Baseball Blues and Recreation

Baseball Blues and Recreation

The Braves are playing poorly. Not that I'd notice too much. You see, it's my wife's love--baseball that is, not mine. And she has lost something of her joie de vivre. I try to console, but when those guys swing and miss all the time, it makes for an unhappy time. Baseball is her way of relaxation.

Truth is, I'd be lying if I said I really cared as to how the Braves were doing. It's nothing to do with the Braves as such; it's just sport in general. I watch and listen with genuine awe as Phil Ryken talks baseball statistics. I'm bowed into silence when Ligon Duncan positively glows when he talks about basketball. Even my dear mother can reduce me to mush when she becomes rhapsodic over the current form of her beloved Glamorgan Cricket team. You see, I just don't know enough to have a sensible conversation about sport.

I did my bit, you understand. Grammar School rugby every week in winter and Spring; cricket every week in summer. I even played for the school team in my sixth form years (Senior High years for Americans). But I still recall the day I hung my rugby shoes for the last time the week I finished school and went off to college. Sport has played very little part in my life since then, except for those moments when nationalistic fervor, when the Welsh beat the socks off the English in rugby (a rare moment, granted) demanded my support. To criticize the inordinate obsession with sport by today's society in general is easy for me but if we're talking Wagner, it's altogether a different story!

Ring cycles

Take Siegfried. OK, smart alecks! I hear you say, "Yes, take it as far away as possible!" But stay with me for a minute: Siegfried is part 3 of a four part opera by Wagner. Yes, I'm still home alone and Wagner will reign until the wife gets home! It's around 4 hours long (the entire opera in all four parts lasts around sixteen hours). Siegfried contains some of the most sublime music ever written. For long stretches of time, there are just two people on stage, singing. But what singing! It is mesmeric--the perfect way to escape. We won't go into what they sing about just now--it's all in German and most of us are blissfully ignorant of the real plot.

They are playing it at a series of concerts in London this summer--concerts I used to attend as a teenager and many times since then. I had been scheming on how I might get there over the summer--on my way to see my first grandchild, perhaps. And the conductor? Christoph Eschenbach, the current principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

This past week the details were announced on the Internet. My heart sank! Why? Because they have scheduled it for a Sunday!

It makes perfect sense of course. With two intervals, the concert lasts over six hours! Beginning late Sunday afternoon makes perfect sense. No is at work. No rush hour traffic in London to contend with. It will be sell out (and it was, within 20 minutes of the announcement).

But that's not my point! Well, not for now at least. My real point is talk about leisure. What are Christians supposed to think about leisure and the amount of time spent in pursuing it? No, I am not asking the Kuyperian question as to what constitutes Christian leisure activity. That has always struck me as a somewhat silly question to ask. And the answers to it have been sillier. Whenever I hear Christians pontificate saying things like, "Christians should not be listening to Tchaikovsky (he was gay), Wagner (Hitler liked Wagner), Springsteen (Carl Trueman's taste in music notwithstanding) ..." it brings back memories of the person who told me to get rid of all my classical LPs (back in 1972) because they were "worldly". And I did! And I have regretted it ever since. I was just so intent on being holy that I'd have been willing to rid myself of almost anything to attain it. What I got was regret and confusion.

"Earlier in this century," Leland Ryken notes, "someone claimed that we work at our play and play at our work. Today the confusion has deepened: we worship our work, work at our play, and play at our worship." (Redeeming the Time: A Christian Approach to Work and Leisure [Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1995], p. ??). Secular sociologists, (e.g. Joffree Dumazedier and Nels Anderson) have written that leisure, rather than work, gives meaning to people's lives; they tell us what's really important to us. It spills over into churchly attitudes of "What's in it for me?" that pervades in our time as Christians choose to like or dislike churches based on consumer choices.

Leisure, recreational activity, call it what it you will, is a difficult issue to think through in a biblical fashion. The Bible, after all, does not seem to spend a great deal of time discussing leisure. It is far too preoccupied with promoting honest labor and a profitable use of time than be concerned with leisure and pleasure. Where, for example, can we read of Paul playing the equivalent of "catch" with his buddies, or Jeremiah relaxing to music, or Samuel fishing? It is difficult to think of a single passage in the Scripture in which the "need" for recreation is expressed.

Nor can this absence of biblical emphasis be explained in terms that suggest that leisure is a modern phenomenon. The fact is that many of the societies in which biblical history falls were pre-occupied with leisure activities. Not least, of course, was this true of the Roman Empire. It's social culture of the amphitheatre and Coliseum depicted in vivid terms the mass appeal recreation.

Lord of the conscience

The difficulty involves approaching far too close something that sounds awfully like legalism, and I mean legalism in the strict sense not just the epithet employed over anything that is mildly inconvenient. I don't think I want to be in the position of regulating people's lives that closely. That seems to me to be tampering with conscience, and the Westminster Divines were clear: God alone is Lord of conscience and hath left it free from the doctrines and commandments of men..." (WCF 20:2).

It does seem a fair principle to observe that God has given us six days to labor and one day to be free from labor. As a rough guide, then, one-seventh of our time spent in recreation seems to me be justifiable. That's one or two hours of an ordinary day and bit more at weekends. Well, Saturdays that is! For my calendar says that the week begins with Sunday and not ends with it! But that's another issue for another day.

To spend this amount of time, relaxing, productively feeding our minds and hearts and souls (not couch-potato idleness that deadens and stultifies) seems to be appropriate and healthy. Even watching those Braves! But only when they are winning, otherwise the activity can be draining. So, where's my copy of John Piper's Desiring God and all that talk about Christian Hedonism? What was it Isaac Watts, the puritan songster, said: "Religion never was designed /to make out pleasure less." Exactly!

Derek Thomas