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Seeking perfection in sports

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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Heavy Things (Credit: Jason Lengstorf via Flickr)
Photo taken by A. Sturdivant from Total Shape using Sony Mavica MVC-FD71 via Wikimedia. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

I read an article this week in the Wall Street Journal that explored the Finnish sport pesapallo. If you’re like me, this was your first introduction to the eerily-similar-to-baseball sport. After reading the article, it’s easy to conclude that this quirky sport is unique to Finland, and glad to stay so. With its own rules and customs, and little desire for international expansion, pesapallo is destined to stay a niche sport in its home country.

The writer brings up pesapallo to try to offer solutions for helping improve baseball. Like many other contemporary sportswriters, he subscribes to the idea that baseball is too slow and too boring for the youth of America. I’m not going to argue with him on that point, because I think it’s a matter of opinion and perspective. What I want to point out is how baseball, like all sports in contemporary America, is seeking improvement and perfection in its public offering.

Baseball has its pace-of-place improvements. Football is trying to figure out what to do with kick-offs and the extra-point. Basketball has time-out issues at both the college and professional levels that cause the game to slow to a crawl in the final minutes of regulation.

All of the major sports tinker with their product, because sports fans are human beings, and humans desire perfection. Coded deep into our souls is the desire for perfection, rooted in the imago dei that we were created in so that we might live in worship and praise for our Creator.

Follow me from the sports headlines to the aisles of your local pharmacy. There we find endless numbers of products designed to provide flawless skin and impeccable hair. Or what about cosmetic surgery? There we have an entire industry that largely caters to our desire for physical perfection. Our bookstores are not immune either. The shelves overflow with self-help titles that follow a simple problem-solution format that simplifies everything into a series of how-to steps.

Our relationships are also impacted by our desire for perfection. We place impossible standards on those we love, and bristle when our unwritten rules are violated. Countless people are running on emotional treadmills that won’t let them open up and be themselves because of fear they won’t be good enough.

I’m also amazed at how sports marketing has played on our desire for perfection. When sports is an ultimate thing (re: an idol), it becomes something serious that we must put all our effort and identity into in order to succeed. We’re obsessed with the ends rather than the means, so sports and fitness have become functional rather than recreational. When everything is about the bottom line (winning), who cares that DeAndre Jordan broke the basic social contracts of trust, respect and honesty?

I don’t even need to get into the whole ESPN the Magazine Body Issue to further illustrate how the desire for perfection pervades every square inch of our culture. Ours is a culture that prizes and venerates youth, so is it any wonder that we are an impetuous, dramatic, shallow lot that care more about popularity and perfection than lasting significance?

Let’s listen to Augustine:

The beautiful form of material things attracts our eyes, so we are drawn to gold, silver and the like…

The truth is that disordered lust springs from a perverted will; when lust is pandered to, a habit is formed; when habit is not checked, it hardens into compulsion. These were like interlinking rings forming what I have described as a chain, and my harsh servitude used it to keep me under duress. (Confessions, Book 2, Book 8)

We are slaves to our desire for perfection, but we will never attain it as long as our hearts are bent inwards. Our desire for perfection leaves us restless, and only God’s love can satisfy. I’ll leave Augustine with the final words:

It is God from whom all those who love him derive both their existence and their love; it is God who frees us from any fear that he can fail to satisfy anyone to whom he becomes known; it is God who wants himself to be loved, not in order to gain any reward for himself but to give to those who love him an eternal reward—namely himself, the object of their love. (On Christian Teaching, Book 1)

Great are you, O Lord, and exceedingly worthy of praise; your power is immense, and your wisdom beyond reckoning. And so we humans, who are a due part of your creation, long to praise you—we who carry our mortality about with us, carry the evidence of our sin and with it the proof that you thwart the proud. Yet these humans, due part of your creation as they are, still do long to praise you. You stir us so that praising you may bring us joy, because you have made us and drawn us to yourself, and our heart is unquiet until it rests in you. (Confessions, Book 1)