“Fixate on the particular and you miss the big story.”
So says John Thorn, the official historian of Major League Baseball, in a Bleacher Report post about the damage that sabermetrics have done to baseball.
I’m not buying it, for baseball or religion
For the uninitiated, a brief summary: over the past 20 years, baseball has seen the rise of a kind of player valuation that is based less and less on the perceivable “tools” of players and more and more on a searching analysis of those players’ statistical records. This has applied equally to present-day players, future prospects, and past greats. It has been a move toward measurement and quantification, and its practitioners have spawned their own measurement tools in never-before-heard statistical categories like On Base Percentage (OBP) and Value Above Replacement Player (VORP).
The most accessible account of the embodiment of this trend is Michael Lewis’s excellent book Moneyball. Lewis dug into the story of Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, who used sabermetrics data to put together a string of low-budget winning teams in the early part of the last decade. Even for non-baseball fans, it’s a great read.
The debate that Moneyball popularized, the debate that Thorn is engaging, and the debate at the heart of sabermetrics is this: what has greater value? The things you can measure or the things you can’t? Is a player’s VORP a more useful evaluation tool a scout’s observation that he can flat-out hit?
Now to religion, particularly the mainline protestant Christian version. The scouts of the mainline church have been observing for decades that membership is declining, and they’ve offered their analysis: the church can’t hit the curve balls that postmodern culture is throwing. It has no theological arm strength. It’s leadership is out of touch with the players.
None of this is based on any actual data. Like the observation of a baseball scout, this way of evaluation the church depends entirely on what one can see, and its conclusions fit nicely with the scout’s well-established narrative of success and failure. And these have been the accepted answers to questions of the church’s decline.
But what if it’s been wrong all along? What if a new generation of church sabermetricians created new tools to measure what’s really going on?
Thankfully, that’s starting to happen. In my own denomination, a Research Services division has started publishing some great analytical work that casts serious doubt on the cigar stained conventional wisdom of the church’s scouts. It’s stated goal is to help the church make “fact based decisions,” which strikes me as almost poetically consistent with the aim of sabermetrics. Because it’s debatable whether a pitcher has control problems. But it’s a fact that over the last three seasons he’s walked 6.5 batters per nine innings. It’s debatable whether the church is dying and bad theology is the culprit. But it’s a fact that in 2009 the PC(USA) saw a rise in non-white candidates for ministry, increased Asian membership and leadership, and an increase in female pastors.
The scout calls it dead arm. The sabermetrician calls it a changing delivery.
What Thorn has wrong is the forced choice between the “big story” and the particular. When applied to faith, it’s decidedly anti-incarnational to poo-poo details in favor of a grand narrative. That instinct leads to a contempt for critical study of the Bible and to half-cocked evaluations of the church’s ailments.
The Big Story is made up of the particular, the stuff you can measure and track. Further, that story arises from those particulars; it can’t be forced upon them a priori.
Play Ball and go Royals!