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Bryce Harper’s problem with baseball

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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20 September 2015: Washington Nationals right fielder Bryce Harper (34) walks back to the dugout after scoring against the Miami Marlins at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. where the Washington Nationals defeated the Miami Marlins, 13-3.

Bryce Harper is featured in the most recent edition of ESPN the Magazine. While the far-ranging article covers multiple aspects of the young Washington Nationals phenom, his comments on baseball being “tired” have received the most attention. “It’s a tired sport, because you can’t express yourself. You can’t do what people in other sports do.” Harper clarifies what he means by lack of self-expression as he compares baseball to other sports: “Endorsements, fashion—it’s something baseball doesn’t see . . . . In soccer, it’s Beckham or Ronaldo. In basketball, it’s Curry and LeBron. In football, it’s Cam. Football and basketball have such good fashion.”

Harper represents the youth movement in Major League Baseball. Beyond that, he, along with LeBron, Cam, Ronaldo and a host of other one-named athletes, represent how athletes increasingly see themselves as brands. Rather than being confined to their skill and ability at a given sport, they want people to see and buy into their lifestyles.

This desire for self-expression is one of the central features of postmodernism. Kevin Vanhoozer, in the Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology, states, “Society reaches a postmodern condition when “work” turns into art, that is, when more and more areas of life are assimilated into the logic of the marketplace, when the economy is increasingly geared to providing entertainment, and when the business of America is leisure.”

Sports, in this view, along with every other type of “work”, is no longer about the result (a win or loss), but about its entertainment value. We see this fetishizing trend all-around us. We love handcrafted items, specialty-brewed coffee, and artisanal accouterments. It’s not just about the end result with these products; it’s about getting into and becoming immersed in the process of making them.

Harper’s comments really have more to say about our culture than about his own views. He is articulating what Vanhoozer describes as the emergence of the entertainment culture: “Goods are produced not to supply preexistent needs, but to supply needs that are themselves created by advertising and marketing strategies. What gets marketed is not an object so much as an image or a lifestyle.”

So what do we make of Bryce Harper the baseball player? Well, that’s hard, because he doesn’t want to be known as just a baseball player. He wants to be defined on his own terms, to express himself in a variety of ways. His desire is similar to what we all crave in some form or fashion: recognition.

The gospel answers postmodernity’s plea for self-expression by turning it, as it does every philosophical system, on its head. Rather than finding fulfillment in self-expression, we find freedom and ultimate fulfillment in giving God glory.

Postmodernism is right to point out that instead of being identified by what we reject, we should be identified by what we are for. C. S. Lewis, in his famous sermon “The Weight of Glory,” said: “The New Testament has lots to say about self-denial, but not about self-denial as an end in itself. We are told to deny ourselves and to take up our crosses in order that we may follow Christ.” We all need a goal to live for, something to strive after, but the Christian gospel points us toward Christ, not ourselves, and that’s where postmodernism is tripped up.

Lewis again: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us…” So Bryce Harper is on to something when he talks about wanting to make baseball more enjoyable. It is a game, after all. But our joy was never meant to be located in our own individual accomplishments. The “infinite joy” Lewis describes is in knowing Christ and seeking to live to bring him glory.

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