Golf for Enlightenment: Seven Lessons for the Game of Life (Random House Large Print)
Random House Large Print, 2003
304 pp., 23.00
Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf
Herbert Warren Wind; Ben Hogan
128 pp., 16.00
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. As the Amazon rankings suggest, these books are destined to collect dust on the shelves of golfers who have received them as Father's Day or birthday gifts.
Don't get me wrong. These books have virtuous things to say. For example, each of the nine chapters in Roger and Becky Tirabassi's Transform Your Game begins with a lesson about golf, which is then applied to life. It nearly goes without saying that I would be a better golfer and person were I to "Practice like the Pros," "Play by the Rules," and "Overcome the Hazards."
Another example: In The Heart of a Golfer, Wally Armstrong devotes a chapter to "Trust Your Swing." After three pages of golf anecdotes and advice, he concludes by reminding readers that we can "trust Christ with our future." I'm unconvinced by the analogy, but there's no doubt that both bits of advice are salutary.
Finally, in Life Lessons from the Game of Golf, Steve Riach profiles professional golfers and their character traits. So Payne Stewart's chapter focuses on "faith" and "influence," and Jack Nicklaus' chapter is about "sacrifice" (though it is mostly about his wife's sacrifice in letting Jack practice and trot around the world while she raised the family; stretching illustrations to the breaking point is a common occurrence in such books).
Deepak Chopra's lessons are more mysticalâ€”"Find the Now and You'll Find the Shot," "Play from Your Heart to the Hold," "Let the Game Play You," and so forthâ€”but the result is the same: tidbits of advice for better living, from "Be willing to redefine yourself everyday" to "Don't act when you're in doubt."
Of course, some of Chopra's advice runs directly counter to Christian sensibilities. "We are here to nourish the self," he explains early on. "The self is the source of your personal identity." Still, he connects to his subject by explaining that golfers must first examine themselves and their attitudes before they can improveâ€”a truism on which we can all agree.
Well and good. I am not about to argue against such virtues as they relate to golf or life. Self-control is an absolute necessity in both, as are perseverance and patience, and a host of other virtues.
Books in this genre, of course, are implicitly trying to get at a deep truthâ€”that in golf, as in every sphere of life, there is spiritual truth to be mined. One's instinct in this sport, as in all sports, is to assume that the spiritual fruit lies in the area of moralityâ€”that golf will make you a better person. A study of golfers on the course would suggest just the opposite, which is perhaps all the more reason these authors felt compelled to write these books.
But such books merely scratch the surface of "golf spirituality." 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 allusionsâ€”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 stickâ€”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 thudâ€”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 sinfulnessâ€”that is, how we've missed the mark once againâ€”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.
Golf can also be mined for how it plays into Christian mythology. It is the only major sport played in a gardenâ€”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 againâ€”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.
Play Is the Thing
In his classic Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, Catholic scholar Johan Huizinga explains that play is "a free activity standing quite consciously outside ordinary life as being 'not serious,' but at the same time absorbing the play intensely and utterly. ... It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner."1
As such, play is "the first act of freedom," says Michael Novak in The Joy of Sports. "The first free act of the human is to assign limits within which freedom can be at play. Play is not tied to necessity, except to the necessity of the human spirit to exercise its freedom, to enjoy something that is not practical, or productive, or required for gaining food or shelter."2
Play is what it is precisely because it aborbs us "intensely and utterly" but for no apparent good reason. Play is play when it is engaged passionately and pointlessly, when it doesn't do any good by our usual calculus. If we play primarily to stay in shape or to build character or to make a lot of money, the activity is better called exercise or catechism or work.
Play is play, then, when it mirrors the Sabbathâ€”a day in which nothing useful (by human reckoning) gets done. Though we usually speak of the Sabbath as rest from labor to get ready for another exhausting week of work, this is not its theological origin. God did not create and participate in the Sabbath because he was worn out after fashioning the universe. Instead, the Sabbath is the seventh and final act of his creation, and as such is the culmination of Creationâ€”the point of it all.
The Latin Vulgate translation of Proverbs 8:30-31 runs like this: "I [Wisdom, i.e., Christ] was at his [God's] side putting together everything, my delight increasing each day, playing before him all the while, playing in this world made of dust, and my delight was to be with the sons of men." Or, as Thomas Aquinas saw it, in Luiz Jean Lauand's summary: "God plays. God creates playing. And man should play if he is to live as humanly as possible and to know reality, since it is created by God's playfulness."3
Modern scholars recognize that the original Hebrew moves in a slightly different direction. Still, Aquinas' insight accords with the sweep of salvation history, which begins with the creation of the Sabbath and culminates with the Eternal Sabbathâ€”characterized by freedom and joy in the presence of God. Remembering the Sabbath is crucial not simply because we need a break but because it manifests our origin and our destinyâ€”the full sweep of God's salvation history. When Peter Berger, in his Rumor of Angels, says that play (freedom and joy!) is a "signal of transcendence," he's getting at that connection between play and Sabbath.
That golf teaches virtues is all well and good. That it is a quirky metaphor for many theological themes, fine. But its real glory is to be found not in what it can teach us but in what it is: a game to be played.
Ironically, the eastern mystic Deepak Chopra comes close to grasping this theological take on golf. His chapters each begin with a fictional story involving Adam Seaver and Leela. Leela, he lets us know in a prologue, represents the way "ancient sages" define lifeâ€”as a "game."
"The divine game isn't a competition but play for the sheer joy of it. It has the total innocence that comes naturally to young children. ... We have to accept the divine gift that makes heaven out of life on earth." A few paragraphs later, he quotes "one spiritual leader" (Chopra is vague at attribution) as saying, "When you look around, there is eternity in every direction."
Then he applies all this to golf: "If you approach golf the wrong way, trying to manage its mechanics from the level of ego, these limitations are reinforced. If you approach golf the right way, letting your spirit be free to enjoy the leela, these limitations disappear."
Chopra is fundamentally right about the nature of golf. Like all sports, it is all about leela, a Sabbath, from beginning to end. It's all about play.
And Chopra is almost right about the nature of life. It is all about the Sabbath, from beginning to end, and therefore fundamentally about playâ€”freedom and joy in God. As such, it has many moments when eternity is manifested within itâ€”if only we have eyes to see.
Ah, yes, but Chopra, as usual, soon veers off into silliness. Sorry, Deepak, but a heck of a lot of golf is about mastering the mechanics of the swing, and there is only one entity that can practice those mechanics: the self. And the self, no matter how much he or she enjoys leela, will always and everywhere face limitations. It's called finitude.
Chopra's pseudo-mysticism soon leads him to say things that suggest he really doesn't understand "play" after all. The hint comes when he says that play has a "total innocence that comes naturally to young children." He apparently has not watched young children play. Lots of competition there, and some of it pretty intense. This discomfort with play as something that engages us "intensely and utterly" comes out later, when Leela tells Steve to simply stop keeping score and to "forget where the ball goes." Chopra imagines that golf can be enjoyed by just swinging away at the ball with no goal, no telos.
Catholic theologian (also, as I recall, an NFL coach) Vince Lombardi put it most Christianly: "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing." This does not mean that anything goes, for as Huizinga notes play "proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner." But it is not play unless it is engaged "intensely and utterly." I'm not sure how golf can be played if you don't keep score, and you don't strive to keep that score low. It is these limitations and passions that are golf's genius, at the very core of its freedom and joy. Chopra, in trying to transcend these limitations, ends up subverting the play element.
The Most Christian Golf Book in Recent History
Lest the Christian reader (and golfer) despair, there is hope, and hope aplenty. There are all sorts of books at Amazon.com that seek to help readers experience the theological essence of golf.
As a beginning, I recommend the most theologically informed and eschatologically hopeful golf book written in the last twenty years: Ben Hogan's Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf. There are two reasons it remains very near the top of the list of bestselling golf books. First, it seeks to answers the golfer's ongoing existential question: "How do you build a swing that you can depend on to repeat in all kinds of wind and weather, under all kinds of presses and pressure?"
Second, it proclaims a gospelâ€”some splendid good news (caps are in the original): "THE AVERAGE GOLFER IS ENTIRELY CAPABLE OF BUILDING A REPEATING SWING AND BREAKING 80." It is the kingdom of golf heaven drawn near.
Golf most reflects things divine when it is played as if it were nothing but humanâ€”proceeding "within its own proper boundaries of time and space." It is an expression of human freedom most when it is played by "fixed rules and in an orderly manner" and "intensely and utterly."
Golf books that teach you how to play the game better and better are really the most theological of golf books, because they take the game of golf most seriously, as if it were play. And though the Christian golfer should surely try to be virtuous while on the golf course, he is most Christian, and most virtuous, when he's simply trying to lower his score.
1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Reprint: Beacon Press, 1971).
2. Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports: Endzones, Bases, Baskets, Balls, and the Consecration of the American Spirit (Madison Books, rev. ed., 1993).
3. Luiz Jean Lauand, "Ludus in the Fundamentals of Aquinas's World-View," International Studies on Law and Education, Vol. 2 www.hottopos.com/harvard2/ludus.htm
Copyright Â© 2005 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.