The World Series is over, which means no more baseball until next spring. But forgive me for still having a little baseball on the brain. You see, I just recently caught the new baseball film, Moneyball. From most accounts, Moneyball is a pretty good movie. Fans of baseball, Brad Pitt, Aaron Sorkin, and underdog stories in general all have plenty to love. As a historical drama, it does play a little fast-and-loose with the facts, but it captures the emotional essence of the subject matter. And as baseball movies go, it’s decidedly less crass and more inspirational than many of its counterparts, which could make it popular among conservative, faith-based audiences.
Seems like the only people who aren’t that enthused about the film (which adapted Michael Lewis’ 2002 chronicle of the same name) are the actual baseball executives whose stories are depicted in it, primarily Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane and his stat guru assistant Paul DePodesta (fictionalized as Peter Brand, because DePodesta didn’t consent to allowing his name to be used).
Their main complaints of the film stem from what DePodesta and Beane believe to be an overly dramatized schism between the GM’s office and the rest of the scouting and management. In the film, Brad Pitt as Beane and Jonah Hill as Brand/DePodesta are continually at odds with the A’s grizzled corps of veteran scouts, most of whom have a rigid sense of orthodoxy concerning what good draft prospects look like, and who resent Beane for discarding their sage advice and picking players using advanced statistics. This conflict is a source of constant tension, especially because it pits general manager Beane against manager Art Howe, who refuses to fill his lineup with any of Beane’s recent draft picks.
If baseball were a religion, Moneyball would play out like a classic faith-versus-science debate. In this sense, the divide between traditional scouts and the proponents of advanced metrics in baseball mirror the divide between conservative Bible literalists and liberal scholars who view the Bible only as literature. In both cases, the generalizations that depict the former as backward and the latter as enlightened are just that — generalizations, more useful for establishing a dramatic narrative than for arriving at an accurate assessment of the truth.
Truth is, there are plenty articulate, enlightened Bible traditionalists, and plenty of close-minded so-called progressives whose view of the Bible is woefully ignorant. Likewise, plenty of older baseball scouts use quality stats to back up their intuitions, and plenty stat geeks are led astray by faulty or incomplete data sets. The best talent evaluators rely on both what the computers say as well as what their eyes tell them.
As a matter of fact, Billy Beane has said on the record that he never set out to revolutionize baseball’s decision-making process. He just needed to find ways to stay competitive against teams with larger payroll budgets. But the larger story of how the Oakland A’s front office changed baseball remains a compelling story, and church leaders in particular would do well to find the lessons that go beyond the typical Hollywood platitudes.
Avoiding False Choices
Despite the magnified conflict in the film, one lesson that the fictional Billy Beane manages to get right over time is avoiding the false dichotomy, or as I like to call it, the Dis-Or-Dat trap. This is the fallacy that assumes that two traits that appear dissimilar can never inhabit the same space. Getting caught in a Dis-Or-Dat trap causes people in pressure-filled situations to ignore the nuances and hastily choose between extreme contradictions in thought or behavior. So women are viewed either as virginal girl-next-door types or slutty femme fatales. Bosses are either rigid taskmasters or softy pushovers. Blacks are either the noble oppressed or immoral and degenerate.
(You get the idea.)
Over time it became clear to Billy Beane that he couldn’t simply rely on either his eyeballs or his stats; he had to do both. This is the kind of thinking that more church leaders should use. It’s not enough for pastors to either know the Bible well OR be great communicators. They need to do both. The same goes for speaking grace and truth. And the worship leader shouldn’t only have to choose between traditional or contemporary music, as if there is no one under 25 who appreciates a good hymn or no one over 40 who appreciates good hip-hop. If the church in America is to thrive, there must be room for both.
Value in the Refuse
Another kingdom value on display in Moneyball is the idea of finding value in hidden places. The main way the Oakland Athletics were able to compete with a smaller payroll was by picking up players that others had overlooked or discarded. And there’s nothing quite so Hollywood as watching a group of misfits and oddballs beat the odds together.
Given this, how amazing would it be if American churches were identified primarily as places where people’s lives and contributions were valued, regardless of class, talent or achievement? Pastors and worship leaders would feel less pressure to become multimedia superstars, because in God’s economy, everyone brings something to the table. And material success would be the default standard in ministry, because defying the odds is nothing new for God.
Doing more with less? Please. He invented that with five loaves and and two fish.
The most significant lesson of Moneyball is, interestingly enough, the one most up for interpretation, like that spinning top at the end of Inception.
At one point in the film Beane laments that winning 20 games in a row doesn’t matter if you lose the last game of the year. As a postscript, the film notes that Billy Beane is still searching for that final win.
However, it also says that after he turned down their offer to hire him as GM, the Boston Red Sox went on to win the World Series by adopting Beane’s statistical approach.
So the lingering question is obvious … was he successful, or not?
Well, how does one define success?
Pitt played Billy Beane as a man whose life goal was to win at baseball, yet he never really achieved that goal in a meaningful way. Walking out of the theater, I couldn’t help but notice his resemblance to another cinematic tortured soul — Richard Dreyfuss in Mr. Holland’s Opus.
Both men, flawed as they were, experienced a measure of redemption.
But it required accepting a different definition of success, one that measured influence and relationship higher than the more tangible signs they’d been waiting for — for Mr. Holland, his final musical masterpiece, and for Billy Beane, a World Series title.
This is the lesson that pastors, worship leaders, and other church ministers need to receive the most.
Our success at ministering in the church must be defined first and foremost by our ability to know God and be in right relationship with Him. There’s a reason why Matthew 6:33 doesn’t tell us to seek God’s kingdom and his achievements … because outward signs of success are included in the “all of these things will be added unto you” portion of the verse. His righteousness is the thing we are instructed to pursue first.
That doesn’t mean that outward signs shouldn’t follow. After all, James tells us that faith without works is dead. But it does mean that if we truly trust God with everything, then we’ll allow Him to set our agenda and allow Him to change our definition of success if it derails us from His.
* * *
The irony for Billy Beane in Moneyball is that his professional success was about maximizing output with minimal money, yet his personal success brought him the opportunity for so much money that he was in danger of losing his sense of self and relational significance … which was what drew him into baseball in the first place.
The good news for believers in Christ is that we don’t need our stories retold on the silver screen in order to have peace and prosperity. And we don’t need to collect trophies or achievements to have personal significance.
All we need to do is receive the gift of salvation,
FROM PAGE TO SCREEN: The film adaptation of Kathryn Stockett's bestseller, 'The Help,' features Emma Stone as Skeeter, Octavia Spencer as Minny, and Viola Davis as Aibileen.
A repost of our March 23, 2010 book review.
Kathryn Stockett’s novel of race, class, and friendship during the Jim Crow era has become a phenomenon on the best-seller lists, despite dealing with a potentially volatile subject matter. Here’s why everyone’s reading The Help.
I should not have enjoyed Kathryn Stockett’s The Help as much as I did. First of all, it is a novel about racism, a topic that I am not normally drawn to. Hearing my parents’ stories about the racism they suffered in North Carolina during the ’60s and ’70s broke my heart. Those stories are a part of my family’s history that I needed to know, but that doesn’t mean it’s something I seek out for pleasure reading.
Second, there is a good bit of profanity in the book, which usually strikes me as an unnecessary distraction. Despite these things, I found The Help to be an engaging and, at times, gripping read.
And I’m not alone. Since its release a year ago, the book has graced all the national best-seller lists, from Amazon.com to the New York Times. Both secular and faith-based media have praised the novel for its powerful narrative and memorable characters. And it reached another impressive milestone recently when Steven Spielberg and DreamWorks Studios acquired the film rights and announced plans to begin production on a movie this summer.
In The Help, first-time novelist Stockett (left) depicts the lives of three women, Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter, all living in Jackson, Mississippi, at the height of the civil rights movement in 1962. Abileen is an African American housekeeper. Her duties include caring for little Mae Mobley, the seventeenth white child that she has raised. This experience, however, is different from all the others times. Aibileen is recovering from the loss of her own 24-year-old son, Treelore, who is killed on the job due to the negligence of his white employer. Aibileen works for Miss Leefolt, who pays little attention to her daughter Mae Mobely. Aibileen cares deeply for the little girl but worries that she will grow up to be just like her mother.
Minny’s smart mouth has cost her a job or two, despite her mother’s instruction in proper behavior for housekeepers in the segregated South. After being accused by her last employer of stealing, she finds herself working what should be the perfect job; she is the housekeeper for Miss Celia, the strangest white woman she’d ever met. Instead, she finds herself breaking all the unspoken rules of interaction.
Miss Skeeter, despite her good social standing, is an outcast among the whites in Jackson. A tall and socially awkward 22-year-old who’s fresh out of college, her desire to live a different life from what everyone expects of her makes her stand out among her friends, Miss Leefolt and Miss Hilly. When life brings her in contact with Aibileen, a tentative friendship forms. Miss Skeeter is moved when she hears of Treelore’s death and the book he was writing about life in Jackson. Inspired, she decides to “break the rules” and pursue a project that could put her, Aibileen, and Minny in danger. In time she enlists ten other African American maids to help her continue Treelore’s dream, exposing what it means to be an African American living and working in Jackson.
The women find themselves straining against the confines of their social statuses. Each woman pushes the boundaries in her own way and draws readers into the story. The Help also exposes the emotions of parties on both sides of the racial divide, revealing that not everyone feels the way that their social standing dictates they should.
The complicated nature of human love is at the heart of the story. Stockett shows how deeply some of the maids cared for their white bosses, despite the bad treatment they received in return. At the same time, she reveals that not every white employer mistreated their help. Stockett also depicts the ugliness of racism from both sides. We see the whites’ belief that African Americans are second-class citizens, as well as the hatred many of the black housekeepers harbored toward their white bosses.
Throughout its 400-plus pages the story remains enthralling. Stockett has a gift for capturing the voices of her African American characters. Though some of the black Southern dialect may sound clichéd to some, it’s an easy issue to forgive. The range of African American dialect is too broad for its authenticity to be nailed down. Among my own family members, variety abounds even though some of them are from the same part of the South. One must also take into consideration how different contemporary African American dialect is from the ’60s time period during which Stockett’s book is set.
From the first ten pages, you immediately care about the characters and marvel at their complexities. Aibileen, despite the loss of her son, displays deep love for the toddler in her charge. Minny carries herself as a tough, no-nonsense woman but is suffering a situation in her own home that makes her a powerless victim. Miss Skeeter’s encounter with her childhood maid sets her firmly in the opposite direction of her white friends and their beliefs.
Stockett covers the truth of race relations in the ’60s without drowning readers in the hopelessness of it. Unlike other novels about racism, she presents reality without emotional manipulation or regard for shock value. Some people may complain about this approach, uncomfortable with a white woman discussing such an intimate African American experience. Natalie Hopkinson at The Root questions whether such a frank depiction of race relations in America could have reached bestseller status had it not been written by a white woman.
I must admit, when I first realized that Stockett is white, I felt a tinge of weariness. Over the years, I’ve seen many movies and read many books in which whites exploit racism and white guilt, and then present themselves as the noble heroes of the story. This, again, is one of the reasons I avoided books on the topic. But Stockett, who shares in the book’s afterword about her own experience of being raised by an African American housekeeper during the 1970s, proves that she’s not just another white looking to exploit a black experience. The Help is her story, too.
She treats the subject with a grace, humility, and humor that minimize the fact that this story has been told countless times before. She does not present herself as an expert on racism, or a white savior, but as a witness to how it affects both whites and African Americans. She tells a complete story, bringing all the pieces together for a fuller picture of life in Jackson during the Jim Crow era.
I believe some of this book’s success can be attributed to the fact that African Americans have taken great strides in moving beyond the boundaries that were once imposed on us in society. We can read stories like The Help and recognize that they portray a chapter in our past but also highlight the progress of our current culture. While our nation is by no means “post-racial,” it is being transformed by the increasingly diverse communities all around us.
Through its richly conceived narrative and characters, The Help shows how profound change begins small — in the hopes, dreams, and courageous choices of both African Americans and whites.
What would happen if we all took one small step outside the confines of our socially assigned roles to do something that would impact the greater good? We might find that people are far more receptive to change than we thought, just as Aibileen, Minny, and Miss Skeeter discovered. We might find that we are not the only ones tired of the world’s injustices. We might find allies in surprising places.
THANKSGIVING GRACE: After taking in homeless teenager Michael Oher, the Tuohy family rediscovers the importance of sitting at the table together. Photos courtesy of Alcon Entertainment/Warner Bros.
Part drama, part sports flick, part urban exposé, The Blind Side tells the inspiring true story of NFL star Michael Oher and the white family who transformed his life — and had theirs transformed as a result.
The movie 2012 lived up to my very low expectations — spectacular special effects and an incredible lack of substance. There’s only one major action sequence, which has been featured in all of the previews, while the rest of the movie focuses mostly on devastation. The story and the characters are clichéd and predictable. Pointless scenes of suffering and turmoil are used in a misguided attempt to spark some sort of emotional response from the audience. How is watching millions of people suffer supposed to be entertaining? I don’t get it.
The Secret Life of Bees (Rated PG-13) is worth seeing. Though the film’s been accused of being preachy, sappy, and borderline sticky sweet, Dakota Fanning had me at “I killed my mother when I was 4 years old.” If you don’t already know the plot from Sue Monk Kidd’s bestselling novel, Bees follows 14-year-old Lily Owens (Fanning) on a journey to uncover the secret past of the mother she accidentally murdered. (more…)