2014 was a big year for me. I realize that’s often just a hollow cliche, but let’s consider how much happened for me in the past year. I graduated from Georgia Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. I moved to Michigan to start working in the Evaporative Emissions department of General Motors. I sold my beloved 1968 Chevrolet pickup truck and bought my mother a 2012 Buick LaCrosse. I celebrated my niece’s first birthday and my brother’s engagement. More recently, I met a beautiful girl in Michigan who somehow thought it would be a good idea to date me. As I said, 2014 was a big year. Oh, and I guess I also started this blog with a couple friends.
Outside of that, I also spent a lot of time in 2014 talking, discussing, debating, and reading about a number of topics relating to everything from baseball to theology. I came to better understand many things and even had my mind changed on certain topics. I don’t think many would have guessed I’d one day become so in favor of redistributive economic policies, yet somehow here we are!
Because of the amount of time, thought, and effort I’ve put into all this discussion and debate, I thought it would be proper to write a recap of the things I’ve been reading and talking about. This is partly for my own reference, but I hope I’m also able to use this space to inform and perhaps even challenge the way we talk and think about certain things. It should be understood that this is not at all meant to be a definitive piece on any of these topics. There’s countless other topics that I also find interesting and important, and the things I link to only represent a small sample of the many things I’ve read and researched over the past year. While I realize that some of what follows may prompt uncomfortable knee-jerk reactions, I’d prefer responses be framed in a similarly systematic manner. Follow the links, engage with the texts, be open minded about some of what you will find, but also recognize that there is still room for thoughtful and constructive debate. I’ve clearly had my mind changed before, and I’m welcome to it being changed again, but it does take some amount of looking back before we can look forward.
So without further ado, my 2014 Embedded Link Symposium!
For obvious reasons, I must leave this section blank. I talked a lot about cars this year, and had plenty of hot takes, but because of my job I can’t discuss these opinions on our interwebs.
I’ve been labeled a softie by more than a few people this year, and that extends even into baseball. How exactly? My growing obsession with soft skills. Gabe Kapler thinks communication is a major competitive edge in baseball, and Russell Carleton thinks we may be too focused on managers’ hard skills. In fact, Carleton quickly grew to become my favorite baseball researcher of the year thanks to his creative looks at commonly misunderstood areas of the game. Specifically, I’ve become obsessed with his articles on chemistry in baseball. I’ve often complained that some people who have learned to understand and embrace advanced statistics like wOBA and WAR interact just like “traditional” folks, but with new toys. The old school traditionalist says wOBA is made up and useless, while the new school traditionalist says chemistry is made up and useless. A true sabermetrician should be dedicated to asking questions, and as of now the jury is still out on what all we know about chemistry. Let’s keep asking questions before we take a hard line on it.
On the hard skill side of things, I’ve become obsessed with using Bill Petti’s Spray Chart Tool to analyze players, and a few guys have written great pieces about how we judge a batter’s plate discipline. Certain people (*cough cough* Dan Simpson *cough cough*) have complained about my devotion to projections, but there’s good reason for my stance there. Simply put, good projection systems are better at making player predictions than we are. Moving on.
For the folks who are not privy to advanced statistics, Neil Weinberg did a terrific job updating Fangraphs’ glossary. If you’re ever confused about what wOBA, UZR, FIP, or WAR is, just head on over to the glossary.
Braves related, Ian’s piece on the Braves Dominican Academy was really interesting, and I was happy to be included by him and Sisson in their article on Mike Minor. Finally, if you’re interested in the pitch trajectory model I referenced in that piece, here is my final paper on that project.
Now we’re into the more substantive section of this post. Because of my Christian beliefs and values, I take seriously issues of inequality, injustice, and the inherent dignity and value of every human life. I believe that the Christian church should be the leading voice on these issues, speaking up for underrepresented or underprivileged people groups. For some people, this means a focus on world hunger, international medicine, or unreached people groups. For me in 2014, it has meant a focus on poverty and race. Put simply, impoverished people and minorities in our country have a harder road ahead of them than people who were born white and/or middle or upper class, and we should be doing everything we can to ensure equal freedoms and opportunities are truly available to these people. Put simply, I don’t think you can say you’re committed to being more Christlike if you’re not committed to being less prejudiced and more compassionate. While we may differ on how we think we should put this commitment to fighting for love, compassion, and human dignity into action, our goals should be the same.
Poverty and Economics
Suffice it to say that I’m not an economist. I try to read about economics as much as I can to stay informed, but in all honesty I’m doing more of playing catch-up than anything else. However, a substantial piece from the Brookings Institute opened my blind eyes to the reality of economic mobility and laid the foundation for me to start researching this issue further. The Atlantic recently posted 17 Things We Learned About Income Inequality in 2014, and that piece does a better job at summarizing the research than I ever possibly could. As I searched for and read more about this topic, I came to learn that strong safety net programs can actually reward good, hard work, and countries with expanded welfare programs help poor people much more than the United States does. You’ve got to pick one side to lean toward in American politics, and from my Christian perspective, I would rather lean toward the one that provides more help for more people- even if some of them might not actually deserve it- rather than one that restricts said help.
Being from small-town Georgia, many of my fellow Christians cling to the Republican party and view anything relating to Democrats as dirty, liberal heresy. Luckily, Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig has provided me with a refreshing perspective on how to be a Christian with liberal economic ideals. Her blog has become one of my favorite places on the interwebs, and I truly cannot recommend her pieces enough. She’s my go-to if I am trying to try to win a fellow Christian over on welfare programs or reforming how we talk about the poor. The way impoverished people are characterized in our country is despicable, and if you’ve ever engaged in that harmful and reckless rhetoric I implore you to read that last post and think long and hard about whether or not you’re truly caring for them.
By the way, I can’t mention Elizabeth without mentioning her husband, Matt. His blog is also brilliant and insightful, and it offers interesting viewpoints on capitalism and how we think about our money. He also has a fascinating post on the wealth gap between white and black families, explaining how centuries of slavery and racial apartheid in our country led to black families now having significantly less financial security than white families, and this concept leads us perfectly into our next section.
The events surrounding the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner have sparked a lot of discussion about race in America, and unfortunately, many fellow white people have been quick to speak and slow to listen. It seems to be difficult for most white people to understand the role racism continues to play in today’s society, and that is no doubt shaped by how segregated most people’s friend groups are. I think a first step many people need to take is to understand how racism can exist even without explicit racists. People often think that just because they’re not a slave owner nor a member of the Ku Klux Klan that they’re not guilty of racism, but they fail to see how they may have implicit biases that impact their interactions with minority groups. People seem blind to the role white privilege plays in our society and don’t realize that higher socioeconomic status does not save minority members from dealing with harmful racism.
For the most part, white people don’t have to worry about people being racist toward them. On the other hand, black people have to worry about it constantly. White people’s lives aren’t inherently more difficult because of the color of their skin; black people’s lives are. A black friend at my church in Detroit once told a story that seemed to drive home the message of how prevalent racism is. He said, “I moved to the suburbs when I got older because I mistakenly thought I’d get there and no longer have to deal with racism. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Little things like walking through a parking lot late at night to my car, folks will call the cops on me.” That was so powerful. I had never in my life had to think twice about simply walking past a car at night, yet these are things that are universal in the black community.
The Atlantic had a tremendous piece on if Black America was a country– citing statistics showing it would be 46th in GDP per capita, one of the worst 30 nations in unemployment, and have a higher rate of poverty than Iraq- but when I brought this piece up to some people they tried to tell me that black people themselves are to blame for this. Seriously? Black people are to blame? As if slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, the KKK, and the rest of those hundreds of years of explicit and violent racism never happened? People seem to think that racism just ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 but don’t understand how things like racist housing policies continued to shape American lives and cultures. If you want to understand the lives of black people today, you need to start with learning about the history of how they have been the victims of injustice from the moment they first came to our country. That history doesn’t exist solely in the past, as it impacts the lives of each and every black person even today.
Since we’re on this topic, let’s talk about Ta-Nehisi Coates’ outstanding piece on reparations. If you read nothing else about race, please read this. It was easily the most talked about magazine piece of the year, and for good reason. Coates dives into how housing policies in America systematically worked to oppress black people and how that manifested itself in their lives. As he mentioned in his follow up discussion with Jeffrey Goldberg, many people just aren’t equipped to intelligently discuss this topic, so even if we don’t agree with his conclusions we should hold back on our opinions until we at least better understand the arguments.
With regards to the Brown and Garner cases themselves, as well as the protests that followed, I think Martin Luther King Jr. said it best.
This is where, thanks to the white-washing of our American history textbooks, some people might get excited and think I’m going to speak against the protests. Those people would be wrong. King explained that riots are the language of the unheard, and while I don’t condone the destruction of property, I also don’t think the tragedy of the situation lies in a broken window to a store. The tragedy lies in how black people continue to be victims of an often racist criminal justice system, and white people continue to not listen when they try to tell us this. Instead, each time a young black man is killed by a person of authority people go through this process of trying to decide if their life mattered. Ezekiel Kweku had what I consider to be the best explanation of this, and after you read the reparations piece you absolutely have to read Kweku’s piece. The following quote from the introductory paragraph to his piece has sat heavy on me from the moment I first read it:
So let’s be clear about the stakes of this conflict: we are trying to decide whether or not Michael Brown was a nigger. A dead human being is a tragedy that needs to be investigated and accounted for. A dead nigger doesn’t even need to be mourned, much less its death justified.
If we’re talking about my theological readings of 2014, we’re talking primarily about NT Wright. Before I get into my Wright Link-A-Thon, though, let me first direct your attention to one of my now favorite books. If you’re a Christian and haven’t yet read The Ragamuffin Gospel by Brennan Manning, stop what you’re doing and order a copy right now. If you can’t afford a copy, realize that it’s less than ten dollars and you actually can afford a copy. If after that you realize you seriously can’t afford a copy, send me a message and I will buy you a copy. This is one of the best books on unconditional love I have ever read, and the section about how we give our testimonies has changed how I speak about mine.
Alright, back to Wright. I can’t remember how I learned who this guy is, but at some point I stumbled across his site and started listening to some of his podcasts. His books, Surprised by Hope and Surprised by Scripture, instantly became two of my favorite books on my shelf, and his series of articles relating to the authority of scripture on Bio Logos is a must read. If for some stupid reason you don’t want to buy those books, at least read that series and his post on why we should believe in the literal resurrection of Jesus. If my enthusiasm alone isn’t enough to make you want to read all of that, hopefully this interview or this series of YouTube videos with him speaking on controversial issues is. He speaks on Pauline theology, the centrality of the cross, a commitment to scripture, the role of women in the church, and about how an understanding of history should shape our thoughts today.
While we’re on the topic of controversial issues, I do want to draw mention to a couple that I’ve spent a lot of time reading and talking about recently. First is our understanding of the early part of the book of Genesis. I’ll just come right out and say that I do not believe the early chapters of the book of Genesis should be read as a literal account of creation, and I do not believe they were ever intended to be read that way. I obviously believe that God is the Creator, but how He went about doing it shouldn’t change our faith in His power. As a side note, I find it kind of odd that many Protestants so vehemently oppose this way of understanding Genesis. We believe that Jesus is God. We believe that Scripture is the word of God. We believe that Jesus spoke using parables, and a major disagreement Protestants have with Catholics is that Protestants think something Jesus said shouldn’t be taken literally. Is it really that big of a leap to then say that certain sections of the Bible weren’t meant to be taken literally? But I digress.
Some people push back against this idea and believe it’s a slippery slope to not taking the gospel accounts of Jesus, His resurrection, and His miracles to be literally true, but I think that view ignores the substantially different ways in which the books were written. To quote a friend, “The basic gist is that they are two different types of accounts. One is intentionally vague on the facts, written as a poem thousands of years after the event. The other is a witness report and basically a legal case for the history of an event.” Others say that this view represents a low view of Scripture. They suggest that by not taking these chapters literally, we run the risk of suggesting the Bible is just an old self-help book that doesn’t have to be taken seriously in our modern society. Wright deals with that critique in his piece linked to above on the authority of Scripture, and I suggest it and his books to any one who may be led to think this way. I believe it’s time we all understand that the Bible is not actually at odds with our scientific findings of the 19th and 20th century, and I think if we properly understood scripture we would understand this. If you want to read more about this topic, Bio Logos is a favorite website of mine, and their Top 20 Posts of 2014 is a great place to start.
I feel much better now.