Zero-Sum Games & the Church

kinnon —  November 5, 2012 — 15 Comments

ZeroSum Games w 3D Shadow

a zero–sum game is a mathematical representation of a situation in which a participant’s gain (or loss) of utility is exactly balanced by the losses (or gains) of the utility of the other participant(s)Wikipedia

I Win! You lose! It’s a zero-sum game.


This is, effectively, an extension of a previous blog post from January of this year, Theology — Is It a Bloodsport? It came out of a heated “conversation” Jared Wilson and I had on Twitter. One that may have not been the most productive. What I found most disquieting in that discussion was the language of team sports as a metaphor for interaction regarding Christianity’s different theological positions.

In that post, I spoke about my own lack of indoctrination into what I see is the idolatry of sports.

I make no bones about the fact I’m not into sports. From the time I was 8 until I was 13, I lived in Europe on Canadian Air Force bases. My family didn’t have a TV and neither did any of my friends’ families. If I listened to any sports, it was on Canadian Forces Network radio—a week tape delay of Hockey Night in Canada. And as much as I love the sound of Foster Hewitt’s voice, I rarely listened to him. So I guess I was never predisposed to view life through the lens of professional sports.

I, therefore, don’t find what appears to me to be the language / actions of team-loyal sports fans being applied to theological discussions as particularly helpful.”

I would state, rather categorically, that if there is a state religion in the U.S., that religion would be organized sport. The level of angst that exists for the success or failure of one’s team is more than a little disconcerting – especially when the fan is a Christian, or a “Christian leader.”

Pascal put his finger on the problem of human life when he saw how entertainment had come to occupy a place, not as the necessary and momentary relief from a life of work, but as an end in itself. When entertainment becomes more than a pleasant and occasional distraction, when time and income become devoted to entertainment and to pleasure, when sports teams become more important to us than people—even the people to whom we are close—then something has gone badly wrong. The frothy entertainment culture in which we live is a narcotic: not only is it addictive, so that we always want more; it also eats away at us, skewing our priorities, rotting our values as surely as too much sugar rots our teeth.” — Carl Trueman, Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear to Tread, Page 111.

In my childhood, I was taught the lie, “it doesn’t matter whether you win or lose, it’s how you play the game.” The truth is closer to, ‘it doesn’t matter how you play the game, it’s whether you win or lose.’

Trueman again,

For many, though, sport has become an integral part of their identity, and, more often than not, it is watching sport, not actual participation, that does this. The success or failure of a team becomes the vicarious success or failure of the supporter. In other words, sport becomes a means of finding authenticity and value. Other areas of life can be neglected, malfunction, or simply go to the dogs; but as long as “the team” is doing well, all is OK with the world. Indeed, in good “opium” fashion, we can be enduring all kinds of garbage being dropped on us; but the “team” gives us hope—albeit specious and illusory—of fulfillment and happiness.” Carl Trueman, Fools Rush In Where Monkeys Fear to Tread, Page 123.

Many, if not most North American children are indoctrinated into their particular team fandom at a young age.

Rachel Held Evans, in her latest book, talks about her Roll Tide addiction,

I grew up in the great state of Alabama, which journalist Warren St. John deems “the worst place on earth to acquire a healthy perspective on the importance of spectator sports.” 1 In Alabama, the third most important question after “What is your name?” and “Where do you go to church?” is “Alabama or Auburn?” So soon after I learned to identify myself as a nondenominational, Bible-believing Christian named Rachel, I learned to identify myself as an Alabama fan. My little sister and I knew what intentional grounding was before we’d acquired the dexterity to play with Barbie dolls, and as kids we liked to imitate my mother, who had the habit of willing an Alabama running back down the field by moving closer and closer to the TV set the longer he stayed on his feet. By the time he danced into the end zone, the whole family—Mom, Dad, Amanda, and I—would be huddled together around the TV, screaming our heads off, nervously looking for any yellow flags on the field.” Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, Page 2

At it’s very worst, this American obsession with winning teams is exemplified by what was allowed to happen under Joe Paterno’s leadership at Penn State. Winning at any cost — even if that cost was children sacrificed on the altar of pedophilia. UPDATE 3: View this graphic. And weep.

But I would suggest that for most Americans, the worship of sports is milder than that, but perhaps more insidious.

Trash Talking

One of the manifestations of this is the prevalence of trash talking that began in sports but has become a very noticeable part of social interaction. It’s roots may be in the rather innocent, “Hey batter, batter” of baseball but the language is far stronger today — and much more destructive.

I note these two stories on American President, Barack Obama, known as a hyper-competitive player. From CNN,

Reggie Love, the man by President Barack Obama’s side for two years in the White House, said the president leads like he plays basketball… …“He’s a competitor, and I think when you compete … you can’t spend all your time sort of being overly emotional or reactional to what’s going on,” Love said.

Obama trashing Rubio2

And then from Politico,

It is Obama’s own burning competitiveness, with his remorseless focus on beating Mitt Romney — an opponent he genuinely views with contempt and fears will be unfit to run the country…

Obama is sometimes portrayed as a reluctant warrior, sorry to see 2012 marked by so much partisan warfare but forced by circumstance to go along. But this perception is by most evidence untrue. In the interviews with current and former Obama aides, not one said he expressed any reservations about the negativity. He views it as a necessary part of campaigning, as a natural — if unpleasant — rotation of the cyclical political wheel.

Obama’s trash-talking competitiveness, a trait that has defined him since his days on the court as a basketball-obsessed teenager in Hawaii, was on display one night last February, when the president spotted a woman he knew was close to Sen. Marco Rubio in a Florida hotel lobby. “Is your boy going to go for [vice president]?” the president asked her. Maybe, she replied. “Well,” he said, chuckling, according to a person who witnessed the encounter. “Tell your boy to watch it. He might get his ass kicked.” [emphasis added]

Obama is simply a product of the dominant culture.

His team will do anything to beat the other – and that sentiment is reciprocated. To a Democrat, Republicans are knuckle-dragging fools who hate women and want to return to the 50’s. To a Republican, Democrats are Socialists who will steal the election in order to worship Stalin or Satan, take your pick.

The trash-talking, zero-sum gaming of U.S. Politics is in danger of destroying the American nation.


I’m more concerned about what it’s doing to the church.

Matthew Lee Anderson, in his review of RHE’s new book, says this at the end of his rather long (but must read) review:

…I am increasingly saddened by the state of our Christian discourse online, including my own involvement in it.

I’m no Roman history expert, but I take it that it was their love of entertainment that led them to the Coliseum. It’s a bloodthirsty idol, entertainment, for it knows no boundaries nor respects no persons. Over the past two years, Christians have engaged in a variety of controversies—which they have been doing for a long time, but which seem to be coming and going with a greater rapidity while being discussed at a significantly more shallow level. I think of Rob Bell’s book, Jesus>Religion, Mark Driscoll’s book, the Wilson dustup, and now this conflagration. And there are, I think, others I am forgetting.

In each, the form of arguments have rarely been commendable and the level of discourse ennobling. We have increasingly, it seems to me, been taken by these controversies and fought for pageviews in the midst of them. And that has meant mostly fighting each other, clashing verbal swords and letting the digital blood flow in the streets. I know well that there is a time to disagree and to draw lines. And I also know that when the controversy is upon us, the drumbeats of war always beat the loudest, and it is usually in such moments that we should speak of peace. Perhaps we would all do well to wield our intellectual swords with a good deal more care.

One of the reasons I’ve had such a hard time blogging in these past six months, is what went down this summer on The Gospel Coalition blog of Jared Wilson’s when he used a Doug Wilson quote on his Fifty Shades of Grey Post, now deleted – and the Internet blog storm that was created — the Wilson dustup mentioned by Anderson, above.

I’ve known Jared through our relationship with the late Michael Spencer, for probably five years. I’ve held him in high regard for most of the time. But I was shocked by his response to the people who were profoundly offended by his blog post, particularly in the way he trash-talked them on Twitter, as well as in the comment sections of the multiple posts he wrote based on his first post.

If you follow Jared on Twitter, you’ll know he’s a huge sports fan — especially football. I honestly believe that Jared was engaging in social media debate in a manner little different than what he would do amongst his friends known as The Thinklings. His responses were simply representative of the perspective formed by the culturally dominant world of sport. Trash-talking being a normative response.

Jared is hardly the most egregious example of Christian trash-talking. And its not limited to his fellow Calvinists.

Some of the stuff I read from Christian Progressives in response to Evangelicals and other Christian conservatives is really little different from how Democrats feel about Republicans — only its shared with less love and affection. (That’s sarcasm, by the way.)

As I bring my own, too long, post to a close, I realize that perhaps all this is a plea like that of the late Rodney King, “Can we all get along?”


Perhaps, we could all simply become less resounding gongs or clanging cymbals — the ones Paul, the Apostle spoke of here.

UPDATE: Read Michael Kruze’s post here: America’s Increasingly Tribal Electorate

UPDATE 2: Todd Littleton advances the conversation much further.



A television editor, writer & director since 1978. A Christian since 1982. More than a little frustrated with the Church in the West since late in the last millennium.

15 responses to Zero-Sum Games & the Church

  1. I’m with you here Bill, but the zero-sum game perspective is well represented in scripture. As usual, the biggest obstacle may be the bible itself, or rather, the way we define our relationship to it.


    • Where is the Via Media, eh, Jason? Too often, we read our own biases into Scripture thinking the Bible is binary. I spent far too much time there and can’t go back.

      Very glad you are back blogging.

  2. Bravo, Bill. I’d not been able to put a finger on why Jared’s tweets kept rubbing me the wrong way, but you’ve hit it exactly on the head. It *is* trash-talking.

    Trouble is, truly moderate, even-handed, non-trash-talking blogs don’t gain big followings. They’re not entertaining enough. (Wait, did I just call your blog non-entertaining? Not my intent. 🙂

    Now, maybe it’s just my unnecessarily moderate engineering temperament, but I’m with you – can’t we all just get along? Or at least debate more peaceably?

    • Thanks, Chris. Fortunately, I don’t need to worry about a big blog following. 🙂

    • Thank you. I agree it is bad enough when People Argue in Church and hurt one another. LETS LOVE ONE ANOTHER ACROSS OUR DIFFERENCES

  3. Well said, young William. I long for this election to be over — but somewhat dread the backlash to come from outcome, whichever way it rolls.

    Love from your virtual sis….

    • Thanks, Peggy. I can’t wait for your election to be done, either. I do hope it’s a blowout for whomever wins so there can be no claims of a “stolen election.”

      And I further hope that those of us who name Jesus as Lord can learn to be a little less binary in our dealings with each other.

  4. I am glad you woke up the blog to post this piece. May it be read far and wide, left and right.

  5. Headless Unicorn Guy November 7, 2012 at 1:09 pm

    The Zero-Sum Game:

    Where the only way for Me to win is to Make You Lose.

    Where the only way to get more for Me is to take it away from You — by force if necessary.

  6. (1) As a sports fan, I would like to say that I see lots of good coming from competition. Of course, I am thinking about things like: learning teamwork, persevering in adverse circumstances, dealing with failure in ourselves and teammates and other positive attitudes that we should have toward teammates and opponents. I don’t like trash talk. I don’t like showboating. I can understand celebration … especially in team sports where everyone must contribute and everyone is included.

    (2) I had not considered how this aspect of society might “bleed” into the rest of society. I have often wondered how the polarization of American politics developed. I have commented that God’s family should remember that God and his family should be the first allegiance … and all others secondary. (Which is a “left-handed” way of agreeing with your last sentence.)

    (3) I personally think you ought put a few more posts here. I am always enlightened by your oblique perspective. I find such perspectives to be extremely valuable. Too many people don’t want to have their thinking jostled. Jostled thinking might just force someone to look at something in a different way. Jesus of course was the Great Jostler.

    NOTE: I really like Todd’s Booker quote too.


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