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Essay

Secular Spirituality: Why the Cubs Matter

By November 4, 2016 5 Comments
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I’m often criticized for writing about popular culture. I guess it’s not proper for an academic to explore the depths of Heavy Metal, The Big Lebowski, or Bob’s Bar. I must have missed that day of Christian academic orientation, you know, the one on how to be a pious schmuck? I can’t help that I’m moved by System of a Down or Paul Thomas Anderson movies. Secular parables—that’s what Karl Barth calls them. Those seemingly un-spiritual eruptions of spirituality. Those moments within Western secularity where we can just feel the spiritual depth of the world we live in. Like so many others I was glued to the television a few nights ago, waiting for the Chicago Cubs to blow it. I’m not a Cubs fan, although growing up in the late eighties with cable television meant that I watched more than my fair share of Cubs and Braves games. I’m a baseball fan, and I have good friends who are die-hard Cubs fans, so I had to watch the game. I invited myself over to a friend’s house—a die hard, love em’ and hate em’ kind of Cubs fan. He’s experienced a lifetime of heartbreak, but he also had to deal with the hard reality that his father—a man who truly loved the Cubs—died a few years ago. Last year, when the Cubs made the playoffs, instead of feeling hope, he was just plain pissed. “Screw em'” he said. “My dad cheered for these #$@#ers for eighty some years, he dies, and then they win the world series?” Thankfully, they got beat by the Mets in the NLCS. Two nights ago? there I was, sitting in his living room with his family waiting to see if the Cubs could pull it off. There was shouting, laughing, crying, more shouting… a rain delay, and finally joy and relief followed by an indescribable outpouring of emotion. All over a baseball game.

And that’s just it – it isn’t just a baseball game. It’s a secular parable if there ever was one. I read a story yesterday about a guy who watched game seven sitting by the grave of his father, fulfilling a promise. One news story focused on how the Cubs winning the series unleashed feelings of grief and sadness in the midst of celebration.  Baseball is one of those activities that is easy to overlook or dismiss if a person doesn’t understand it. It’s a narrative, a story, in which the heroic and the tragic are separated by one pitch, one inch to the right or to the left, or one missed call by the umpire. It’s an event that allows us to get caught up in something bigger, providing the opportunity to talk to each other, to put down our phones and distractions as we anxiously wait for the 3-2 pitch with two outs. If you don’t get it that’s fine—baseball isn’t for everyone. Just make sure you step off and take your spiritual snobbery elsewhere. After all, Reformed Christianity is about the heart; it’s about desire. Augustine suggests that the goodness of our temporal existence is in the way we are constantly desiring, seeking, yearning for a future that never quite comes in this life. This is what makes life good. Reformed Christianity affirms the goodness of creaturely existence, it affirms the secular spirituality of baseball as a transcendent experience—a secular All Saints Day where the dead aren’t just remembered, they are present. What will Chicago Cubs fans do now that their eschatological future has arrived? Don’t worry… they can always cheer for the Minnesota Vikings.

Jason Lief

Dr. Jason Lief teaches courses in Christian education and youth ministry. A Northwestern College graduate, he served as the chaplain for Pella (Iowa) Christian High School while earning a master’s degree in theology from Wheaton College Graduate School. He also completed a doctorate in practical theology from Luther Seminary. He previously taught theology and youth ministry at Dordt College for 10 years. Dr. Lief is the author of “Poetic Youth Ministry: Loving Young People by Learning to Let Them Go” and "Christianity and Heavy Metal as Impure Sacred Within the Secular West: Transgressing the Sacred.”

5 Comments

  • Jeff Munroe says:

    Forget the Vikings, the real “cursed” team that remains is the Detroit Lions. The Lions’ record of self-immolation and ineptitude is unparalleled, even in Minnesota. The Vikings get close and don’t win the big one. The Lions don’t win the little ones and never get close.

  • Kyle Dieleman says:

    Thank you, Dr. Lief. I have for a long time tried to tell people that it’s not always “just a game.” If we, as Christians, don’t understand the spiritual draw(s) that brings so many sports fans together, I don’t see any way we’ll be able to connect them with the Christian faith. The Cubs, baseball, and so much else in the sports world is about so much more than just a game. Thank you for the reminder.

  • Sara Tolsma says:

    Love this! My baseball teams are the Royals and the Cubs. In that order. 2015 and 2016 have been great!

  • Thanks for helping me understand. I get that I don’t get it. Baseball has always bored me; too many books, too little time.

  • Thanks Jason. Your ending question invites imagination about what this epic win might inspire Chicago to achieve next – banning toll roads? a less confounding international airport? better schools? fewer violent crimes? Or maybe, as you remind us, even in the midst of epic consternation and despair, anything IS possible. Joy awaits,.

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