Theology and Golf?
I love theology as much as the next Calvinist, but is this a bit much?
In golf, you begin with a goal on the horizon, toward which you travel. And then when that trek ends, with the ball resting safely in the hole, you walks to the next tee to commence another journey. This is history with a telos, an eschatological goal.
Read for yourself:
Books&Culture, Sept/Oct 2005
The top-selling golf books on Amazon.com aim to help you play the game better, from The Plane Truth for Golfers (about the plane of the golf swing) to Tiger Woods' How I Play Golf. The only non-instructional book in the top ten features Phil Mickelson's ruminations on who and what helped him win the 2004 Masters. Keep scrolling down and you'll find the occasional biography or history among the 6,700 books listed, but you'll be overwhelmed with instructional books.
It isn't until you get to 107th place that you run into Deepak Chopra's Golf for Enlightenment, a book that aims to teach seven lessons of "the game of life." And then come thousands more books about shaving strokes from your score.
It appears that golfers don't give a rip whether golf can teach them something about life. They just want to consistently drive the middle of the fairway, hit the green in regulation, get out of sand traps in decent shape, and sink those birdie putts. And they're willing to spend money on books that help them do that.
Christian publishers publish books to help people think about all of life from a godly perspective. Since golf is considered at best a mere diversion, and at worst a game that tempts one to use the Lord's name vainly, Christian publishers usually don't show much interest in golf.
Unless the book can help readers think better or live better for Godâ€”thus three of the books reviewed here. The Chopra book does the same thing, but from a pop-Eastern religion-cum-Western-psychology perspective. The target audience for such books, presumably, is golfers who want to be better people.
But as I noted, golfers don't want to be better people. They want to be better golfers....
Indeed, golf is a sport rich in Judeo-Christian meaning, but books that express that meaning most simply and artfully are being written in the thousands already.
The Theology of Golf
By rich in Judeo-Christian meaning, I don't necessarily mean rich in theological allusions—although golf has plenty of that. For example, it seems patently clear that golf is a living apologetic for hard-core Calvinism.
You hit a near-perfect iron to the green, so accurate it strikes the flag stick—and then ricochets off and ends up in a sand trap. So much for your perfect iron. On the next hole, you wickedly slice a drive into a thick cluster of trees, hear a frightening thud—and see your ball magically bounce out into the middle of the fairway. This sort of thing happens in every round. There is no sense shaking one's fist heavenward or cursing the ways of this inscrutable god. If one wants to get on in the life of golf, the best posture is to humbly accept this god's complete sovereignty and prepare for the next shot.
In this regard, golf is Protestantism on steroids. It is a purely individual sport. In team sports, the weight of salvation is shifted constantly, from pitcher to shortstop to batter, or from quarterback to lineman to linebacker. No one player has the burden for more than part of the game, and every teammate is there to bring encouragement one to another. In golf, the burden rests squarely on the shoulders of the golfer for every shot, from start to finish.
Since after every shot, golfers have between three and four minutes to reflect on that shot, we tend to become as introspective as the most anxious Puritan. And what we're introspective about is our sinfulness—that is, how we've missed the mark once again—and what we can do to correct our wayward swing. The system of scoring in golf reinforces all this. It is the only system in which there is a direct correlation between the player's sinfulness and his score: the less one misses the mark, the lower one's score.
Transform Your Game
Transform Your Game:
Nine Fundamentals of Golf
That Will Change Your Life
by Roger and Becky Tirabassi,
with Rick Hunter
Howard Publishing, 2004
96 pp., $13.99
Golf can also be mined for how it plays into Christian mythology. It is the only major sport played in a garden—though many golfers spend more time in the wilderness. Even at average courses one is often impressed with the splendid aesthetic balance of grass, trees, flowers, and sand, and the way the eye is drawn down the green, curving fairway. If Wrigley Field is beautiful in its own way, for its pleasing symmetry, Pebble Beach is positively Edenic in its splendor.
In addition, the structure of the game harkens more to salvation history than do other sports. Baseball in this respect is more like a Greek tragedy. You play an inning, run around the bases, and the next inning you find yourself back at home plate, where you start all over again—that's history as a circle. In golf, you begin with a goal on the horizon, toward which you travel. And then when that trek ends, with the ball resting safely in the hole, you walks to the next tee to commence another journey. This is history with a telos, an eschatological goal.
Still, as intellectually entertaining as such theological ruminations are, they fail to get at the heart of what makes golf a deeply spiritual activity. To do that, we need to talk about the nature of play. ...