Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Roger Clemens and Christian Cliches

Roger Clemens, 1997, Toronto Blue Jays, pitcher, baseball
Roger Clemens

by Ben Howard

This is about sports. This is about sports, sort of.

The first time I heard about Roger Clemens was in 1997 when he was traded from the Boston Red Sox to the Toronto Blue Jays. I was 10 years old and I saw him on the cover of Baseball Weekly alongside Pat Hentgen and Juan Guzman, the Blue Jays other “aces.” This may seem like an innocuous memory, except for two important pieces of information: 1) I started seriously watching baseball in 1994, when I was 7 and 2) in 1997 Roger Clemens was, arguably, the best pitcher in the game.

Somehow, in my young mind, Roger Clemens didn’t exist until he was traded to the Blue Jays. His story wasn’t part of my narrative until that point and as a result, I have no direct awareness of the first 12 years of his career.

This came back to me a few years ago when, after announcing his retirement, Clemens decided to sign with the Houston Astros, a team close to his home. I wondered what it looked like or felt like to kids who were just getting into baseball for the first time, or really, anyone who was new to the game, anyone who hadn’t heard that particular story before.

What about someone who is just encountering Clemens now in this column for the very first time? What would they think about him if they did a little research? Would they see the story of the legendary pitcher or would they see the story of the disgraced former baseball player who’s post-career legacy has been marred by revelations about steroids and myriad court cases?

It reminds me that we always come into a story sideways. We all enter the story halfway through. Nobody starts at the beginning; you start in the present, live into the future, and slowly discover the past.

I bring this up because I think it’s something important to remember, and I think it’s something I need to constantly remind myself about. Not everyone knows the stories I know, not everyone knows the context, nor do I know the background to every story, even though I’m always ready to give an opinion.

four loves, tattoo, greek, agape, eros, storge, phila
Don't get this tattoo.
When I listen to sermons or read books or blog posts, I always stumble across these clichés. Some I’ve heard since I was old enough to remember and some have become more familiar as I’ve matured and sought out different theological spaces. You know them too, the preacher who mentions the four Greek words for love, the Hebrew names for God, people who say the word church means community (you can’t “go” to church), all sorts of trite, churchy things.

There are even new clichés; the friend who posts the Mr. Rogers quote about helping, the one who Jesus-jukes every conversation to starving children in Africa who need help, every single conversation that uses the word “othering.” 

I roll my eyes because I know they all have their flaws, and they all in some way miss some more subtle point that I’m interested in, but now I’m wondering if they’re necessary. I’m wondering that because we all come into the story sideways and maybe these kinds of clichés are the best gateway into a world which allows us to gain a deeper understanding. Someone, somewhere is hearing all of these groan-inducing clichés for the first time, and it’s resonating with them.

I’m part of this small group from my church that meets on Thursday nights. Most of us grew up in Christian homes and we’ve heard every Bible story probably a thousand times, a handful of us have even studied theology in school. As a result, it’s easy to make these snarky inside jokes about how different stories are told, and interpreted, and manipulated.

In the last year, a new girl joined our small group who didn’t have that background. She had never heard the stories in Genesis or the story of the Exodus or any of the stories outside of Jesus for that matter. One night we got to share the basic building blocks of the Old Testament narrative with her, and it was beautiful to watch someone engage with something like that for the first time. Something that felt so familiar and worn to me regained a sense of its awe-inspiring weirdness and beauty.

I wonder sometimes if my cynicism is bred by familiarity, if I’d be more loving, more caring, more accepting and humble if I remembered that people come into stories sideways. Too often I’m ready to dismiss everyone who doesn’t know what I know. That’s arrogance of the worst kind.

humility, require, aspiration
Good question
Everyone’s constantly learning, constantly discovering, and there is no honor in discrediting people because they didn’t learn or discover something before you. I mean, I’d never even heard of Roger Clemens.


Ben Howard is an accidental iconoclast and generally curious individual living in Nashville, Tennessee. He is also the editor-in-chief of On Pop Theology and an avid fan of waving at strangers for no reason. You can follow him on Twitter @BenHoward87.

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