MARCH 24, 2002
Of Faith and Sacrifice . . . Flies
-- Martin E. Marty
April Fool's Day is still a week off, but I am in the mood for a day off today. Pedophilia. Anti-Semitism. Al-Qaeda. Recent front-page words relating to religion deal overwhelmingly with devastations. So we turn for a moment to a more positive experience, in the paperback The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture (ed. Christopher H. Evans and William R. Herzog II., Westminster John Knox Press.)
Evans and Herzog have corralled a number of scholars of religion to tell stories and do some reflecting on the intersections of baseball, religion, and the culture of America. The co-editors have done some of the best writing in it, and they have collected more blurbs than some teams will get hits in April. These come from religion scholars, baseball experts, and public figures alike. All of them entertain the idea that baseball has much to do with religion, and that its enterprise may itself represent a religion.
One can picture some sportswriters sharpening pens or heating up laptops, ready to question: what do these people know about sports? (A lot, it turns out.) One knows that some religious scholars do not need to sharpen pens already pointed or turn on laptops already poised to ask why these religion scholars go so far afield to gain attention, perhaps debasing our serious enterprise along the way? I hope they read the book. While it may have more autobiographical references than some will care for, overall the essays are informed and reflective.
None of the authors sets out to define what religion is; who can write about baseball or Buddhism or Buber after spending a couple of hundred pages futilely trying to put borders around the term? Instead they use phenomenological approaches -- try that out in the dug-out -- and observe, compare, judge, and propose. Along the way they find stories of confession and redemption, revelation and breakthrough, and then let the reader do some of the defining.
It is good that they did not name baseball the civil religion of America; they ask whether it is "just a game or an American civil religion." I'm not sure there can be more than one civil religion; one expects the whole civil order to be snuggled under a sacred canopy if it is to be a candidate for such a designation. But that one overarching or undergirding civil religion has room for all kinds of sects, from beauty contests to the Free Market to animal rights. Many of them have millions of devotees. Few have as many features that we associate with religion as does baseball. So, on a day off as the season begins, one can spend a couple of hours with this book that throws light on religion and baseball, which, according to its penultimate line, is a game. Just a game?