A Spiritual Revival in the Field of Dreams

Kevin Costner welcomes players to The Field of Dreams. If you missed it, I’ve got a link to the video of the opening moments of that broadcast, below.

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“Is this Heaven?”

I’m not sure how I would have answered that question, this week, because I’m not exactly sure what that word means—but the events surrounding that question sure felt as close to Heaven as I’ve felt in a while.

You need to understand: Baseball has been there for me at so many critical moments of my life, often surprising me with its power to revive my spirits.

Take this past Thursday, which began like most days. I got up at 6 as my wife and daughter prepared for school. By 7 I was outside walking my dog Dexter, and by 8 I was fixing his and my other two dogs’ breakfasts (Boiled eggs and sausage). I was at my desk working by 9. And at 2 I was off to the local high school for football practice.

There’s a comforting daily rhythm to my days. Even the music is routine, thanks to the Alexa playlist I’ve put together. I cook to Looking Glass singing “Brandy,” and I start work about the time Don McLean is playing the first chords to “American Pie.” I leave for football practice to the sound of Modern English singing “Melt with You.” It gets my blood pumping.

This daily routine is comforting, allowing me to move from one day to the next with a feeling of calm. It also numbs me–all of us–in ways that are not good. It shuts us away from the wonders that surround us, and the larger rhythms that define life.

On Thursday, August 12, 2021, however, a bit of wonder broke into my day. An event that will forever set this Thursday apart from all the other Thursdays in my life.

Field of Dreams

As I sat down Thursday night to eat the pizza we’d picked up from Sam’s, an institution in Fredericksburg that’s been here longer than the 20 years I’ve lived here, I tuned in to Fox to watch a baseball game.

That, too, is routine in my house. Most days from late April through October we have the Washington Nationals game playing on our family television. If we’re not at home when they’re playing, the game is on the radio in the car.

Thursday’s game was different in several ways, however. We tuned out the Nats to watch the White Sox play the Yankees in Dyersville, Iowa.

Even the uninitiated know that Dyersville isn’t a Major League City.

Dyersville, however, has come to play as large a role in America’s baseball mythology, however, as has Cooperstown–the heralded town where baseball was born (it wasn’t born there, but it’s still a great place to visit). Dyersville is where 30 years ago Kevin Costner and his Hollywood crew took a novel by W.P. Kinsella and turned it into the now-classic movie Field of Dreams.

There were the predictable made-for-television theatrics Thursday night. Kevin Costner walked out of the center-field corn toward second base and stood. Then, in small groups the members of the White Sox and Yankees made their way out to him and shook his hand.

Then Costner took to the microphone and asked, “Is this Heaven?” to which the crowd of 8,000 folks lustily cheered.

“I don’t think I heard you,” Costner said, repeating his question: “Is this Heaven?”

The response was thunderous: “Yeah!!!”

For an emotional baseball softie who choked up watching the movie–several times–in theaters 30 years ago, it brought back a lot of fond memories. For the uninitiated, I’m sure it was probably as corny as the corn field the game was played in.

There was nothing corny about the game, however. In the top of the 9th, trailing 7-4, the Yankees hit two two-run homers – one by Aaron Judge, who had homered early in the game to give the Yankees a 3-1 lead; and the other by Giancarlo Stanton, who to that point had been 0 for 4 on the night.

It looked like that the Yankees would ruin it for the home-team White Sox, the team that also had a starring place in the movie. But in the bottom of the 9th, Seby Zavala walked, and Tim Anderson hit a massive blow to the corn in right field to give the Sox a walk-off, 9-8 victory.

[You can find the box score, video clips, and in-depth interviews about the Field of Dreams game at MLB.com]

It was as good an ending to a baseball game as I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen something in the vicinity of 5,000 Major League games in my life.

ONE OF MY FAVORITE SNAPSHOTS is this 1990 photo of me running the bases at The Field of Dreams.

There When You Need It

The recently retired, legendary sports writer for the Washington Post, Tom Boswell, once said of baseball that there’s something that’s available to people during the baseball season that isn’t there the rest of the year. “It’s not that you have to watch the game,” he said, “but it’s there if you need it.”

Baseball has been there for me at many critical times in my life. Indeed, my life is marked by it. In April 1974 I walked–ran, really–home from school to catch the great Henry Aaron hit his record-tying 714th home run in Cincinnati to tie Babe Ruth for the Home Run King crown. I can’t remember most trips home from school. That one, however, will always stay with me.

There was the afternoon in 1976 when I sat in my grandfather’s house watching Mark “The Bird” Fidrych pitch during his rookie season. My grandfather, pipe in hand, telling me stories about the great pitchers he had seen and read about growing up in the ‘20s and ‘30s. My grandfather died in 1989, while I was in graduate school in Chicago. I finished my thesis early and drove to North Carolina for the funeral. I spent the night in Cincinnati and attended a game between the Reds and the Giants. I could think of no other place to be. It was a 13-inning marathon that the Reds won. For that night, he was with me one last time.

The game was there for me in August 1990, when my wife and a close friend from graduate school made the trip to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and watched Nolan Ryan win his 300th game. A feat that until then had only been accomplished 20 times in Major League history. I remember every moment of that game like it was yesterday. Mostly I remember the evening my wife, our friend Dan, and I had together.

It was there for me in 1994. The game itself was not in a great place that summer. Tensions between the owners and players was high, and eventually there would be a strike that led to the cancellation of the World Series. For four hours that summer night, however, none of that mattered. My wife and I had had our first child that May. Together we watched the All-Star game, taping it for him, and celebrating with glee as the National League (our favorite) finally took one. The late, great Tony Gwynn scoring from first base off a Moises Alou double to win the game in the 10th inning.

ANOTHER OF MY FAVORITE SNAPSHOTS is me with my 4-year-old son Andrew on my shoulders outside Orioles Park in Baltimore in 1998.

My forthcoming book is dedicated to my oldest son, Andrew, who helped me see the game anew. While the country turned on the players and the game during the strike, the memory of that All-Star Game, and the

Baseball As Religion?

I do not attend church or affiliate with a religious tradition–regular readers of my columns are well-aware of that fact. Some believe that baseball (or sport) has become my religion. That assumption would be as wrong as the assumption that I see no value in faith.

The animating question for me about faith has always been, what purpose does it serve?

I was raised in a tradition that framed faith solely as something to ensure a good life after this life. That was why we had faith. That was all that faith really mattered for.

I’ve been part of traditions where faith was the animating factor for political agendas, left and right.

All of these have proven deeply disappointing and shallow to me.

Baseball is not a religion for me. But baseball has something to teach religion. Baseball is a constant in my days. I don’t always need it, but it’s there when I do. And there are games, moments, that serve as markers for me. Markers that turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.

Days that allow me to see, and remind me of, the wonder that is life itself.

No judgment. No requirement to convert. No guilt.

Just a moment that opens my eyes to the wonder around me.

When religion can offer that, I’ll be in the cheap seats. Beer and dog in hand, keeping score and basking in the moment.

I’ll save the seat next to me for you.

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Care to Watch?

Here’s the YouTube video posted after the event, showing the dramatic opening minutes of that broadcast:

 

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INSPIRED by this column from journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin and our editors are completing on a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike.

His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Martin Davis: What does it mean that American evangelicals are in decline?

TWO MEN OUT: In this photo, President Trump spoke at the 2017 commencement ceremony at the religiously conservative Liberty University led at the time by Jerry Falwell Jr. In August 2020, Falwell was forced to resign after a series of scandals involving sex and alcohol.

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EDITOR’s NOTE: One of the most striking series of headlines about religion in July 2021 concerns the decline in self-identified evangelicals in America, triggered by new data from the Public Religion Research Institute. Headlines included The Washington Post: The Rapid Decline of White Evangelical America? and in The New York Times: The Christian Right Is in Decline, and It’s Taking America With It and in New York magazine: White Evangelicals Now Outnumbered by Mainline Protestants in U.S.—and finally from CNN: America is no longer as evangelical as it was—and here’s why, written by the esteemed scholar Diana Butler Bass. That’s why we asked for this column by our own resident writer who focuses on America’s growing ambivalence toward traditional religious identifications. To help put this news in context, here are the perspective of journalist and author Martin Davis.

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By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

A number of years ago I began asking folks who attended church a simple question: “What does it mean to be Baptist?”

Or, Presbyterian? Or Methodist? I adapted my question to the person’s affiliation. However, more times than not, people had no idea. They attended the churches they were at not because they came to a decision about what they believed then sought out a community that reflected those beliefs. Rather, they attend because their children got invited, or the church was near their house, or they had friends who attended and invited them, or they liked the sermons (See Pew Forum research on this question).

Almost never would a Baptist talk to me about the importance of missions, or the centrality of the Bible in their belief. Presbyterians mostly had no idea how their system of governance differed from Congregational or Episcopal communities. And while they knew the name John Calvin, almost none had ever read much of his work or wrestled with what his message means today.

As one person succinctly said to me: “Look, I just attend a Baptist church; that doesn’t make me Baptist.”

So when the Public Religion Research Institute, headed by Robert P. Jones, released research in July 2021 announcing that “Since 2006, white evangelical Protestants have experienced the most precipitous drop in affiliation, shrinking from 23% of Americans in 2006 to 14% in 2020”—I was more than a bit suspicious.

First, the survey is based on self-identification, not actual records of church affiliation. And as suggested above, this can yield some perplexing findings.

Second, PRRI’s findings don’t square with other major studies of religion in America. Notably, Pew Research Center data shows only a minor drop in evangelicals. The General Social Survey and the Cooperative Congressional Election Study also show no such decline. (The Washington Post story linked above ends with a question mark in its headline and contains a nice summary of the conflicting data.)

What to make of this conflicting information?

First, recognize all of this data for what it is—a snap shot in time taken with one particular camera using a particular lens. This doesn’t make the information wrong or mean that the people conducting the surveys are up to no good. But the way you ask questions matters. And who you ask matters.

Second, it raises a more-important question: Who are these dwindling numbers of evangelicals, and what’s happening to those who no longer claim that name? Are they moving to mainline churches?

“The survey doesn’t provide precise explanations regarding the shift among white Christians,” Ed Kilgore relates in his New York magazine piece. “But [Jones] pointed to ‘circumstantial evidence’ that suggests ‘over the last two years in particular, white mainline Protestants seem to have absorbed at least some folks leaving white evangelical and other churches who may have otherwise landed in the religiously unaffiliated camp.’”

Or is it possible that these people who once identified as evangelical but no longer do are still attending the same houses of worship they always have? Perhaps they just don’t want to be associated with the term “evangelical” because of the Dumpster fire that was the Trump presidency and his unholy alliance with conservative Christians.

It will take more than a while–and a lot more studies–to sort all this out.

More Than Cultural Change

There’s a deeper concern in the general tone of the reporting this month. It’s as if many Americans would like to simply wish an entire group of people—so-called evangelicals—would simply fade away. There’s a hope among many Americans that the shrinkage of evangelical communities might somehow resolve some of our public conflicts and social ills. And that’s simply wrong headed.

However Americans choose to describe the religious part of their lives, the animating ideas that have long been associated with the word “evangelical” still are deeply embedded in our culture.

To highlight just one example: Racism still is part of American life. Although many Americans tended to associate racism with political conservatism and evangelical affiliations, racism runs from top to bottom in our culture and, more importantly, in our civic and corporate structures.

Another example: The yawning chasm between the haves and the have nots is a massive issue that will not be solved by books like Hillbilly Elegy, which wrongly places all the problems that poor Americans have squarely on their shoulders. The book’s overriding solution–just grow up and accept responsibility for your life–could only be expressed by someone who escaped poverty with little empathy for those left behind.

There are many more examples that probably are rolling through your mind right now.

The bottom line is: The people who have been called evangelicals, and the larger conservative world they populate, are not going away. If, as PRRI claims, evangelicals are in sharp decline, then how does one explain Donald Trump getting 77 million votes in 2020?

So What Do We Do?

So, perhaps evangelicals aren’t dying. Perhaps there’s just a fashionable change in labeling. There’s no question that millions of Americans see themselves along a whole series of political and cultural barricades. For those of us who appreciate the progressive values of American justice, concern for the less fortunate and embrace of diversity, the question becomes: How can we find a way forward?

I believe we are in for more political and social struggles, not unlike the fight that leaders in the Civil Rights movement waged throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

President Reagan meeting in the Oval Office with Jerry Falwell, Sr., in 1983. Falwell was the founding pastor of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia. He founded Lynchburg Christian Academy (now Liberty Christian Academy) in 1967, founded Liberty University in 1971 and co-founded the Moral Majority in 1979. He died suddenly of cardiac arrhythmia in his office at Liberty University at the age of 73 in 2007.

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Since the rise of the Religious Right under Jerry Falwell in the 1970s, evangelicals have refused to evolve away from the position that there is only one way to truth—their way. In fact, since that time the evangelical insistence that they hold The Truth has only grown more insistent. We see it in movements like dominionism, which is a move to subsume all aspects of American life under an extreme evangelical rubric. (Here’s an excellent story about one such community in Fort Worth, Texas.)

We see it in our political system, when a womanizing, foul-mouthed, intellectually-deficient man-child becomes the great beacon for the group pollsters describe as White Evangelicals. And we see it in governments in Texas, Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina, Georgia, Indiana, and others, where Republican-led state legislatures use the Bible to defend denying people the vote, punishing the poor, depriving children of nutrition, and punishing people who–heaven forbid–have sex outside of marriage.

There is no working with or talking to many of these individuals. I can write that line, because I came from that world. And I left that world. And I had my life nearly destroyed along the way.

My story isn’t important. I have finally put that part of my life in the rear-view mirror. I’ve never taken my eye off what I left behind, however. And I am convinced that it is gaining ground again–even if the numbers of self-identified adherents are down. Even in decline, their power is far out of proportion to their numbers.

It is time that we claim and raise the voice of our own Silent Majority: people of no religious affiliation like myself that now account for 1 out of 4 people in this country, plus religious liberals and people of faith who simply are just decent people. One deep concern we share is the rise of an evangelicalism that can become more nihilistic even as it declines in numbers.

We need to encourage national conversations about what it truly means to embrace American values.

Values that unify us as Americans

Four come to my mind.

A commitment to freedom lived in a respectful community. For too many on the extreme right of the evangelical world, religious freedom means the freedom to do whatever they want, and to deny those same freedoms to others. We must insist that our freedoms are not grounded in any one religious group or theological position. Our freedoms are grounded in the Enlightenment, which gave birth to the US Constitution, guided the thinking of our Founding Fathers and Mothers, and stresses that every individual is a person of worth. These ideals flummoxed our nation’s leaders in the earliest days. Washington and Jefferson and Madison all struggled with the dissonance between the ideals they espoused in the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence—and slavery. That dissonance has never gone away. Progressives today are stifling our ability to create a broader discussion around freedom and community by continually taking the culture-war bait that evangelicals keeping throwing out. It’s time to quit defensively responding and force the debate about the reality that freedom must be lived out in community.

A commitment to facts. When KellyAnne Conway insisted from inside the White House that there were “alternative facts,” she made public what people who have followed evangelicalism have long known. The worst of evangelical tendencies is a refusal to deal with facts in a reasonable way—and a rejection of objective knowledge and science that is inconvenient to their creed. We must insist that being part of this nation means accepting as reality what is testable and knowable.

A commitment to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The evangelical movement has long rejected this core tenet of American society. That dates at least as far back as so-called Progressive movements like Temperance that were thinly veiled bigotry against poor immigrants. Those of us among the Silent Majority I am describing must also guard our own actions against similarly demonizing poor communities. What we need is honest, balanced, hospitable engagement and conversation. The danger is a slide toward a Balkanization of our nation. I know that I am not alone among community leaders nationwide who are working, even now, on new structures to cross our chasms and re-engage in the American values that can continue to unite us.

A commitment to peace. The reality now is that a significant portion of radical evangelicals accept that they will have to launch a violent overthrow of the current system. This is no idle threat as we all witnessed on January 6, 2021. The temptation is to suppress and fight back. Or simply wish these people away. That will not win the day. We must rise up, nonviolently, and stare this evil squarely in the face.

Understand the Moment

It is important that we truly grasp what is happening around us, and the very real threat that we all face. We cannot afford to gloat in the wake of one study that shows the threat to the way of life that we enjoy is shrinking in numbers. Shrinking, maybe, but power is not now, nor has it ever been, distributed equally. And far too much of it rests in the hands of extremists.

But don’t take my word for it. Listen to how Michelle Goldfarb summarizes where we are at in her current New York Times Op-Ed piece:

“I was frightened by the religious right in its triumphant phase. But it turns out that the movement is just as dangerous in decline. Maybe more so. It didn’t take long for the cocky optimism of Generation Joshua to give way to the nihilism of the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. If they can’t own the country, they’re ready to defile it.”

Evangelicals have driven the discussion far too long in the country. We must take charge of the discussion, and quit hoping things will get better without the active engagement by all of us.

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Care to read more?

MARTIN ALSO REMINDS US that there are major questions about the validity of American polling that have been raised by everyone involved with such research—from the pollsters themselves to the journalists, scholars and community leaders who rely on this kind of data. He says, “I recommend that people also read this Washington Post story about the very real problems with polling and why we should always be skeptical of the numbers we are seeing. I love the conclusion, which I agree with fully.”

The conclusion of the Post story says:

Instead, polls should serve as a rough guide to public opinion. They’re the only way to ask the country a question and get a timely, meaningful response. We should be cognizant of polling’s problems and shortcomings—at least until someone comes up with a better way to discover what Americans think.

Care to read even more?

Right now, Martin and our editors are completing a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Martin Davis: Pawsing in memoriam for Penny

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Had she been a tiger, I’d have died a thousand deaths.

Penny slipped into and out of my days stealthily. She would arrive with a rush of air as she leapt to the space I occupied. Her small, white-booted paws landing true, without concussion.

In braver moments, she would invite me into a conversation by giving my leg a gentle head bump, or rubbing her head against my foot. And some days, she’d offer a chattering cackle. Just to remind me she was, in fact, around.

Many days she’d just lie still, amongst a stack of just-washed bath towels in the linen closet. Waiting for someone to open the door, insert a hand, and find it batted back by a paw.

At night, just as my mind was shifting from wake to sleep, she’d step lightly across my night stand, onto my bed, and under the covers. There, my hand would pull her close and stroke her nose, until all around me I knew only silence and darkness and the images my mind conjured.

Aloof. Stand-offish. I suppose I understand how those who’ve never fully given their homes to a cat can imagine these felines as arrogant, self-righteous, retaining professional distance just in case their inner-tiger emerges.

Writers are often accused of the same behaviors. And I suppose that’s why Penny and I bonded.

The life of the writer is by definition isolated. When we are in and among others, we are observers, listeners, wallflowers. Just as happy to stand in a corner and watch two people circle, talk, raise their hands to make a point or express frustration or celebration, move closer and further apart. Storing it all away for that novel or story that’s always hiding in our conscious.

We spend days locked away, surrounded by notes and coffee and left-over dishes searching for that perfect turn of phrase to catch a moment.

Writers don’t talk about their work when it’s in progress. We occupy another space and time when working. It’s a place filled with creativity, and fraught with traps.

Penny understood my moods and moments. Every day during COVID, and the days prior when I would work remotely or do my creative work at night, she would join me on my fold-out white table. And into a white milk cart she would crawl, sit, and stare. Feeling every word that I was trying to draw out.

She understood what it is to spend your life observing, then making sense of what you see and what you know.

She knew not to try and drag it from me. Writing, like so many creative practices, comes when it comes. We can’t force it, no matter how we try.

Daily she sat there. Patiently watching. Sharing in the deep moments of silence and quiet that define my days.

When the frustrations became too great, she would nudge my computer screen, inviting my fingers to scratch her head. And when the success came, she was always there to remind me that the writing life isn’t about this accolade or that publication, but the act of daily capturing what it is to be alive. And to record, as best we can, the beauty and depths of the mundane.

She wasn’t a tiger. She was Poe’s Raven; Melville’s whale; Steinbeck’s Charlie; Morrison’s caged bird.

She was a smallish charcoal gray short-hair, with white on her breast and paws.

And from her perch along with me breathed life into tens of thousands of words.

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An afterword

Editor’s Note: For all those of us who have lost a beloved furry companion, Martin’s column is perfect as written. We did ask Martin to add an “afterword” for readers wanting to know just a little more about Penny’s passing. Martin sent back this: “Regular readers know me as the guy who writes from the perspective of those who practice no religion. In fact, I like to describe my vocation in such columns as exploring the extraordinary spiritual wonders in everyday life without preconceived notions defining them. I appreciate awe. I marvel at the natural world. I am happy simply to live these experiences. Death does nothing to change this. We take comfort in the pleasure of having walked this life together. Even when it’s our pets. My cat Penny died suddenly three weeks ago. She was only 8.”

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Care to read more?

ARE YOU INSPIRED by this column from journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin and our editors are completing on a book filled with uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike.

His book will appear soon in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Authentic Carolina Hot Dogs

What You Can Buy

  • 1 package hot dogs. Jesse Jones Hot Dogs are the best, and are widely available in Southern groceries, but if you can’t find them in your neck of the woods, try Hebrew National.
  • 1 package hot dog buns. Some like top sliced, while others prefer the more traditional buns.
  • 1 jar French’s Mustard
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped (Use a knife, not a food processor. Yes, you’ll cry, but great food requires a little suffering.)

What You Need to Make

Hot Dog Chili

  • 1 lb. 93 percent lean hamburger
  • 1.5 cup water
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tsp Worcestershire Sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 Tbsp onion powder
  • ½ Tbsp garlic power

Place the hamburger and the water in a large pot. Bring the water to a boil and break apart the hamburger. You want this to become as fine as you can get it. Add tomato paste, ketchup, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Cover. Reduce heat to medium-low and let cook for 45 minutes, stirring often. Remove lid and allow moisture to reduce until chili is the right consistency. You should be able to pour it on the hotdog with a spoon.

Cole Slaw

  • One small head of cabbage
  • Duke’s Mayonnaise
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Finely chopped dill pickle (Optional)

With a hand-held grater, grate about a cup of cabbage. Use the finest-grade your grater offers. Add a teaspoon of Duke’s Mayonnaise and stir. It should bind the cabbage. If it doesn’t bind enough, add mayonnaise just a drop at a time, otherwise it will overpower the cabbage. Add a dash of salt and a smidge of sugar. If you like, finely dice a small dill pickle and blend it in.

Build Your Hot Dogs

Boil the hot dogs for just a minute and remove from water. Place buns wrapped in a paper towel in a microwave oven and heat for about 10 seconds. Place hot dog in bun; top with mustard, chili, slaw, and diced onion.

Wash it all down with a cold Coke of Pepsi. Or, if you really want the Carolina experience, see if you can find a Cheerwine.

As the Spirit of Spring Returns with Opening Day, Let’s Sing a Hymn to the Hot Dog

EDITOR’s NOTE—For a number of years, our online magazine has welcomed the start of baseball as a uniquely American contribution to the global religious calendar that we have covered on a weekly basis since 2007. That special focus is thanks to three writers who were born and bred in Abner Doubleday’s denomination: Rodney Curtis, Benjamin Pratt and especially journalist Martin Davis, who will publish his book 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches just before World Series season this year. Shortly after Opening Day this year (April 1, 2021), Martin emailed our offices to say: “I know our readers love regional recipes and I thought of a great connection for this year’s start-of-baseball column.” And here it is …

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“A hot dog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz.”
Humphrey Bogart

“I love a Hebrew National hot dog with an ice cold Corona—no lime. If the phone rings, I won’t answer until I’m done.”
Maya Angelou

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A Hymn to the Hot Dog (Carolina-Style)

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

What sets baseball apart from any other sport in America is the way it ties multiple generations of fans together. No other sport in the country has stayed as popular for as along. Moreover, no game has changed so little. This continuity binds fans across generations to the games.

The game my grandfather followed when Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig were playing is basically the same game I grew up watching with stars like Bob Gibson and Roberto Clemente. It’s the same game my son watched when his heroes were Carl Ripken and Nick Markakis.

No matter who’s in the room, baseball can be discussed. There’s always a good debate to be had. Who was the better home run hitter? Babe Ruth, Henry Aaron, Josh Gibson or Barry Bonds? Generational divides dissolve.

Another thing that ties baseball fans to the game are the local eateries that surround the ballparks where folks wile away afternoons and evenings.

King’s Sandwich shop in Durham, North Carolina, where I grew up, sits right across the street from the Durham Athletic Park. This gem of a park was built in 1902 and served as the home of the minor league Durham Bulls from 1926 to 1994.

King’s is in the same brick building today as when it opened in 1942. My grandparents would eat there after their shifts at Irwin Mills in the 1940s and 1950s. My mom and dad would take my brother and I there in the 1960s and 70s.

There’s no indoor dining–only picnic tables. And the menu really hasn’t changed all that much. Kind of like the game played across the street.

Hot dogs were then, and remain, the staple cuisine.

Now, in North Carolina, there are only two things that everyone argues about. One is the best way to cook pork barbecue–I’m a vinegar and pepper-based sauce man, myself. The other is who makes the best hot dogs.

It’s a funny debate because the basics of the Carolina hot dog are pretty much the same no matter where in the state you travel. Order one all the way, and you’ll get a dog with mustard, chili, slaw and chopped onions.

One never hears “chili dog” in North Carolina because it’s an oxymoron. Every hot dog has chili, unless you have the audacity to order it plain.

Here’s what serves as our hot dog hymn:

Ketchup?
Don’t even think to ask. 

Relish?
Absolutely not.

Peppers?
Go back to Chicago.

Sauerkraut?
No thank you.
So, here’s to the hot dog—
All the way!
Mustard,
Chili,
Slaw,
Onions,
And nothin’ else!

This uniform construction of the Carolina Dog means the differences are in the details. And that means how the chili and slaw are made.

Let’s make one thing clear right away. Hot dog chili never has beans, is not a side dish, and can no longer be bought.

In my youth, every home had cans of Texas Pete Hot Dog Chili in the cupboard. The Winston-Salem based company that made this popular condiment, however, decided to discontinue it in 2015 for reasons that has folks in the Tarheel State still asking, “Why?” Others have tried to produce it, but nothing comes close in texture and taste. On Amazon, where nearly every canned or boxed delicacy can be found these days, has a mournful page with a photo of that Pete’s can we all knew so well—next to a bright red: “Unavailable.”

You’ll have to do what King’s has always done and what true North Carolinians now do–make it.

Cole slaw is the other ingredient that must be made. Now, there are as many types of cole slaw in the world as there are graters on the shelves in kitchen stores. In North Carolina, however, the slaw used on dogs has three things in common: Finely grated cabbage, Duke’s Mayonnaise and just a touch of sugar.

Alright–enough with the history lesson. I’m hungry, and the Nat’s game is about to start. So let’s make some dogs and sit down and enjoy a great game.

(AND NOTE: There is a green “print-friendly” button at the bottom of all our stories. Want an even simpler way to print just the recipe portion of this column? Click here and you’ll find just the recipe text.)

Authentic Carolina Hot Dogs

What You Can Buy

  • 1 package hot dogs. Jesse Jones Hot Dogs are the best, and are widely available in Southern groceries, but if you can’t find them in your neck of the woods, try Hebrew National.
  • 1 package hot dog buns. Some like top sliced, while others prefer the more traditional buns.
  • 1 jar French’s Mustard
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped (Use a knife, not a food processor. Yes, you’ll cry, but great food requires a little suffering.)

What You Need to Make

Hot Dog Chili

  • 1 lb. 93 percent lean hamburger
  • 1.5 cup water
  • ¼ cup tomato paste
  • ¼ cup ketchup
  • 1 Tbsp chili powder
  • 1 Tsp Worcestershire Sauce
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • 1 Tbsp onion powder
  • ½ Tbsp garlic power

Place the hamburger and the water in a large pot. Bring the water to a boil and break apart the hamburger. You want this to become as fine as you can get it. Add tomato paste, ketchup, chili powder, Worcestershire sauce, salt, pepper, onion powder, and garlic powder. Cover. Reduce heat to medium-low and let cook for 45 minutes, stirring often. Remove lid and allow moisture to reduce until chili is the right consistency. You should be able to pour it on the hotdog with a spoon.

DON’T KNOW DUKE’S MAYONNAISE? Then you’re in for a Southern treat. Clicking on this image takes you to Dukes’s Wikipedia page that tells the distinctive history. Martin Davis is not the only author who recommends Duke’s to his readers. The best-selling mystery novelist Katherine Hall Page also insists Duke’s is essential for Southern recipes she has shared in her novels. Can’t find Duke’s in your stores? Well, unlike Pete’s, Duke’s is easily available from Amazon.

Cole Slaw

  • One small head of cabbage
  • Duke’s Mayonnaise
  • Salt
  • Sugar
  • Finely chopped dill pickle (Optional)

With a hand-held grater, grate about a cup of cabbage. Use the finest-grade your grater offers. Add a teaspoon of Duke’s Mayonnaise and stir. It should bind the cabbage. If it doesn’t bind enough, add mayonnaise just a drop at a time, otherwise it will overpower the cabbage. Add a dash of salt and a smidge of sugar. If you like, finely dice a small dill pickle and blend it in.

Build Your Hot Dogs

Boil the hot dogs for just a minute and remove from water. Place buns wrapped in a paper towel in a microwave oven and heat for about 10 seconds. Place hot dog in bun; top with mustard, chili, slaw, and diced onion.

Wash it all down with a cold Coke of Pepsi. Or, if you really want the Carolina experience, see if you can find a Cheerwine. Generally speaking, we save the beer for the pig-pickin‘.

But that’s another story.

Bon appétit! And: Play ball!

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Care to Read More?

The new book is not yet listed on Amazon for pre-sale, but if you click on this cover—you will visit Martin’s book page full of helpful information and ways to keep in touch with his ongoing stories.

WATCH FOR MARTIN DAVIS’s UPCOMING BOOK—If you enjoyed this column, you’ll definitely enjoy Martin’s upcoming book 30 Days with America’s High School Coaches, which is not yet listed for pre-sale on Amazon but will be released in September. Right now, you can visit Martin’s own website, where he has a full page describing this fun and inspiring book. While you’re there, click on the “E-Newsletter sign up” button in the upper-right corner. Martin publishes columns and sometimes podcasts about sports and values. Enjoy!

ENJOY AN EARLIER STORY HERE—If you’re reading this far into this article, you’ll also enjoy looking back to Martin Davis’s soaring 2019 ode to baseball in ReadTheSpirit, headlined, “When I hear, ‘Play ball!’ it’s like a prelude welcoming me back to the great cathedrals

BENJAMIN PRATT, author and retired pastor, has written about as many spirit-of-baseball columns as Martin Davis for our online magazine. If you want to keep reading, here is one of Benjamin’s most popular columns from our archives, headlined: Field of Dreams.

WANT A GREAT BASEBALL BOOK RIGHT NOW? Journalist, author, photographer and baseball fan Rodney Curtis spins a great yarn in Hope’s Diamond, which is available right now on Amazon.

WANT A GREAT HOT DOG BOOK, TOO? Our authors have you covered! Our Michigan State University School of Journalism author Joe Grimm actually wrote the book on Michigan’s signature hot dog—the Coney. Here’s the Amazon page for his popular Coney book. Then, in Michigan, few people have heard of Cheerwine. We drink FAYGO up here! You’ll also enjoy reading Joe’s story about how he published the FAYGO book and then presented more than 100 book talks about its launch—a record! And, yes, that column has a link to find his FAYGO book on Amazon.

FINALLY, A NOTE TO ESPECIALLY EAGLE-EYED READERS—Yes, we are aware that the photo of a Carolina hot dog featured with our story today was taken just before the final touch—the onions—were sprinkled across the hot dog. That’s what we like to think. In fact, this was the most delicious public-domain photo of a Carolina hot dog we could find to illustrate Martin’s tasty column. So, before you email us with this concern—the photo was captured just before the onions were added. And, that’s our story.

So, what’s Christmas all about? The wisdom of Linus, Everett Dagué and 1 in 4 Americans

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Millions of us still to turn to Luke’s masterpiece

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How Greek Orthodox Christians saw Saint Luke in a 15th Century icon.

By MARTIN DAVIS
Contributing Columnist

Fifty-five years ago, the CBS network broadcast this scene across North America: During a problem-plagued Christmas pageant, Charlie Brown shouted in exasperation, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about!?!”

That’s when thumb-sucking, blanket-clutching Linus calmly replied, “Sure, Charlie Brown. I can tell you what Christmas is all about.”

Linus then moved to center stage, asking “Lights, please?”

With a spotlight illuminating him, Linus delivered what—at the time the cartoon was first broadcast—was considered a controversial passage direct from the Gospel of Luke, beginning with, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in their field keeping watch over their flocks by night.”

That Charles Schulz holiday TV special, sponsored by CBS and Coca-Cola, almost never saw the light of television. Network officials didn’t like the jazz music, the lack of a standard laugh track, the choice of real children to record the voices—and they especially didn’t like Linus’s recitation from Luke. Today, it’s hard to imagine why they were worried. At the time, more than 90 percent of Americans identified as Christians, but CBS network officials were afraid of making prime time “too religious.” In the end, they reluctantly broadcast the half-hour cartoon only because they already had paid for its production—telling Schultz bluntly that it would never be seen again.

Today, of course, A Charlie Brown Christmas is recognized as an innovative masterpiece. That’s despite the fact that America now is more secular than in the ’60s. An ever-growing number of Americans—it’s now about 1 in 4 of us—say they have no religious affiliation. My own occasional columns in ReadTheSpirit explore the spiritual lives of those of us who answer pollsters’ questions about our religious affiliation with: “None.”

So, where can all of us—including the millions of Nones—find meaning in this global celebration of Christmas?

This year for Christmas, I turned to a like-minded friend Everett Dagué to talk about Charlie Brown’s question 55 years ago. Like me, Everett is a None. But, as I soon learned in our interview, Everett was struck by Linus’s recitation in that TV special. That was the first time Everett can recall hearing the entire Nativity text from Luke.

I reached out to Everett because I was aware of a distinctive December tradition he has established that now reaches around the world. Everett spends a couple of weeks in early December on Facebook forgoing his usual posts highlighting dinosaurs, cats, military history and cleverly sarcastic political insights. Instead, he devotes a series of thought-provoking posts to re-telling the story of Jesus’ birth as recorded n the Gospel of Luke.

In fact, this year, he invited a couple of wise friends to collaborate in his series of Luke posts. (Care to see some samples of what Everett and his collaborators wrote? You’ll find three sample posts here.)

The Wisdom Everett Dagué Finds in Luke

Let me introduce our interview by telling you a little more about my friend Everett.

He doesn’t consider himself a Christian, and he doesn’t much care for the study of theology. He’s also progressive, although he’s no stereotypical bleeding heart. Everett served in Germany in the Cold War as a 19D Calvary Scout with the US Army. Today, he serves as Command Historian at the US Army NCO Leadership Center of Excellence and United States Army Sergeants-Major Academy and seems happiest when he’s on the firing range with a machine gun set on fully automatic.

He’s certainly not the guy you would expect to be presenting his own Nativity Pageant online every year!

So why this obsession with the birth of Jesus as described by Luke? The answers are as simple, and as complex, as the ways that Everett’s re-telling of this story has evolved. From a straight re-posting of the story over a period of days when he first began what has become an annual tradition—to re-posts with accompanying art or music. This year, he invited friends to help him ruminate on the meaning of the story for them.

Clearly, he has tapped into something. His re-posting of the story has become as much a tradition in many people’s homes as putting up the tree and singing carols. His effort has even gotten a person as devoutly non-religious as me to look forward to this annual series. I’ve known Everett since our days together in graduate school. So when Everett began this year’s retelling of the story, I sat down with him and talked about his journey over the past decade.

This is one of the illustrations Everett added this year to his Luke series on Facebook.

MARTIN: What motivated you to start this annual tradition of retelling the story of Jesus’ birth?

EVERETT: When I started this project, I was teaching at a small, private university in Kansas. The academic calendar is set up so that one has the time to really appreciate the stretch of holidays that begin with Thanksgiving and culminate with New Years. It always seemed to me that this holiday period was bookended appropriately. You begin by giving thanks for the year that you just had, and you end filled with anticipation for the year ahead. That all made sense. And it was all done in ways that celebrated our friends and families in ways that made us appreciate the moment we were in.

Christmas, however, was not this way. It finally dawned on me that we were approaching the holiday completely backwards. It wasn’t about the moment, or the people. It had become all about the stuff. I began writing the story of Jesus’ birth as a way to begin to turn the ship.

MARTIN: There are many people who would agree with you that Christmas has become too much about the stuff. Many of us would like to put the focus back on the spiritual. Is that what you’re trying to do?

EVERETT: Not at all. Just like you can over-materialize the holiday, you can over-religious it, too.
I enjoy retelling Luke’s story of the birth because it doesn’t depend on miracles, like Matthew and Mark do. It isn’t consumed with who Jesus is, like John is. It’s focused on the very human characters in the story. It gives us a window into the moments when Mary and Joseph and the shepherds experienced it all.

Being in that moment, embracing that humanity is what matters. I often think back to something we did growing up. Each year our family would draw names, and we had to take the name that we selected and write them a letter explaining what that person meant to us. That was placed in their stocking. This simple exercise allowed us to celebrate the people in our lives. To live in that moment.

MARTIN: You say that Luke doesn’t focus on miracles, but Chapter 1 is all about Mary’s conception, and the conception of John the Baptist. Both miraculous in their own ways.

EVERETT: Luke uses the miracles like virgin birth, but he does not rely on them to get his point across. For example, one of the most powerful images in Luke 1 is when Mary and Elizabeth meet, and Elisabeth is overcome with joy at seeing Mary, and she knows that Mary is pregnant. Elizabeth’s baby “leaps in the womb.” At that moment Elizabeth knows nothing about virgin births or angels or anything. All she knows is, her cousin is there with her and she is overjoyed. It’s a detail you wouldn’t find in the other Gospels.

Moreover, Chapter 2, the chapter that I focus on each year, focuses on the humanity of the story. And that’s why I picked it. I wanted to increase the awareness that there are more than two ways to read this story. The church would have you believe either you read this as the story of Jesus the savior, or you read this as a story of Jesus who was just a good person.

What both those approaches miss is the wonderful story of a birth. We can meet and understand Joseph the father. Mary the mother. Jesus the baby. Luke is the guy.

I’m not asking people to ignore the religious aspect. However, if all you’re seeing is the birth of the savior, you’re missing a lot there. No one knows he’s going to be the savior. Looking at what these people are doing, they’re doing it because there’s something good in them, and good in us, too. And that’s what Christmas is all about. That’s the world that we live in.

MARTIN: So are you saying that there is no miracle element to the story?

EVERETT: Not exactly. There is miracle. But it’s the miracle of the every day. You can be a Mary, unmarried and afraid, yet moving boldly forward with Joseph in spite of the insults and indignities the society heaped on her. You can be a Joseph. Joseph could have picked up and walked away and no one would have blamed him. But that’s not what Joseph does. The shepherds would have had no trouble just staying there with their sheep. But they don’t do that. Why do they do what they do?

When we think about the way we can make the world a better place, this is the story that tells you how to do that. By retelling the very human side of this story, I wanted to add an element that has been lost in this season. I get the centrality of Jesus, but for right now, for today, this is what this is about.

MARTIN: Your degree is in history. Is there a connection between the way you approach history, and the way you approach this story?

EVERETT: To be sure. One of the things I got in spades from Owen Connelly, the late, great Napoleonic scholar at the University of South Carolina, is that you read what’s there, not what you want it to mean or say. You have to learn to read a text for what it means. Not for what you want it to mean.

This doesn’t mean that you simply accept the words on the page blindly. You do your homework. You learn as much as you can about the writer and the period something was written in. But at the end of the day, you’ve got to take the text for what it is. That’s what I’m trying to regain in telling this story.

MARTIN: Your wife did her graduate work in literature. And you yourself are quite the fan of literature. I know from our years together, for example, that Moby Dick is a very important book for you. How has your approach to literature shaped the way you approach this story?

EVERETT: I’ve probably read Moby Dick 15 times, and every time that I read it I come away from it with a totally different understanding. This is what great literature does: Each stage of life that you read it brings new understanding and insights. So, let’s look at Moby Dick, since you’ve raised it. The last time I read it, I saw something I’d never really seen before. The Great Whale really represents God, and what drives Ahab’s fury is his inability to control God.

When I sit down and read Luke, I keep coming back to Joseph. I’m a guy, a husband, a father. I get him and understand him in ways I couldn’t understand Mary. When I think about what I should be like as a husband and a father, I find it in him. He doesn’t deal in anger. That’s what I’m seeing now. When I first encountered the story through hearing Linus recite it in the Peanuts Christmas special, I encountered it in a totally different way. This is the way you want your parents to be, your family to be. As you change, the meaning changes as well.

MARTIN: What’s been the biggest change in you in the years doing this?

EVERETT: There are a lot of things, but let me talk about one: I’ve learned how to be a parent from this annual reading. The birth of a baby is the beginning of something. You never quite lose the awe of that experience. And this is the nice thing about this story. But I’ve also learned a lot about how to accept my kids and my family as they are, and still grow to become who you need to be. It’s critical, however, as you grow to never forget that awe of experiencing the birth of a baby.

Then, if I might go for just a moment to a darker story that illuminates what I mean. When I was on faculty at Benedictine College, we had a Discovery Day where kids could work on any individual project they wanted. I had one student who wanted to put Joseph Mengele—the Nazi doctor notorious for the inhumane experiments he conducted on Jews—on trial. So we did. In the course of the trial, we had a “witness” (someone from the era whose memory was recorded in the record) who described a Nazi guard who kicked a baby just when it was born, killing it. The baby and the mother had just arrived on a train to Auschwitz.

The reason I do this reading every year, to remember the pure beauty of the birth of a child, is to counter that.
I have come to believe that you can change things within yourself and within the world itself by making people more aware of the miracle that is your kids. This story of birth is how we keep sight of that, by reminding people every year of the simple mystery and beauty of birth.

We have concentration camps right now in the United States along the border where the US government is doing unspeakable things to innocent mothers and children. Maybe what we need to do is be a little more aware that these are miraculous beings.

MARTIN: This year you are doing the story very differently. This year, you have collaborators. Why are you doing this?

EVERETT: I always try to do it differently. The first year I just posted the story. Then I began experimenting with art. I still have much to say, much to explore in this story. But I’m sure that people get a little tired of just me. So I’ve asked people who are good writers, but come from very different backgrounds, to help me write the entries this year.

It’s one more experiment in keeping the power of this story alive.

Want to Hear Linus’s Version?

You should see a YouTube video screen, below, where you can watch the now-famous clip of Linus from 55 years ago. If a video screen does not appear in your browser, you also can watch the clip directly on the YouTube website. (In some versions, you might have to briefly see a short advertisement.)

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ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm contributed to this story.

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Care to read more?
Or, hear more?

FIRST, you may want to read more from Everett and his friends. Because Facebook is such a fleeting medium, anyone trying to find the reflections on Luke’s Nativity story by Everett Dagué and his friends will have to search through lots of other posts before finding the Luke stories. So—with full credit and thanks to writers Everett, Rebecca Marie and James Lewis—we are presenting three sample posts from their December 2020 series.

THEN, are you inspired by our ReadTheSpirit magazine cover story this week by journalist Martin Davis? Right now, Martin is working on an entire book of uplifting stories about high school coaches and players nationwide—men and women, black and white, famous and unsung heroes alike. His book will appear as an early 2021 volume in our series of 30 Days With under the title: 30 Days With America’s High School Coaches.

You can follow Martin’s work through his personal website, MartinDavisAuthor.com, which describes his work as an author and editor, as well as his background as a veteran journalist for national publications.

Look around that website and sign up to receive free updates from Martin about new columns and podcasts. You’ll be glad you did!

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Samples from Luke’s Nativity story as expanded by Everett Dagué, Rebecca Marie and James Lewis in 2020

NOTE  FROM MARTIN  DAVIS—Facebook is such a fleeting medium that anyone trying to find the reflections on Luke’s Nativity story by Everett Dagué and his friends will have to search through lots of other posts before finding the Luke stories. So—with full credit and thanks to writers Everett, Rebecca Marie and James Lewis—we are presenting three sample posts from their December 2020 series.

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One of Everett’s first posts in December 2020

The follow-up story Everett mentions by Rebecca

 

Then, here’s a piece in the series from James Lewis