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The National(ist) Pastime

“America before the Civil War was still populated by a handful of veterans of the Revolutionary War and many who remembered vividly the War of 1812. The era of Anglo-American amity had not yet dawned; our country’s spiritual separation from the Mother Country, though effected by treaty in 1783, was still in process. And having baseball to rival and replace cricket was an important step in that process. Moreover when England, seeking to maintain its supply of cotton from the American South, appeared over-cordial to the Confederate cause, anti-British feeling swept the North. An America long suffering from an inferiority complex toward England now turned against cricket and embraced baseball with increased fervor.”

– John Thorn, Baseball: Our Game

Header Image: “The American National Game Of Baseball Grand Match At Elysian Fields” by Currier & Ives (via

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That Thing About Paradise and Parking Lots

Fairly often I have meetings in downtown Phoenix, and when I do, most of the time I park in a surface lot on the corner of First and Washington streets.

It’s in a convenient location and it’s really affordable—usually $5, though inflated to $10 when there’s a sporting event or some other sort of draw. At a certain level I know that surface lots are bad for cities. I know this intuitively and experientially, and I’ve dabbled enough in New Urbanist thought to have had those intuitions and experiences reinforced. But I had never really stopped to think about what was there—on the block of land framed by First, Second, Washington, and Jefferson—before it was a nondescript slab of asphalt overseen by a couple of fee collectors in golf carts.

I stumbled upon the answer while spending some time with the book Vanishing Phoenix, a collection of old black and white photos with commentary about the city’s former architectural glory by Robert A. Melikian. (Incidentally, the book inspired a now-defunct but still interesting blog by the same name.)

As it happens, what is now the place where I park my car was once the site of Phoenix City Hall. The book includes two photos of the original building, including this one, courtesy of the private Heberlee Collection (pardon the blurriness; it’s an iPhone photo of an old photo).


From Melikian we learn:

Construction started in November 1887 by John J. Gardiner for $15,580 and was completed in 1888. When the capitol of Arizona moved from Prescott to Phoenix in 1889, this building was used as the state house, the offices of the governor and secretary, and the legislature’s meeting place. They held their biennial sessions on city hall’s upper floor…

The description of the Phoenix City Hall in the 1950 Phoenix City Directory was that “the block of ground upon which the old city hall stood was known as the Plaza and was originally set aside by the founders of Phoenix (in perpetuity) as a place for rest and peaceful contemplation. Their laudable desire, however, was long since nullified and the ground is now used for commercial purposes.” A bell tower was added in 1905. The building was torn down around 1928.

This anecdote illustrates something profound about our cities and how they are shaped over time. What I take for granted as affordable and convenient has come at the expense of something far more valuable and far more difficult to replicate—an iconic, beautiful government building in the heart of the city, in the midst of an oasis cultivated with care “as a place for rest and peaceful contemplation.”

UPDATE: Since writing this post, I finished Vanishing Phoenix. And in the later pages of it, I learned about Fox Theatre, an ornate art deco gathering place that stood on this same block after the original City Hall building but before it became a parking lot. It opened on July 30, 1931 and was a vibrant place into the 50s, around the time people started leaving for the ‘burbs. It was razed in 1975. Over at the TRU PHX blog, an artist named Hector Primero has used Photoshop to superimpose the Fox Theatre over a photo of the intersection as it currently appears today. Incidentally, the angle here is more or less the same as the header photo above, facing southeast.


Anyway, Joni Mitchell, over to you.

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Christian Political Witness

An Anabaptist, a Presbyterian, and an Anglican walk into a bar…

Okay, wait, let’s start over. Every year, Wheaton College hosts a theology conference. This year, it was on Pentecostalism and the Holy Spirit, and in 2015 it will be on “The Image of God in an Image Driven Age.”

9780830840519As I noted last year, while armchair theologians like me might not be able to justify making the evangelical hajj to Wheaton for the annual event, InterVarsity Press does its part to loop us in by publishing a compilation volume each year comprised of essays that began as presentations at the conference.

The most recent volume is Christian Political Witness, drawn from the 2013 conference. While packed with heavy-hitters, this compilation is remarkably accessible and engaging, even for the laymen and -women among us. And while the contributors span the theological—and yes, political—spectrum, I found that the project nonetheless hangs together fairly cohesively.

Presumably in keeping with the conference, the book is framed by a litany of big questions:

What might a distinctively Christian witness mean in an increasingly polarized climate where the immensity of the challenges governments face seems matched only by the partisanship of the political system? What is the proper Christian response to unending wars, burgeoning debt, disregard for civil liberties, attacks on the sanctity of life, and economic injustice, not to mention ongoing challenges to traditional understandings of sexuality and marriage? Are Christians anything more than an interest group, open to manipulation by those who most enticingly promise to preserve a certain way of life? And how will Christians respond to their increasingly marginalized status in the West, where Christendom is at least on the wane, if not, as some have suggested, proceeding to its slow and final death?

Depending on where you sit within evangelicalism, or within Christendom,  for that matter, you’ll answer those questions differently—or at least your answers will reveal different nuances. But hearing how different sorts of folks grapple with these big, important questions while drawing upon the resources of their respective traditions can be a remarkably fruitful exercise. There are four essays that stood out to me in particular.

Church as Polis

Stanley Hauerwas, for his part, reiterates the Anabaptist vision of the church as polis that he and William Willimon laid out a quarter of a century ago in Resident Aliens. He writes, “Christians no longer believe that the church is an alternative politics of the world, which means they have lost any way to account for why Christians in the past thought they had a faith worth dying for.” He goes on to assert, in a feisty, quintessentially Hauerwasian way, that the confession “Jesus is Lord” isn’t simply a personal opinion. On the contrary, he says, “I take it to be a determinative political claim.”

Biblicism and Ethics

Meanwhile, the religious historian Mark Noll offers a measured analysis of biblicism as it pertains to Christian ethics and political witness. Here he covers a lot of the same ground he did in another book, which earlier this year prompted some reflections from me on the public consequences of haphazard theologies. “Biblical rhetoric can strengthen political speech, but there are great dangers in using such rhetoric,” he writes. “Reliance on Scripture is imperative, but naive biblicism is dangerous.” The Bible best serves “the healing of nations,” he continues, when believers see to it that its message is “appropriated contextually, culturally and theologically.”

Against Violence

I rightly expected the Anabaptists in these pages to make an unwavering case for nonviolence; I was surprised to find that the strongest such argument came from Peter Leithart, a teaching elder in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA). “One does not have to be a pacifist,” he writes, “to be alarmed at how much of our university research, our intellectual energy, our economic inventiveness and productivity, and our enormous material resources are devoted to keeping us on a war footing. If this is not the modern equivalent of ‘multiplying horses and chariots,’ I cannot imagine what is.”

Daring To Ask “Why?”

The book concludes with a winsome, pastoral letter from the late David Gitari, who was Archbishop of the Anglican Church of Kenya in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Gitari emphasizes the key distinction between social work and social transformation—a distinction that essentially boils down to the willingness to ask why. “Those in authority welcome our humanitarian activities,” he writes, “but they do not like to hear the question ‘why,’ because that is a political question. So sometimes we need to go beyond social activities to transformation of societies to find where the root cause of the problem is—and this is taking political action. We cannot avoid social-political action when there is something that must be done.”

Those are just quick snippets from four of the book’s dozen essays, but they’re enough, I hope, to intrigue you. There’s a lot of chaos in this world, and speaking personally, it’s tough to know how to navigate the ethical and political quandaries I encounter. That’s why I’m grateful for these scholars and their careful, prayerful thoughts on the relationship between faith and ethics, between mission and politics, between church and state.

“Christians must remind themselves that the primary locus of Christian political activity is the church,” write the editors. “The shape of our corporate life should therefore reflect above all else fidelity to [Christ], and not just identity politics or pragmatic concerns.”

Header photo by Sergei Grits/AP via Huffington Post

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Remember From Whence You Came

There are many perks that come with having Jay Z for an agent, I’d imagine, and one of them is that you get fantastic mini documentaries made about you, apparently. This short film about Robinson Cano, a baseball player who is a delight to watch, takes us through the streets and fields of his Dominican hometown of San Pedro de Macoris.

I know it’s really just a propaganda piece by Jay Z and his Roc Nation people, but I enjoyed it anyway. I think you might enjoy it too.