Thursday, May 30, 2013

Taking Youth Sports Seriously

Jonathan Mahler has a fascinating, somewhat counter-intuitive argument about how to cure American youth sports over at Deadspin:
America’s youth sports culture is sick. But the conventional diagnosis of the illness has it backward: The problem isn’t that we take youth sports too seriously. It’s that we don’t take them seriously enough. As a result, we’re producing bad citizens and bad athletes.
From my limited experience as a middle school basketball and JV soccer coach--and my much larger though less mature experience in playing sports*--this rings true. The kids who tend to cause the most problems and create the most tension are actually the kids who take it the least seriously. The ones who are serious tend not to mess around with trash talk and shoving. Those who are not serious, on the other hand, do not mind disrupting the game. 

*My tentative count has me playing thirty-seven seasons of organized sports between age 4 and high school graduation (twelve seasons of soccer, nine seasons of basketball, eight seasons of baseball, six seasons of swimming, and two seasons of flag-football).

Mahler notes that "Europe’s soccer academies... are serious and demanding, but the kids are still having fun. There is pleasure in playing the game right, in learning to look for a pass or move into open space." Again, drawing on my experience as a player and coach, I believe that kid have more fun playing well the game well rather than messing around. The problem is that at the age I coach--twelve-to-sixteen years old--most kids would rather mess around, because playing well requires hard work.

And I think, to make a vastly generalizing and get-off-my-lawn statement, America as a whole has given over to the idea that kids should almost always be able to do what they want rather than what's good for them--perhaps because most Americans no longer buy into the idea that anyone should have the authority to tell another human being what's good for them.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Story and the Church

I gave this as a faculty devotion. In some ways it's a continuation of my earlier two posts on "Teaching History, Confronting Suffering." In other ways, perhaps, it's a response to those posts.

I’m going to start with a passage from The Historian’s Craft, a classic by the French historian Marc Bloch. The book is famously unfinished—unfinished because, in the midst of its composition, its author, who was a member of the French Resistance, was tortured and executed by the Gestapo.

In it Bloch writes, “Christianity is a religion of historians. Other religious systems have been able to found their beliefs and their rites on a mythology nearly outside human time. For sacred books, the Christians have books of history, and their liturgies commemorate, together with episodes from the terrestrial life of a God, the annals of the church and the lives of the saints. Christianity is historical in another and, perhaps, even deeper sense. The destiny of humankind, placed between the Fall and the Judgment, appears to its eyes as a long adventure, of which each life, each individual pilgrimage, is in its turn a reflection. It is in time and, therefore, in history that the drama of Sin and Redemption, the central axis of all Christian thought, is unfolded.”

Indeed, the Christian faith rests wholly upon the historical reality of Christ crucified and Christ risen again. As St. Paul writes, "...if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied."

It matters, in other words, that Christ was actually—historically, physically—resurrected. For if he only served as a good example and the resurrection is only spiritual and non-corporeal, Paul indicated, we're a bunch of fools who deserve pity. It’s the story of Christ’s resurrection that lends our faith the weight of reality.

A bit earlier in the same letter, St. Paul corrects the Corinthian church’s abysmal failures with a story. “For I received from the Lord,” he says, “what I also delivered to you”... and then he tells the story of the Lord's supper. And so, when we take communion, we also tell that story. And retell it, over and over again until he comes again. Our ecumenical creeds, too, are stories. The heftiest portion of the Nicene Creed tells who the Lord Jesus Christ is through story—it tells us he was begotten of his Father before all worlds, that all things were made through him, that for us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man; he was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate; he suffered and was buried, and the third day he rose again...

The four gospels tell—and between the four of them, retell—story after story after story. The Old Testament is filled with books of history—and the books that aren’t historical, strictly speaking, are stuffed with stories too. I could go on and on.

I have spent a good while thinking about what it means to be a people of history—a storied people. I am thinking about this as a Christian first and foremost, but also secondarily as a historian, and now as a teacher of American history at a Christian school.

And I have to admit that I am extraordinarily cautious about the uses to which I put history.