(Part whatever of my ongoing investigation into the cultural intersections of religion and basketball; part I, on the intertwining cultural meanings of Mormonism and the Utah Jazz, can be found here; part II, a review of the religious pilgrimage of Cleveland Cavaliers bit player Lance Allred, here; part III, on the Puritan antecedents of LeBron James nemesis Dan Gilbert, here.)
The author of Holy Scripture is God, in whose power it is to signify His meaning, not by words only (as man also can do), but also by things themselves. So, whereas in every other science things are signified by words, this science has the property, that the things signified by the words have themselves also a signification. Therefore that first signification whereby words signify things belongs to the first sense, the historical or literal. That signification whereby things signified by words have themselves also a signification is called the spiritual sense, which is based on the literal, and presupposes it. Now this spiritual sense has a threefold division. For as the Apostle says (Hebrews 10:1) the Old Law is a figure of the New Law, and Dionysius says [Coel. Hier. i] “the New Law itself is a figure of future glory.” Again, in the New Law, whatever our Head has done is a type of what we ought to do. Therefore, so far as the things of the Old Law signify the things of the New Law, there is the allegorical sense; so far as the things done in Christ, or so far as the things which signify Christ, are types of what we ought to do, there is the moral sense. But so far as they signify what relates to eternal glory, there is the anagogical sense.
– Thomas Aquinas,Summa Theologica 1.1.10.
Like Walt Whitman, and Holy Scripture properly understood, Jimmer Fredette contains multitudes. One of the more tiring aspects of the Internet age is how dense webs of signification have become: there no longer may simply be a thing-in-itself, but now there must be thing-in-the-world wherein thing is understood entirely through references to other thing. Thus, thing is the new George Bush or the British Nicki Minaj or the Jewish Thomas Mann. This is followed by thing-advocacy wherein thing is understood through its ineluctable contributions to the zeitgeist and its status as avatar of Our Endless and Futile Quest for Love/The Moral Degeneracy of [the Right/the Left/the Hipster/the SUV Owner/Contemporary American Foreign Policy]/Nostalgia for A Childhood that Never Was are unfolded, followed by thing-backlash wherein thing is subjected to withering scorn of the sort that’s fifty-five percent contrariness and forty-five percent relentless nitpicking, followed by a thing-backlash-backlash, followed by a column in Slate that, like this one, pretends to stand above the fray and in a faux-ironic voice details the rise and fall of the Holga camera, 2009-2011.
The tidal waves of interpretation here are incessant and pulsing, an ignorant and predictable long withdrawing roar. They are, that is, prooftexting – constructing thing to fit our already preconceived notions of the way the world works, the pruning and excerpting of it to fit the blind and regularized patterns of understanding that our corporate masters (or somebody) have foisted upon us. Rather than interpretation of Jimmer Fredette in his totality, we has been subjected to the relentless and ludicrous tyranny of comparison, a strategy which seems to tell us everything but in fact tells us nothing, because endless equivocation with Ben Gordon, JJ Redick, Dan Dickau, and Allen Iverson do naught but perpetuate the ring of endless referentiality.
That is, Mormons see Jimmer as a Mormon who happens to be a dynamic point guard; current great scorer Kevin Durant sees him as the next great scorer; the legions of folks who compare him to Allen Iverson see a short guy, those who compare him to Jim Paxson (of all people) see a white guy. Jimmer Fredette has not been allowed to reorient our moral universes in the means which his potential offers, because we have read him to confirm what we already know instead of allowing his strangeness to disrupt our lives. Of what use is it comparing Jimmer to Iverson when we don’t really know who Iverson is either? We applaud both men for scoring with ease, but we don’t ask why we assume field goals are important in the first place.
This is why we still need Thomas Aquinas: to rightly divide the truth of Jimmer Fredette, to impose order and interpretation upon our interpretations. What we really need is not more analysis of Jimmer qua Jimmer, but more analysis of the uses we put him to. That is, we need to rigorously examine the modes of meaning which Jimmer presents to us to ensure that he is organizing our moral universe correctly.
There are senses of Jimmer Fredette both literal and spiritual; one of the first, which is the tangible reality of the man, and three of the latter, which build meaning upon his actuality. They are not mutually exclusive; indeed, Jimmer Fredette is able to signify multiple things which construct and support each other: this is the richness which those who prooftext Jimmer neglect.
The Literal Sense. Fact: Jimmer Fredette, who plays point guard for the BYU Cougars, stands six foot two and weighs 195 pounds. He currently averages 27.6 points a game, first in the NCAA. He does this while making 47.3 percent of his shots, including 41.3 percent of his three-pointers. As a point guard, he is expected to have a lot of assists; he currently averages 4.3 a game, good for around ninetieth in the NCAA. Fact: last year, Jimmer Fredette averaged 22.1 points a game, with percentages of 45.8 and 44.0 and 4.7 assists. By several metrics he is a less efficient player this year than last. Fact: Last year, it was widely assumed Jimmer would be taken late in the first or early in the second round of the NBA draft, which is where players who are generally considered flawed, with unproven potential, or otherwise a gamble usually go.
If one were to examine only the numbers, Jimmer Fredette largely seems the same player this year as he was last year. Yet suddenly he has moved up the draft boards. Why is this? A literal reading seems insufficient to explain the resonance Jimmer has attained. Jimmer may be a better basketball player than he was in 2010, but he is also a more ambiguous, and hence more powerful, metaphysical force. He has gathered symbolic meaning to himself. We see here the spiritual senses at work. His name, for instance, has become a verb and a participle adjective, which fact has inspired enthusiastic, if not entirely cohesive, ruminating on the part of noted Deseret News sports curmudgeon Dick Harmon about what a funny name “Jimmer” is and mildly alarming, if weirdly cheery, facebook bombing of dissenters – particularly, the sort which seems to confirm her protest that Jimmer-time has come to resemble the quasi-religious iteration of Maoism particularly popular in the seventies.
Clearly, there are forces beyond the reach of the quantitative at work here.
The Moral Sense. This is where things grow interesting. Jesus freed the woman taken in adultery to remind us all to embrace humility. Jimmer, on the other hand, takes nearly a third of his team’s shots. In addition to the man’s gaudy scoring, this, perhaps, is a less than flattering reason for the comparison to noted ballhog Allen Iverson.*
The cultivation – or perhaps, the weary acceptance – of such a Jimmer-centric strategy on the part of coach Dave Rose may seem unremarkable. When one has such a primal basketball force as Jimmer – who is better at putting the basketball in the hoop than most of us will be at anything, ever – in one’s corner, then one must unleash the proverbial kraken, especially when it’s against the Utah Utes. Right?
And yet, morally speaking, the rise of Jimmer Fredette obliterates everything Mormon basketball has stood for for nearly a hundred years. Strictly speaking, as I have discussed further elsewhere, the object of basketball among early twentieth century Latter-day Saints was nothing so vulgar as to showcase individual greatness, or even to achieve its overrated cousin, winning. Rather, the goal of basketball was to imprint in young men’s minds the importance of individual sacrifice to the exaltation of the common good; the rigorous discipline of learning to run plays rather than cultivating individual skills, the soul-building virtues of numbing physical labor, and the benefits of hanging around heavily supervised church buildings rather than disreputable alleys.
Jimmer Fredette teaches us none of these things, but particularly not the first;** indeed, Jimmer has gained fame and celebration for precisely the opposite: putting the adequate but undistinguished second through twelfth men of the Cougar team on his back and hauling them toward what may be a respectable showing in the NCAA tournament. He is remaking Mormon basketball in the image of a secular age. But is it worth the price of a soul?
The Allegorical Sense. In which the Old Covenant illustrates the New; in which the manna sent from heaven to the children of Israel gestures to the Bread of Life born in Bethlehem. Here is where Jimmer Fredette is redeemed, with an assist from ESPN anchor John Buccigross. Jimmer has become an event, a term of art, and a metaphysical force precisely because of his individual brilliance; his basketball skills exemplify those which define basketball to the contemporary digital media. Jimmer has become part of the revolution remaking basketball from moral task to popular entertainment, from active discipline to passive observation. The crowd-sourcing of Jimmer at BYU reflects this adulation. Jimmer has brought Mormon basketball to ESPN SportsCenter through discarding what is Mormon about it, and Mormons seem absolutely fine with this.
And yet. In another sense, Jimmer Fredette reflects the transformation of Mormonism itself; the Old Covenant given way to the New. He is a Mormon of the mormon.org age; a Mormon defined less by rigorous conformity and personal self-discipline than by the ability to project a wholesome diversity; to reflect back to pluralistic America the things which it values most edited to a PG rating.
This is the Mormonism evident since the mid-1990s, when the presidency of the sunny, warm, and media-savvy Gordon B. Hinckley – a Mormonism which urged its members to be good neighbors, which downplayed Mormon difference and invited converts to add its light to their own – began to replace the retrenchment Mormonism of Bruce R. McConkie, the Mormonism suspicious of American culture in the sixties and seventies, the Mormonism which emphasized food storage and its own doctrinal distinctiveness. Retrenchment Mormonism created its own culture in the form of road shows and oddities like the Mormon Rap; contemporary Mormonism seeks to colonize the cultural landscapes around it.
All this new benevolent pluralism needed was a crossover star, and where Mitt Romney failed, Jimmer Fredette seems to have succeeded. Gordon B. Hinckley could have asked for nothing more than John Buccigross taking three essential steps: First, chuckling in admiration over Jimmer’s well-earned basketball stardom, Buccigross salutes Jimmer for the fact that his particular basketball talents admirably fit the required parameters to be anointed by SportsCenter: be visually pleasing; make dunks or three pointers, or better, both; perform remarkable individual physical feats; most of all, win. With Jimmer thus inducted into the official ESPN Pantheon of Acceptable Sports Stars Buccigross then asks the question that closes the circle and makes Jimmer into the avatar of modern Mormonism: “How old were you when you made that decision, and why did you choose to be a Mormon?”
The Anagogical Sense. In which the text illustrates the coming heavenly kingdom; in which Ezra’s rebuilding of the temple at Jerusalem gestures to the imminent creation of the Kingdom of God. Here is where Jimmer Fredette has become the future. Some historians have claimed that the path to John F. Kennedy’s triumph over Richard Nixon began with Knute Rockne’s improbable transformation of Notre Dame from sleepy parochial college in Nowhere, Indiana to nationally feared football powerhouse. This is not to say (heavens) anything so crassly predictive as that Jimmer Fredette is the herald of President Romney.*** It is, however, to say that Jimmer Fredette embodies the Mormonism of the Millennial generation; that his remaking of the basketball of the Mormon corridor in the image of American cable sports is the final twist of the knife in the weak and fluttering heart of retrenchment Mormonism, and the inauguration of a new age of cultural integration.
For far more than his shadowy archetypes David Archuleta and Brooke Wright (who mostly produced the sort of music that people with cultural affinity toward Mormonism already listened to) Jimmer has shown people like Ron Artest, John wall, and Kevin Durant, precisely the sort of tall black Nas fans for whom Mormonism holds absolutely zero interest or appeal, that they may yet have things in common with somebody who believes that Heber J. Grant was a prophet of God. And while this may mark the end of a particular age, it also seems to inaugurate the coming of a new variety of Mormonism.
*Same caveat may even apply: that is, the young man’s teammates are largely useless. To which I might respond, remember when Jackson Emery was supposed to be good?
**Though a case can be made for the third, because he used to play pickup at the local prisons in upstate New York.
***Or more likely, if slightly later, President Huntsman. He’s the Mormon Kennedy; Romney’s the Mormon Al Smith. Think about it.