If you’re an African American parent and you haven’t already done so, put this article on pause, and check out LZ Granderson’s take on why he is raising his son to be a nerd.
No, really. Do it now. I’ll wait.
Because here’s the thing. This sentiment is good and true, and if it’s true for African Americans in general, it’s ESPECIALLY true for believers in Christ, especially when it comes to the church.
We need more nerds in the church.
Let me explain.
More Mathletes, Fewer Athletes
Granderson’s thesis is that children these days, especially Black children, need more positive reinforcement when it comes to pursuing academic achievement compared to athletic achievement, because our society’s broader American culture does a better job of celebrating sports than it does celebrating academics.
And if it’s true today, it was way more true in New Testament times. After all, there is a reason why the apostle Paul tended to use athletic competition as a metaphor for spiritual living.
On one level, this is good for us — and by us, I mean the average, churchgoing Black person who, let’s be honest, probably needs more physical activity than just doin’ a little shoutin’ dance one a week during church.
Since the obesity epidemic has a stronghold deep inside the church, and considering the fact that children have been affected so deeply, and considering for some young folks, sports programs are the best thing keeping them off the street and out of trouble (it’s cliché, but it’s true), I heartily affirm the need for kids — and adults — to participate in sports. Sports are a good thing for people of all ages, because keeping active is an important part of overall wellness.
(*cue my Stephen A. Smith voice*)
The pendulum needs to start swinging the other way.
In 1 Timothy 4:8, the apostle Paul points out the obvious — physical training has a measure of value, but godliness is valuable across every facet of life. So the whole reason why Paul used the example of physical training is because, in the time and culture of his day (influenced by the Aristotelian values of ancient Greece), athletic competition was assumed to be the dominant form of celebrated excellence. Paul made his appeal in the context of those values and was challenging his people to turn their attention to something of greater value.
This cultural preoccupation with athletics continues today, and if you’re not sure if that’s true or not, consider the global influence of one of the most dominant sports brands today, named after the Greek goddess of victory.
This is why Granderson wrote what he did.
Musicians: Icons of the Black Church
For Black folks in the church, the officially sanctioned sacred pursuit is not athletic, but musical. For a variety of reasons, music — specifically, gospel music — has been the lifeblood of the African American church experience. And on balance, this is a good thing.
But just like athletes in the broader popular culture, it’s gotten out of balance. In many church communities, musicianship is more of a valued commodity than biblical literacy.
So what we need are more Bible nerds, so to speak. We need people who get excited about textual exegesis just as much as rhythms and chords. We need people whose commentary collections are broader and more balanced than their music collections.
After all, there’s a reason why Paul told Timothy to “study and show yourself approved;” the flock needs to be protected from false teaching. And unfortunately, false teaching is a common side effect when we elevate gifted musicians to the status of spiritual leaders, as tends to be the case with high-profile musicians in the church. That’s not to say that there are no gifted musicians who are worthy of spiritual leadership — indeed, there are many, and we ought to thank God for them and honor them. But we can’t turn a blind eye to character issues or lack of training when it comes to handling the word of God just because a person is blessed with the ability to sing or play an instrument.
People are watching, y’all.
Granderson pointed out the fact that kids can tell what we really value by the way we revere athletes and make fun of spelling-bee contestants.
This dynamic is so, so true in the church. And if you’re a church leader and you doubt what I’m saying, then hold an intensive Bible training conference on the same day as a big time gospel music concert, and see how many of your people you get to show up.
We have to get it together in this area and fast, because our ability to do God’s work is at least partially dependent upon what we believe about Him, and when we prioritize high production values and strong musicality over solid biblical teaching, either as leaders or as followers, we give our watching neighbors the unintended message that music is what saves people, and not God.
No wonder so many musicians have left the church … if music is what saves, then who needs God?
Ministry: Theology in Action
Christian ministry is simply Christian theology in action. So if we don’t pay attention to our theology, then our ministry will miss the mark, no matter how good it sounds coming through our speakers.
I stress this point only because I also don’t want to give the impression that the nerd path is, itself, a path to salvation. Being a nerd is no more intrinsically holy than being an athlete or a singer. The point is not to simply acquire a wealth of knowledge and expertise, because sometimes the only thing knowledge does is make your head bigger. The point is to live out one’s calling as effectively and wholeheartedly as possible.
That’s why you have voices like Efrem Smith, challenging the role of Reformed theology in holy hip-hop. Not because he doesn’t like holy hip-hop or Reformed theologians, but because, in his estimation, that particular theological strain is insufficient in providing a complete foundation from which to make a long-term impact. And Christian emcees like Lecrae and Flame wouldn’t do what they do if they weren’t interested in making an impact.
So let’s get out there and make our God known. Let’s put him on display by giving him our minds as well as our bodies. And if, in the process of doing so, we risk being labeled as nerds or geeks or whatever, then so be it. When Paul said he would be all things to all people, I’m sure nerds would’ve been included in that list, if, y’know, that terminology would’ve been popular then.
But since it wasn’t then, I’m saying it now.
We need more nerds for the gospel.
Growing up in Atlanta the emphasis in my home and church community, outside of a relationship with the God, was education. In fact, since slavery the black community has valued education as the means of economic empowerment and political liberation. Education is so powerful that slaves were forbidden to learn how to read and write for hundreds of years in this country. Many of us had parents, grandparents, aunts, and uncles drill these words into our heads: “get an education.” Sadly, many black communities have been sabotaged with the deception of short-term gratification so that the empowerment brought through education is no longer valued. In the place of education has emerged an emphasis on entertainment and sports as the primary means of upward social mobility that many find troubling. In particular, an overemphasis on sports has dire consequences for black males.
In 2010, Dr. Krystal Beamon, assistant professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Arlington, wrote a fascinating article explaining the phenomena of black males being herded into sports. In “Are Sports Overemphasized in the Socialization Process of African American Males?,” Dr. Beamon explains that there has been elevated levels of sports socialization in the family, neighborhood, and media in the black community creating an overrepresentation of black males in certain sports. One of the results of this overemphasis, according to Beamon, is that black males may face consequences that are distinctly different from those who are not socialized as intensively toward athletics, such as lower levels of academic achievement, higher expectations for professional sports careers as a means to upward mobility, and lower levels of career maturity. In other words, the sports emphasis is putting black males at a disadvantage later on in the marketplace.
Much research has demonstrated that, compared to their white counterparts, black males are socialized by family and community members deliberately into sports, limiting their exposure to other hobbies, like reading, and to non-sports related role models early in life. In some families, for example, parents are more interested in basketball practice than homework completion or good grades. The overemphasis also continues to feed stereotypes about black men as athletes, and these stereotypes are exacerbated as the mass media limits projections of black males as working in professional, non-athletic, or non-entertainment vocations.
A recent NCAA study reports that high school athletes have a 0.03 percent chance of playing in the NBA and a 0.08 percent change of playing in the NFL. With these odds, many black males are being inadvertently sabotaged if their families and communities socialize them into sports as a way to become successful and escape poverty in the absence of forming them morally and educationally.
What is needed are new role models and peers that reinforce the virtues that form and shape character and equip young men to be successful in the marketplace, whether they play sports or not. If black males are to be protected from the sabotage of hopelessness, the pursuit of accelerated upward mobility, materialism, and so on, individual Christians have to get more involved in the lives of black youth to nurture a broader imagination for the purpose of one’s life beyond being famous, making money, and achieving physical prowess.
If education is not emphasized as the means of success, if learning is not celebrated, if the exploration of multiple hobbies and opportunities are not encouraged, we may be inadvertently setting a trap for self-destruction, because the consequences of not being prepared to participate in the global marketplace are serious.
Photo illustration by Mike O’Dowd.
In my view, nothing could be further from the truth. But there are those out there who maintain this train of thought.
Don’t get me wrong; there’s definitely a disconnect between the African American community and the national pastime. Gone are the days when Jackie Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ernie Banks, and Reggie Jackson stood as the most popular ballplayers of their eras. These days, in a sports culture tainted by the specter of steroid scandals, you’d be hard pressed to name a top African American baseball player whom everyone knows.
It would be easy to blame the loss of infatuation with baseball on the fact baseball facilities are slowly disappearing from America’s urban metropolises. It would also be easy to blame basketball and football’s dominating popularity and appeal to the young black male/female. But I’m not totally buying it.
The reasons are plentiful and can vary in validity and practicality. I think you have to look deeper than economic excuses to find the root of the issue.
The Dominican Model
Yes, basketball and football seem to be the better choice of the three when baseball is entered into the equation, but it hasn’t always been that way. It also doesn’t have to be that way now. You can still get paid very well in baseball, as there are no salary caps. The Yankees pay Alex Rodriguez almost as much as the Kansas City Royals pay their entire roster.
Blaming the disconnect on our urban communities’ inability to draw in African American kids is not entirely accurate as well. Sure, there aren’t as many ball fields in urban areas as there used to be, but that kind of thinking undermines the creativity and resolve of our country’s children. The counterpoint to that argument lies in the Dominican Republic city of Santo Domingo.
The Dominican Republic is one of the biggest suppliers of prospects in Major League Baseball. The country is poor, but full-blooded Dominicans account for about 10 percent of all the players in the MLB. Pedro Martinez, David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, and Ubaldo Jimenez all hail from the DR. It would be odd to pass through the streets and fields of the country’s capital and not find a group of kids playing baseball, with nothing more than a stick and a whatever round object they can gather for a ball. It’s more than evident that a great number of urban kids have it hard here in the U.S., but it’s much harder there in the DR.
There are glaring similarities in each case. The stigma is either you play ball or sell drugs to make it out the ‘hood. Although it’s a different kind of ball, the same reasoning rings true for thousands of young Dominicans looking to get out of poverty. The one thing that differs about the two situations is the extent of Major League Baseball’s involvement in the lower levels.
Nearly every Major League team has an “academy” in the Dominican to help groom young players into big-league prospects. What would it do for our urban children if such an initiative were emphasized here in the United States? If only the Washington Nationals would launch an initiative to help revitalize and refurbish all of D.C.’s dilapidated and forgotten urban ball fields, instead of just investing in the new condos and high rises around Nationals Park for people of a higher tax bracket. I think if there were a serious, deliberate effort to attract young African American children to baseball it would go a long way toward helping close the chasm of disinterest in the sport that has developed.
Reversing a Losing Trend
If current MLB commissioner Bud Selig really wants to bring back the romance to the relationship between blacks and baseball, he would spearhead a movement to reacquaint African American youth with his game. This isn’t to say that the MLB doesn’t do anything to address these issues, but in order to ensure that baseball does not die from neglect in the hearts of urban kids in America, it will take help from the MLB, as well as schools and parents that are willing to expose their young people to a wider variety of sports.
The church can also do its part in helping to bring baseball back. Perhaps Sunday-school classes or youth groups could plan outings to the local minor league ballgames, which are typically very affordable. Perhaps youth ministries could make sure baseball is one of the offerings for their kids during weekly recreational times or summer picnics. There are things all of us who love the sport can do to help reintroduce baseball to urban kids who are starry-eyed with pipe dreams of NBA and NFL success. If we can get them to see the beauty of the game, we can start restoring the relationship and fervor that has been lost between the bases.
If you have any additional ideas about how to get baseball back in our children’s lives, leave them in the comments section below. We can do it together.
I’m sure very few people have heard of this film. There seemed to be very little marketing behind it, which is truly a shame. I was pleasantly surprised by this little gem.
Based on the book of the same name by W. William Winokur (who also wrote the script), The Perfect Game recounts the true story of a scrappy group of boys in Monterrey, Mexico, who end up competing in the 1957 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania. Padre Esteban (Cheech Marin), the local Catholic priest, mentors the boys, fuels their baseball dreams, and guides their faith in God. Cesar Faz (Clifton Collins Jr.) coaches the new team, but struggles to overcome his failed attempt as a baseball prospect in America due to racism. Other supporting characters include Maria (Patricia Manterola), the coach’s love interest, and Frankie (Emilie de Ravin from ABC’s Lost), a sassy newspaper reporter who documents the boys’ journey.