Olympic Fever and Reading the Bible like a Fundamentalist

Call Benny Hinn!  ILYBYGTH has caught Olympic Fever!

And in our delirium, we’ve hit upon a mental challenge for all our fellow non- and anti-fundamentalists out there.  Here’s the question: Why is mental discipline heroic in sports but anathema in non-fundamentalist intellectual culture?

For the elite athletes who compete in these international games, a key component of their success is mental discipline, mental toughness.  As journalists marveled about Michael Phelps the last time around, winning in the Olympics means being “mentally tough.”   For all peak athletes, it means developing a powerful single-mindedness in training, preparation, and competition.  As one study defined it, mental toughness means “an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity.”

This is the quality that allows elite athletes to prepare.  It gets them into the pool, or onto the track, or into the gym, day after day, hour after hour, through grueling workouts.

This summer, we’ll see this kind of preparation pay off for some.  But we have to remember that the athletes themselves have no guarantee of victory.  The key to real mental toughness is realizing that these athletes subject themselves to this kind of regimen in spite of the fact that they might still lose.  They might devote years of their lives to preparation, to struggle and suffering, only to find that they did not win, or didn’t even make the Olympic team.

What does this have to do with Fundamentalist America?  For those of us outside of fundamentalism, the way many conservative Protestants read the Bible can seem ridiculous.  For those of us outside this tradition, it makes very little sense to read the Bible as a collection of inerrant writings.  We have been taught, instead, to question every assertion of authority; to approach every statement with profound and illuminating skepticism.

But for many conservative Protestants, the proper approach to reading the Bible is more like the preparation plans of elite athletes.  They read the Bible with “an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity.”  In other words, those who read the Bible as an inerrant Book might simply be demonstrating the mental toughness necessary to compete at an elite level.  They may be fully aware of the “pressure or adversity” that comes from a skeptical mindset.  But they may consciously and knowingly set those doubts to the side in order to pursue the indefinite goal of greater spiritual understanding.

Is this really the way fundamentalists read the Bible?  I don’t know.  But I do wonder why many of us non-fundamentalists admire this kind of devotion in the realm of Olympic sports, but disdain it in the world of intellectual culture.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. Hi, Adam: I believe that fundamentalism, olympic preparation, and graduate programs in modern and western universities do have a thread: consistency in preparation. You imply this in your post.

    In graph 2, you say, “For the elite athletes who compete in these international games, a key component of their success is mental discipline, mental toughness. As journalists marveled about Michael Phelps the last time around, winning in the Olympics means being ‘mentally tough.’ For all peak athletes, it means developing a powerful single-mindedness in training, preparation, and competition. As one study defined it, mental toughness means ‘an unshakeable perseverance and conviction towards some goal despite pressure or adversity.’”

    I have flashbacks to my MA and PhD. You require focus to be successful in your diss, especially mental discipline, which is valued in the Western way of knowing in modern universities. In a sense, the consistency in training prepares one to be an athlete, an elite intellectual, and an elite Christian!?

    In graph 3, you say, “This is the quality that allows elite athletes to prepare. It gets them into the pool, or onto the track, or into the gym, day after day, hour after hour, through grueling workouts.”

    Another memory for me: this time my preparation for my comprehensive exams in my PhD. You just have to keep training! You just have to keep reading! And you have to keep reading the Bible!?8-)

    In graph 4, you mention that there is “no guarantee of victory.” Well, neither is there a guarantee of finding a job after completion of your PhD. And, of course, as you know, academics and fundamentalists have not always been well received in mainstream society. If I may extrapolate … academics tend to consider themselves to be able to ask effective questions, conduct effective research, and write effectively. Fundamentalists, as you say, tend to consider themselves to be spiritually gifted! And athletes, phyiscally able to break new records locally and globally! The thread: consistency in preparation.

    If I juxtapose this blog post with one that I read yesterday (I think!), I find myself wondering if the academy is as fundamentalist as conservative evangelical protestants. Hmmm…

    Reply
    • @Jon, interesting point! I think every PhD knows some colleagues who never quite managed to finish. Among my grad student friends and acquaintances, there were a significant number of people who just got stuck in the infinite possibilities of expansion. That is, some people never managed to impose discipline on their research projects. In my experience, some of these people were the most talented and intellectually gifted in our program at Wisconsin. They succumbed to the temptation to keep changing or expanding it as their research developed.
      On one hand, it seems like a purer method of academic investigation. On the other, it means never finishing a dissertation. I imagine the same kind of thing happens in any endeavor in which minimums are not imposed from without. In sports, theology, or writing, external discipline can’t get anyone all the way. Successful athletes or writers must succeed at controlling themselves strictly. What interested me originally was how close this sounds to the ways some evangelical Protestants talk about reading the Bible “prayerfully.” It means imposing a strict discipline on how one reads.

      Reply

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