How Thomas Aquinas?s Theory Of Scripture Explains Why Jimmer Fredette Is The Hinge On Which Modern Mormonism Pivots

By February 9, 2011

(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 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.

Article filed under Cultural History Popular Culture Ritual Theology


  1. beats the hell out of that recent letter to the editor. well done.

    Comment by BHodges — February 9, 2011 @ 10:39 am

  2. bravo.

    is it true that you’ve never actually seen him play? rumors…

    Comment by annie g — February 9, 2011 @ 11:07 am

  3. Awesome, Matt.

    One question, though: Don’t some prognostications of Jimmer’s NBA potential point to a middle ground in what you’ve outlined above? That is, when someone like Bill Simmons suggests that “as long as you have one elite skill, you can play in the NBA for 8-10 years” and that “Jimmer can fill it,” isn’t that suggesting the possibility that Jimmer’s ceiling as a player is not as an individual superstar, but rather as a key component of a good team? Isn’t that what J.J. Redick (who literally wears his Christianity on his chest and often is pointed to as the most ready comparison to Fredette) has done?

    Comment by Christopher — February 9, 2011 @ 11:07 am

  4. Awesome. I now have my GD lesson for this Sunday…

    Do you take requests for the series? How about something on Mark Madsen?

    (Also, in .473 percent and .413 percent you need to delete the word “percent” or move the decimal.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — February 9, 2011 @ 11:08 am

  5. Christopher – certainly, though I think what you’re actually discussing here is the difference between college ball and the NBA. And as Adam Morrison can tell you, that’s a gulf and a half. (Personally, I think Jimmer may well surprise in the NBA and become the poor man’s Stephen Curry. He’d still be the best Mormon ever, with respect to Danny Ainge.)

    Kevin – thanks! I hear Mark Madsen’s getting into real estate these days. (Also, thanks for the tip; us humanities folk need that sort of help.)

    annie – shh.

    Blair – ha. well played.

    Comment by matt b. — February 9, 2011 @ 11:15 am

  6. Great stuff.

    Comment by Eric — February 9, 2011 @ 11:21 am

  7. matt b.: Marry me.

    Comment by Mark Brown — February 9, 2011 @ 11:35 am

  8. Absolutely brilliant. Close the niblets voting for 2011.

    Comment by Ben — February 9, 2011 @ 11:52 am

  9. Matt, what do you think about comparing him to Ray Allan? Being a good spot-up jump shooter covereth a multitude of sins…..

    Comment by Mark Brown — February 9, 2011 @ 12:20 pm

  10. Excellent, Matt.

    Next up we need an analysis of how Jimmer’s brother’s goofy rap about Jimmer is situated in relation to the Mormon Rap (which you claim as a product of Retrenchment Mormonism), Vanilla Ice and the practice of using mix tapes featuring paens to sports teams and figures as a way to gain notice and credibility in the rap world.

    Comment by Wm Morris — February 9, 2011 @ 12:32 pm

  11. I went to high school with Dick Harmon. He was illiterate back then too.

    Comment by Mark B. — February 9, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  12. Matt’s making a strong case–with all of these essays–for being included on FreeDarko’s next book. Make it happen.

    Comment by DLewis — February 9, 2011 @ 1:28 pm

  13. Sheer awesomeness, Matt.

    But I wonder what variety of Mormonism Jimmer offers us that Steve Young couldn’t or didn’t?

    Comment by Eric Russell — February 9, 2011 @ 2:55 pm

  14. (Personally, I think Jimmer may well surprise in the NBA and become the poor man?s Stephen Curry. He?d still be the best Mormon ever, with respect to Danny Ainge.)

    I find it funny that there the people who say that he’ll be nowhere near as good as Curry are the same people that thought there was no way that Curry would make it in the NBA.

    I think Fredette’s NBA ceiling is probably like Jason Terry’s of the Dallas Mavericks. A “3rd Guard” that comes off the bench and is expected to do one thing, score. Eddie House, formerly of Boston and now with Miami, would be a less successful example.

    Comment by Tim J — February 9, 2011 @ 3:28 pm

  15. Thinking more about this, Matt, I wonder how you would situate Danny Ainge into the framework you’ve outlined here. How do his well-documented and stereotyped antics (foul-mouthed, overly-competitive, borderline-cheating) as player, coach, and now GM fit within the ideals underlying Mormonism’s athletic/basketball ethics?

    Comment by Christopher — February 9, 2011 @ 3:40 pm

  16. I think Fredette?s NBA ceiling is probably like Jason Terry?s of the Dallas Mavericks.

    I find it interesting that commenters are trying to point out comparisons to Jimmer after a post that not only details how such comparisons are problematic and limiting, but also explicitly states that such comparisons are not the object of this thread. 🙂

    I wonder how you would situate Danny Ainge into the framework you?ve outlined here. How do his well-documented and stereotyped antics (foul-mouthed, overly-competitive, borderline-cheating) as player, coach, and now GM fit within the ideals underlying Mormonism?s athletic/basketball ethics?

    Great point. Do you think the larger exposure of tv coverage, internet presence, and, most especially in this case, social media make this type of development more prominent?

    Comment by Ben — February 9, 2011 @ 3:56 pm

  17. I find it interesting that commenters are trying to point out comparisons to Jimmer after a post that not only details how such comparisons are problematic and limiting, but also explicitly states that such comparisons are not the object of this thread.

    I know which is why I was careful in my wording. Note I didn’t compare Jimmer the player to Jason Terry the player, but rather their impact. I know it’s a trivial point, but I find the direct “who does he remind you of?” comparisons futile as well.

    Comment by Tim J — February 9, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

  18. Matt B: I salute you.

    Witty, intelligent, hilarious. Awesome.

    Comment by Karen — February 9, 2011 @ 4:22 pm

  19. Thanks again, folks.

    Karen – fistbump. Say hello to Anneke Majors if you ever see her.

    As to various comparisons:

    Steve Young: Football is a completely different beast than basketball; I talk about the relationship between the Jazz and BYU football somewhat in this post on the Jazz; suffice it to say that despite its present status as cultural juggernaut, football’s not done the same sort of work that basketball has upon the Mormon character. I’d lump Young in with any number of other Mormon celebrities; beloved for his status as “Mormon.” Fredette, though, is messing with the Mormon cultural inheritance in all sorts of ways.

    Ray Allen, Jason Terry, etc. Plausible, and also generally technical in a sense that’s actually only loosely related to his transformative spiritual force.

    Danny Ainge: The interesting thing here is one man’s borderline cheating is another man’s gritty hard work; the same phenomenon exists in relation to Stockton and Malone (which I also discuss somewhat in my Jazz piece). What’s important in terms of cultural impact is how the person in question is perceived, particularly by Mormons. And there’s no shortage of Dick Harmon articles praising Ainge’s possession of made up Mormon Corridor virtues like “sticktoitiveness.” Danny’s Larry Bird’s gritty enforcer; Jimmer’s a phenomenon. Therein lies the difference.

    Comment by matt b. — February 9, 2011 @ 5:34 pm

  20. Brilliant.

    Nothing coherent to add, just wanted to give kudos. This and Kevin’s post over on BCC ought to receive a nomination for duet of the year.

    I’m just not sure which genre . . .

    Comment by Ray — February 9, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  21. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jeff, Juvenile Instructor. Juvenile Instructor said: How Thomas Aquinas?s Theory Of Scripture Explains Why Jimmer Fredette Is The Hinge On Which Modern Mormonism Piv… […]

    Pingback by Tweets that mention Juvenile Instructor » How Thomas Aquinas?s Theory Of Scripture Explains Why Jimmer Fredette Is The Hinge On Which Modern Mormonism Pivots -- — February 9, 2011 @ 7:35 pm

  22. Thanks, Matt. Fortunately for me, you don’t have to follow the ins and outs of all of this to appreciate some of the fun.

    Comment by Jared T — February 9, 2011 @ 10:53 pm

  23. Matt needs a hobby. Oh, wait: maybe this is his hobby.

    Comment by Jonathon — February 10, 2011 @ 2:35 pm

  24. Turns out Jimmer can be fun to think with, as well as watch play. I think Matt just set up a basketball hoop in the ivory tower.

    Comment by Ryan T. — February 10, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

  25. this post is amazing

    Wm Morris, TJ Fredette is not the Millenials’ “Mormon Rap”…he’s their W.W. Phelps. The Final Four will be their Kirtland Temple Dedication, and the anthem for it is already written.

    Comment by Kyle M — February 10, 2011 @ 10:41 pm

  26. With Agency and the Anthem, ?for it is already written?
    Seeking the Mormon Rainbow of Permutations with authority and blessed tangents for truth in the faith, should it be Jimmer or the Jeraneck or Beck ?? or all three?
    After looking through this post, I can see there is still a wish for singularity in the shiny face of another ?Great White Hope,? in the name of Jimmer, a basketball player in Utah unknown to any beyond the camp that worships such stuff is a stretch on which to hang one?s spiritual star.
    I could carry on with one run-on sentence after the next, dropping names and places in a facile amalgamation to both baffle and bedazzle for the sake of some faith or another ?? to draw attention to the writer rather than what?s written, but, life is short and run-ons linger to some unresigned completion for the instructor brotherhood of juveniles in the ?religion making business? for Mormon Basketball?
    And it came to pass, beyond the Mormon Temple stretches the Utah Badlands, go hither and make them green.
    With the evolving social construct absorbing a multitude of cultural lenses, there is soon to be a place in time for All Mormons to reinsert themselves into weft of this tapestry, with full Mormon Restoration, returning to that purest of faith requirements, polygamy and all, reconciling FLDS and LDS forever, and more, both here and in the hereafter forever ?? this may be part of the plan of salvation for everybody.
    Now there is a new prophet afoot with a completed new and updated work of bibical proportion to ponder, The Book of Jeraneck, yes, there is still more room under the Big Tent of Mormon Branding, here?s hoping Mormon Youth-in-Asia learn to accept this newest of all white heros and root along too.

    Good luck and lots of prayer for Jimmer and Gill to carry the faith into the New Light of Brighter Days to the end-time; Glenn Beck has his own club to drag along as well. One could forget the whole idea and just buy gold.
    Gabriel Von Himmel

    Comment by Gabriel von Himmel — February 15, 2011 @ 10:23 am

  27. I don’t know, Gabriel; you’re giving me a pretty good run for my money when it comes to incomprehensible run-on sentences, wandering paragraphs, and weird allusions to irrelevant public figures, continents, and general esoterica.

    Comment by matt b — February 15, 2011 @ 10:37 am

  28. Yeah … remind me again of the story of that guy who thought he could write scripture like Joseph Smith did? you know, the guy who failed so miserably, so spectacularly, so ignominiously?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — February 15, 2011 @ 11:20 am

  29. Kevin ? You fell for an old trick called who?s-paying-attention-to-my-decimal-point-placement? It?s commonly used by bloggers to establish a readership to skimmership quotient. For example, I was tempted to question ?they are not mutually exclusive,? and ask if, given Thomas Aquinas,Summa Theologica 1.1.10., ?they are mutually inclusive? wouldn?t be more appropriate. But then I caught myself and deleted my comment before submitting. Wait, am I confusing these terms with ?collectively exhaustive??

    And up goes the quotient.
    Well done Matt. Well done.

    Comment by Mao Quan — February 16, 2011 @ 3:26 pm

  30. Would that I were that clever, Mao. Also, kudos on the hundred flowers campaign.

    Comment by matt b — February 17, 2011 @ 1:48 am

  31. A classic.

    Who would have guessed that Thomas Aquinas and Jimmer Freddette would be mentioned in the same article?

    Comment by Believe All Things — February 28, 2011 @ 7:50 pm


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