered and coughed but didn’t ignite. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a pack of Pall Malls and lit one and breathed the smoke in and out. He coughed into his hand and scratched at his head through his backwards Red Sox hat. He put the cigarette between his middle and index fingers and leaned down and pulled the rewind hard again. The engine growled and then stopped. He tugged it harder, this time the engine turning over and roaring to life and he could hear the blade spinning and imagined it looked something like a helicopter. After cutting the front lawn, he moved to the back where he saw the boy kneeling on the ground, pointing what looked like a magnifying glass. The man released the bail, stopping the lawnmower, and walked over to the boy and bent his knees and put the cigarette stub between his lips, watching.

What are you doing? he asked the boy.

The boy didn’t look up from his glass. Trying to set this blade on fire, he said.

Is it working?

Not yet.

Why are you trying to set the lawn on fire?

Not the lawn, the boy said. Just this blade.

The boy looked up at the sun and moved his magnifying glass. The man could see the pinpoint of light on the green blade. Here we go, the boy said. Now it will work.

A thin wisp of smoke curled from the blade. Then came the spark, then the flame that burned the blade in a few seconds, leaving only a charred piece of black ash. The boy laughed. The man stood up, his knees cracking. He looked at a tree that was quivering in the wind, then back at the boy kneeling on the ground. The boy grabbed his magnifying glass and ran through the white fence, through the courtyard and into his house. The man pinched his cigarette and breathed out a puff of gray smoke. The father came out of the same door, a confused look on his face. The man rubbed his stubbled chin and walked over to the fence, putting his hands on a post and listening.

The father said he was sorry, that he didn’t know his son was in the man’s yard. The man just shook his head and told the father it wasn’t a big deal, that boys will be boys. The father said that if the boy came into his yard again, just tell him to go home. I’ll do that, said the man. The father nodded and walked back inside. The man scratched his nose with his dirt-caked fingernails and massaged the back of his shoulder. Then he glanced into his neighbor’s house and flicked the cigarette across the fence and walked back to his lawnmower.

Best Albums of 2010

[Note: With the exception of Shutter Island, these are not albums released in 2010; just ones I discovered and enjoyed then.]

5. “The Execution of All Things,” Rilo Kiley.

I am a nerdy, emo Michigan football fan. You are not a nerdy, emo Michigan football fan, so this probably won’t make much sense at all to you. Nevertheless:

In 2008, Michigan endured probably the most painful season in its football history, which is especially notable once you take into account that the ensuing two seasons weren’t much better. They went 3-9 in 2008, with precious few big plays and even fewer legitimate highlights.

So before the 2009 season, when a blogger at MGoBlog decided to put together a highlight package of the previous campaign, it hardly seemed right to include lots of out-of-context touchdowns during 42-7 losses. So he put together a highlight of sad plays—interceptions, fumbles, blown coverages, the like—followed by a string of actual highlights which seemed even better after the mellow beginning of the video, like the way sunshine feels more wonderful after the rain. Accompanying the nearly five-minute video was the song “A Better Son/Daughter” by the rock band Rilo Kiley.

Retrospectively, the song has come to symbolize the Rich Rodriguez era—sad at the beginning with a hopeful future never quite realized. It will not carry over to the Brady Hoke era; nay, it’s time to RAWK.

The one song has developed a cult following among Michigan superfans,* but I discovered the rest of the album “The Execution of All Things,” is not only pretty good, but also served as my introduction to indie rock. So hooray for that.

*I admit sheepishly that I listened to it before games on occasion, and it’s quaintly appropriate for what I feel. Okay wow, that’s emo. Ick.

Also: if you listen to it, enjoy but beware BAD WORDS.

4. “Sextet—Six Marimbas,” Steve Reich.

I once had to do this really weird assignment for a journalism class at school. Take a sort-of-famous person who could possibly die sometime soon and write an early obituary. I picked Steve Reich, one of my favorite modern classical composers. The obit wasn’t great, but I wrote about his signature phasing technique in the piece and produced what I think is an apt descriptor of his music. Phasing loops a singular motif with another, speeding up the second slightly to create a consistent, repetitive sound. I noted that this effect, like the rest of his music, is at first cacophonous, then hypnotic, and finally profound.

This is true of “Sextet”—a five-movement symphony-type-substance that applies phasing (among other things) using a piano, bells, and at least two xylophones—and “Six Marimbas,” a sixteen-minute long piece of the same form.

This repetitive, percussive music might be an acquired taste. I’m pretty sure I’ve always liked it. It gives the listener a feeling of space along with a profound sense that there’s something he’s missing in the oppressive, deeply-complex triads. These are some of the best qualities of great music. Worth a listen.

3. “Shutter Island,” Various Artists.

I liked this movie immensely, and it will reappear in my Best Movies of 2010 post later. The soundtrack is similarly good.This album is a conglomeration of different artists, many of which are the avant-garde type in modern classical, my preferred genre (Brian Eno, John Adams, John Cage, Max Richter). Martin Scorcese, Shutter Island’s director, has shown appreciation for minimalistic music in the past, having asked Philip Glass to compose the music for Kundun.

Because of the various styles represented by each composer and performer, there’s a notable difference between the individual tracks. The ominous Inception-esque single-note cello blast in “Symphony #3: Passagalia” is followed by the schmaltzy 1950’s crooning of a Johnny Ray song, “Cry.”

Nam June Paik’s “Hommage a John Cage” is outright disturbing but unquestionably intriguing, and John Adams’ “Christian Zeal and Activity”— a slow, sentimental commentary on the ludicrousness of evangelical television preachers—is included.

Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight” is in many ways the theme of the film, and its tragic, lachrymose violin solo aptly reflects the profound sadness of the movie itself.

2. “Harmonium,” John Adams.

This album isn’t really much of an album at all, but a collection of three poems put to music. The poetry is provided by John Donne (“Negative Love”) and Emily Dickinson (“Because I Could Not Stop For Death” and “Wild Nights”), and the music by—surprise—John Adams.

The first piece starts serenely, soon giving way to the wide, drawn out chanting of the chorus and finally a brief sprout of excited joy at the words If any who deciphers best / What we know not—ourselves—can know / Let him teach me that nothing. “Because I Could Not Stop For Death” is slow and dirgeful (but not in a trite way)—just as it seemed when we first read it in 10th Grade English class.

“Wild Nights” opens with a suppressed trembling violin energy just beneath the surface, eventually erupting in spurts and geysers of orgastic choir and trombone-led euphoria at the lines Wild Nights! Wild Nights! / Were I with thee / Wild nights should be / Our luxury! The piece then abruptly shifts, hitting the breaks and slowing, cooling into a quiet, repetitive, even introspective ode to the sea. Ah! the sea! / Might I but moor / Tonight In thee!

While an obvious expression of the speaker’s own longing for coital ecstasy, Adams’ music brings the text deeper, making it resonate with the listener’s Edenic longing—expressed partially in a brief but poignant trumpet solo toward the end—and the heavy sense of loss carried in final, heartbreaking ruminations of the french horn.

If you feel like giving it a listen now, go here for the middle part through the end.

1. “IBM 1401 a User’s Manual,” Johann Johannsson.

I discovered this composer the summer before my junior year of college, while visiting old friends during a quick road trip with my sister. “Let’s listen to some Johann Johannsson,” my friend said as he turned the wheel on his iPod classic, and I thought he was joking.

I soon came to enjoy the music of the Icelandic post-rock/post-classical composer, making my way from “Fordlandia” over to some of his earlier work—“Englaborn” and the like. Last March I discovered “IBM 1401, a User’s Manual,” which was inspired by Johannsson listening to stories about the machine from his father, who worked for IBM in Iceland in the 1960s. In an essay about the work, Johannsson writes that “the computer’s memory emitted strong electromagnetic waves and by programming the memory in a certain way and by placing a radio receiver next to it, melodies could be coaxed out – captured by the receiver as a delicate, melancholy sine-wave tone.” In other words, you could make it sing.

The five-part piece is a robust retrospective on the brief life of the IBM 1401 machine, opening nostalgically, moving toward sadness, and eventually closing with the machine’s own plaintive solo, matching closely the very human story of lost love in the tragic words: The sun’s gone dim and they sky’s turned black / ‘Cause I loved her and she didn’t love back.

Perhaps more relevant now than ever with the advent of “Watson,” the human-like thinking machine, “IBM 1401, a User’s Manual” gets close the heart of questions about what if means to be human and, perhaps, the unintended consequences of rapid, unfettered technological innovation.

I would be very, very remiss if I didn’t point you to Johannsson’s excellent essay about this piece, from inception to performance, here.

Other notables: “The Bends,” Radiohead; “The Cave,” Steve Reich; “Fordlandia,” Johann Johannsson; “Songs of Christmas,” Sufjan Stevens.

A Slight Hesitation

I have a tenuous relationship with this whole blogging thing. It’s certainly a good thing to get thoughts and feelings out for pubic viewing, especially if you’re considering trying to make money with your writing someday. And in one sense, there might not be a better way to practice meeting deadline and such than to hold yourself to a 300-word post every day, come hell or high water. And that’s really great for college students and stay-at-home moms (no offense).

But for writers—real writers now, not bloggers or journalists—blogging goes against some of the foundational concepts of writing life. Writers are process people, they do most of their work alone in the damp darkness of basements or the public accountability of coffee shops or the loneliness of dorm closets (yes, I’ve written in all three places). Writing is a very private enterprise, highly dependent on rewrite, only allowing you to emerge from your hard, often grueling* word-stringing labor when you’ve got something worth showing someone.

Blogging is about showmanship. There’s no denying this: the best bloggers are the ones who know how to direct people to their site and convince them it’s worth their while to stay. Even worse, it’s all about speed—getting your material written, posted and advertised as quickly as possible to maximize and retain readership. This has seeped into my thinking too; I’ve often wondered what time of day most people are on Facebook and Twitter so I can get as many eyeballs on my posts as possible. No time for rumination and certainly no time for significant overhaul, nor the mashing of the once-formed clay in order to have the benefit of making it twice- or thrice-formed.

So I hesitate. It’s easy to slip into a blogging mindset—where you write in order to blog, rather than the other way around. I find it helpful to remember why I write in the first place—not necessarily to be read and certainly not to be published. It’s not even to inform or express an opinion, but to express myself; to fulfill that need to write, to engage in the daily struggle against Hemingway’s nada or Thoreau’s quiet desperation.

Done right, there are even numerous opportunities for writers in the New Media age too. Yes, fewer get published, perhaps, but more are read. You can even learn, as some writers have, to embrace the Internet world as ally, an easier way to make your material part of the marketplace, as it were.

*(NaNoWriMo peeps: You know what I’m talking about.)

Monday Morning Press 2.21

‘Exegetical malpractice.’ Newsweek recently published an article—written by its religion editor, Lisa Miller, no less—breaking down “what the Bible really says about sex.” As Mollie Zeigler says, the piece actually betrays a serious misunderstanding of certain parts of the Bible—like, say, “the Old and New Testaments.”

She concludes:

[I]f you were hoping to learn anything about what the Bible has to say about sex or marriage, this piece wouldn’t even rank on an extremely long list of things you should read. It doesn’t just do a poor job of explaining what the Christian church teaches and has taught on these matters so much as just not even address the question in any meaningful way. What the Bible “really” has to say about sex would make for a great article. This article doesn’t even come close. That it comes from the magazine’s religion editor, of all people, is a sad statement forNewsweek and the product they’re failing to push.

Read the original Newsweek article here, and the Zeigler’s entertaining response in full here.

One of the most egregious things about the article is that Miller’s attempt to appear objective involves wrenching SBTS President Al Mohler’s comments so out-of-context as to make him sound decidedly un-Protestant. This isn’t doing journalism “two-sidedness” any favors—if you’re going to use disagreeing quotes only to make the opposite viewpoint look intolerant or juvenile, as Miller does, do everyone a favor and get rid of them altogether.

While on the subject, I should point out that a friend introduced me to the GetReligion blog last week, and it’s well worth following closely.

I wanted to be John Connor. Instead, I was John Henry. In case you missed it, an IBM supercomputer called “Watson” went up against the two most successful Jeopardy! champions ever in the popular game show last week…and won resoundingly. Jennings weighs in on the event, asserting that Watson had a not insignificant advantage. It turns out that the machine can buzz in with superhuman speed (“millisecond precision timing,” Jennings calls it), effectively guaranteeing that if Watson knew the answer (or the question, I guess), he would always get it right.

This—combined with the two humans competing against each other for the answers Watson didn’t know (it’s a supercomputer with much-improved thinking skills specifically designed for Jeopardy!, remember)—assured Watson a competitive edge. The whole piece is worth reading.

Beware: The Bible is about to threaten your smartphone focus. John Piper encourages Christians to download the ESV or Olive Tree Bibles, and allow it to take your attention regularly. “Never has God’s voice been so easily accessible,” he writes.

Creme that egg! This is wicked:

Six months of construction and apparently no life produced this beauty. (HT: 22 Words).

On Reading

“As I have admitted, it is very difficult to tell in any given case whether a story is piercing to the unliterary reader’s deeper imagination or only exciting his emotions. You cannot tell even by reading the story for yourself. Its badness proves very little. The more imagination the reader has, being an untrained reader, the more he will do for himself. He will, at a mere hint from the author, flood wretched material with suggestion and never guess that he is himself chiefly making what he enjoys. The nearest we can come to a test is by asking whether he often re-reads the same story […] If you find that the reader of popular romance—however uneducated a reader, however bad the romances—goes back to his old favourites again and again, then you have pretty good evidence that they are to him a sort of poetry.”

-C.S. Lewis, “On Stories” from Essays Presented to Charles Williams

Over Christmas break, my ten-year-old brother introduced me to something I wished I’d had when I was his age, or perhaps I something I wish I’d had the imagination to discover. There’s a small rectangular closet underneath the stairs leading into our basement, too small to be used for anything but storage. Still, dad carpeted and lit it, putting a light switch inside. For years, we used it to store white banana boxes filled with books—old medical school textbooks, homeschool lessons, childhood Bibles, 90’s magazines, yellowing photo albums, half-filled diaries—until a severe water leak threatened them. We moved them to another room, leaving the closet-under-the-stairs empty. Eventually, extra comforters and blankets made their way in there, along with a pillow or two.

My brother, who is constantly searching for quality kids books and is on his fourth read-through of the Harry Potter series, is notorious for staying up until the early morning hours reading in his bed with a flashlight. On New Year’s Day, I was in the basement watching Rich Rodriguez cuss his way through his last game as Michigan’s head coach when I heard the unmistakable click-chhhh of a soda can opening from inside the closet. My brother was in there, on a throne of  soft blankets, eating snacks and reading a book from Harry Potter—or Narnia, or the Lord of the Rings, or Redwall, or 100 Cupboards, or whatever series he was presently working through. Much of the time, I see qualities in my youngest siblings I admire. This one I admire deeply.

I’ve always assumed that reading well was dependent on picking the right kinds of books — like choosing Milton over Orson Scott Card, Shakespeare over Stephen King, The Great Gatsby over Twilight. Of course, that’s often true. What you read indicates in great measure the quality of your taste. Some books could be considered well-written, but not necessarily admirable, in the same way we might enjoy AC/DC but no one would argue that it’s of better quality than a Wagner opera (this point via).

But in another sense, what you read doesn’t matter as much as how you read it (or, in my brother’s case, at what age). The reader who savors a story, drinking deeply in its atmosphere and pausing to admire its diction, will be able to say she enjoys the story the way it was meant to be enjoyed. On the other hand, the reader who consumes the story as one consumes a sitcom on television isn’t actually relishing the book. Only using it for, as Lewis would put it, a temporary high of excitement.

I can’t criticize my brother for reading Harry Potter four times (though I might encourage him to, in time, move on to some more mature literature). There’s something about the world that makes him come back to Hogwarts. Certainly by the third time through the series, he was already quite familiar with the particulars of the book’s plot.* He’s moved on from the surprises. So it hasn’t merely caught his attention like a video game; it’s resonated deep inside him, stirring something he probably doesn’t understand or is even aware of yet. The owls, wands, dragons, warm butterbeer, friendships, sacrifices, and Christian undertones bring him back again and again—not to re-experience the plot, but re-inhabit the world.

Reading, when done well, is an immersive experience that beckons the reader to return—often to the same sorts of (if not strictly the same) places. This is where readers, having their imagination sprinkled, return to get it all-out submerged. You don’t have to read the “classics” to experience this (as Lewis asserts—even the “bad books” become to the right person like a “sort of poetry”), but like many others, you will likely find that the greatest works have the purest water.

There is another dimension here: the best readers not only read appropriate books—and read them often—but they read widely too. I’m leery of pastors in my church tradition who brag that they haven’t “read any fiction in decades.” We certainly wouldn’t want them to say the same thing about theology books; why should literature be any different? Pastors who don’t exercise their imagination are like weight lifters who only train one half of their body.

Reading, like anything worth doing, takes time and effort—your friends who make fun of your proclivity to spend free evenings with a book (or a Kindle, in my case) notwithstanding. Good readers don’t merely enter the fictional woods—they linger.

*When I reviewed the latest Harry Potter movie for our student newspaper, my brother read it and was less than impressed at my mostly-negative assessment. Still: “You were pretty close, Andrew,” he told me. “Close to what?” I asked. “The truth.”