Kathleen Norris wrote, “Idolatry makes loves impossible” (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith). I think she means, like Augustine, that true love is rightly focused on God first. From that prime position, love can spread to people and places and even things; but idolatry is the act of loving anything else in place of God.
In the opening chapter of Romans, Paul describes the terrible results of idolatry. Instead of recognizing God in creation, we have relied on our own intelligence and understanding (Ro 1:19–21). We have worshipped creatures rather than the Creator (Ro 1:25). As a result, our emotions and attachments are all out of whack (Ro 1:28–32).
On the surface, Chad Harbach’s The Art of Fielding is an innocent story about an innocent game. Henry Skrimshander plays college baseball at Wetish College, a small undergraduate school. Henry is a gifted player whose hard work and dedication make him great. He trains year round, running stadium steps in the early morning, lifting weights, taking extra batting practice, and studying his swing on camera. His commitment to his craft promises huge rewards: professional baseball scouts predict a first round draft pick and promise millions of dollars.
But beyond any material award, Henry has poured his whole self into baseball. His identity as a person is inseparable from his performance on the baseball diamond. He has bought into the illusion that he is in control. Suddenly, he loses that control. Out of the blue and for no apparent reason, Henry literally cannot make accurate throws. As a shortstop, he once gunned the ball to first base without thinking. Now, his throws sail widely.
The Art of Fielding is fiction, but this unexplained inability to throw the ball accurately is a real life phenomenon. It is called the Steve Blass disease, after the player who first demonstrated this eerie inability to control his pitches. In my life, I have witnessed two players suffer with this enigmatic problem: Chuck Knoblauch and Rick Ankiel. The problem is in their heads. Throwing a baseball has to do with muscle memory: after thousands and thousands of repetitions, the greatest players don’t “think” about throwing. They let their bodies do what they have been trained to do. This is what the great Yankee catcher, Yogi Berra, meant when he famously said, “You can’t hit and think at the same time.” You trust your muscle memory.
Henry was once relaxed on the baseball diamond; after a few wild throws, he becomes nervous and uptight. He starts thinking about his mechanics and this only compounds the problem. In the past, Henry became a better player by working harder. Now, his maniacal work ethic actually makes things worse. The harder he tries, the wilder he throws. As his throws spiral out of control, so does his life. He benches himself; he quits the team; he drops out of school; he stops eating and nearly dies.
I love baseball. I played through high school and one-year in college. Like Henry, I know what it feels like to make an idol out of a game. Idolatry happens when your identity becomes so wrapped up in your success. This is true for baseball and every sport, for business, politics, etc. In so many ways, we Americans are guilty of fostering an illusion of self-control: if we buy it or master it or conquer it, then we will be happy. Then we will be loved.
What Paul knew is that happiness begins, not by doing, but by an awareness–by recognizing the wonderful gifts of God all around us. We didn’t put them there, but we can choose to acknowledge them. We can choose to love the one who made them.
In baseball, the very best hitters still fail a majority of the time. As Christians, we all sin and fall short of the glory of God (Ro 3:23). But paradoxically, therein lies our hope: it is not up to us to win the game or be perfect. Rather, we are free to love by relinquishing our need for control to the one who was and is and will be.