Rites of Spring Ring in 'Church of Baseball'

By Burke, Daniel | The Christian Century, May 18, 2010 | Go to article overview

Rites of Spring Ring in 'Church of Baseball'


Burke, Daniel, The Christian Century


Megachurch pastor Rick Warren stood on the mound at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, California, on Easter Sunday and delivered his pitch.

"Baseball is a game of numbers in which every player falls short of perfection," said the best-selling author and evangelical powerhouse. "Similarly, in life, while we have all had a few hits or scored a few runs, we strike out a lot." Whether we're superstars or benchwarmers, God's our biggest fan, Warren concluded.

To the 50,000 people who watched Warren's well-advertised "Sermon on the Mound," the striking similarities between baseball and religious life were clear as a summer Sunday. But as a sprint around the bases shows, Warren is just one of a number of preachers, scholars, players and fans who hears echoes of the ethereal when the umpire cries "Play ball!"

To some, baseball, which E Scott Fitzgerald famously called "the faith of 50 million people," is revered as a religion in itself. It follows a seasonal calendar--begun this year on Easter Sunday-and builds toward a crowning moment. Its players perform priestly rituals, its history abounds with tales of mythic heroes, and its fans study and argue arcana with the intensity of Talmudic scholars.

"Like a church, with its orthodoxy and heresies, its canonical myths and professions of faith, its rites of communion and excommunication, baseball appears in these terms as the functional religion of America," writes religion scholar David Chidester of the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

Or, as Annie Savoy poetically puts it in the 1988 film Bull Durham, "The only church that feeds the soul, day in and day out, is the church of baseball." The well-known theologian Stanley Hauerwas, a fellow fan of the Durham Bulls, has written that "there are few things better that Christians can do in and for America than play and watch baseball."

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Shaun Casey, an ethicist at Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, isn't willing to go that far. But he does teach a class called "Church of Baseball" at Wesley.

During the weeklong class, students go to a baseball game, learn how to keep score and read a box score. In addition, they read Robert Bellah's famous essay on America's civil religion, watch Ken Burns's magisterial documentary on baseball, and learn about Jackie Robinson's role in integration as the first black player in the major leagues and how the St. Louis Cardinals beat the vaunted New York Yankees in 1964 by building a team that blended black and white players.

The point of the class, Casey says, besides convincing students of the "divine blessedness" of the Boston Red Sox and St. …

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