About a year ago I had the opportunity to interview author Will Leitch, writer for New York Magazine, creator of the uber-popular sports blog Deadspin.com, and author of God Save the Fan.
Will, who has a new book coming out in May called Are We Winning, opened up about faith, Michael W. Smith, and being a humor writer for a sometimes crude sports blog.
Will also had this to say about my sports/faith blog:
“…the Christian sports site Prayers for Blowouts, which is a much better site than many of you would probably think.”
BA: Will, you mentioned once in a Deadspin column that you had spent the first 17 years of your life as a “rather devoted churchgoer”. Did your family attend the same church throughout your youth? what type of church(es) did you grow up in?
WL: When I was very young, the Leitches went to the First Baptist Church of Mattoon, out of obligation and without much passion. I used to sit in the back of the church with my grandfather, where he taught me the “Who’s On First?” routine and he showed off his supercool electric pen. I was about 10 when he died, and we stopped going. I was baptized there, but, again, without much passion. I did, however, read “The Book For Children” — remember “The Book?” — which was smart enough to tell the whole Bible as series of adventure stories. This has helped me ace religion questions on Jeopardy! to this day.
It wasn’t until I was 13 that I started going regularly, on my own, without my family. The neighbors down the road went to Broadway Christian Church, a pseudo mega-church before our suburban landscape was riddled with them. Lori Nottemeyer, our neighbor and friend, would pick me up and drive me to church every Sunday morning and Wednesday night, and I became rather devoted to it.
It served, initially, as a social bridge; I only hung out with the boring smart kids at school at was eager to meet new people. But I caught onto it because it was really fun: We had an outstanding youth minister named Ken Rutledge with whom you could talk sports (sadly, he was a Cub fan; in this matter, I was never going to be converted), music and, sometimes vigorously, politics. Even then, at 13, I didn’t understand some of the church’s rules — I couldn’t quite figure out why the sermon sometimes condemned my gay uncle in Philadelphia, who was a really great guy — but I was very serious about my studies. After a few summer sessions at Lincoln Christian College, I decided I wanted to be a youth minister. I saw a guy there, a young guy, who spoke to us with humor. It didn’t seem uncool to be Christian. I thought that was something I could do. I liked getting in front of people, and I felt like I would have something extremely important to say.
BA: From my experience, most high-schoolers who regularly attend church fall into 1 of 3 groups: 1) kids who hate being there and only go because their parents make them, 2) kids who aren’t really into the spiritual side of church, but like seeing their friends, and 3) kids who are completely devoted to their faith and try to focus all of their lives around God. Did you fall squarely into any of these groups?
WL: I’d say it started out at 2 — that was the initial point — but quickly segued into 3. I didn’t close myself off from the world the way I saw some of my fellow teenagers did (I was still listening to as much Guns N’ Roses as DC Talk), but I wasn’t pretending. I think my parents, who at the time were not churchgoers, were a little bewildered. They were happy their son was going to church rather than impregnating people, but they might have been afraid I’d start telling Dad he was sinning every time he opened a beer.
BA: You mentioned seeing DC Talk in concert more than any other band. Were there any other christian concerts you attended that you’d like to fess up to? Petra? Newsboys? Carman? Amy Grant? Audio Adrenaline?
WL: I saw Stryper a few times, and everybody had to go see Michael W. Smith. (I still think “Friends” is a wonderful song, even to a secular world.) I saw Amy Grant at Christian Day at Six Flags; I’m still angry with Ken for making me miss the Screamin’ Eagle for that. But the worst acts I ever saw were local. One band used to do Oak Ridge Boys songs with Christian lyrics. They turned Elvira into “Oh, Jonah,” and had some idiotic lyrics about whales and, in a classic, finished up with the most inspiring, spiritual riff on vomiting up humans I’ve ever heard.
BA: What percentage of your music collection in high school was “christian”? Were your parents strict in terms of filtering the music you listened to as you grew up?
WL: They weren’t strict at all; my Dad’s the one who got me obsessed with “Born To Run.” Most of my music was non-Christian. Sometimes there would be a little crossover (I think King’s X diddled with some Christian themes), but, honestly, no one at church asked me to give up my Public Enemy or Motley Crue, and I would have ignored them if they had.
BA: Did you participate in any of the following classic youth group events during your time in the youth group at church: signing a promise commitment to not have sex until you were married, going on a missions trip to another country, community outreaches, or starting a bible club at school?
WL: They tried to get me to start a Bible club at school, but I was precarious enough ground, popularity-wise, to know better. I did sign a promise commitment as well. I’m going to assume that’s not legally binding. Right? RIGHT?
BA: Does the fact that you are not a devoted churchgoer now have more to do with a lack of interest in spirituality, a lack of interest in Christianity, or a lack of interest in church?
WL: Around my senior year of high school, I was introduced to Kurt Cobain, Woody Allen, the joy of typing really fast and showing what I came up with to other people and, yes, women I could kiss who weren’t my pillow. I also found — and this is one of those things I probably attach more importance to now than I did when I was a teenager — that many of the people at my church whom I respected and looked up to weren’t nearly as pious as they wanted everyone to think. That wasn’t the primary reason, but it certainly helped tip matters over.
You know, we all make priorities in our lives, and I decided that the world, to me, was too big, and my desire to write too overpowering, to limit myself. That is to say: The same reason that I left Mattoon was the one that I left the church. I was prideful enough to believe the town, and the Church, were too small for my ambitions. I do not live a hedonistic life, not to any stretch of the imagination, but I do not live a Christian one either. But this is hardly an issue that has been settled. Most of my extended family are devoted churchgoers, as are many of my old friends from high school, and I think they know that was too large a part of my life to have been forgotten, or permanently shelved.
And, in a nice touch, about 10 years ago, my mother had a spiritual awakening and went on a search to find the belief system that matched her new found devotion. She ran the whole gamut, from Buddhism to Islam to Judaism. Somewhat amusingly, she landed on Catholicism and now never misses a Sunday. I always joke that the rest of the church — most of whom grew up Catholic and dealt with all the guilt and complication that entailed — must be so annoyed with her sometimes. “Hey, everybody,” I imagine her saying, “let’s do something Catholic! Isn’t Catholicism awesome?!” And they sit in the back, quietly scoffing, thinking, “Yeah, well, you were probably doing something fun and guilt-free when you were 16. Jerk.”
That is to say: I might live in the Sodom of New York City (well, Brooklyn), but that is not my whole life.
BA: You say the issue of living a Christian life and/or being a churchgoer hasn’t really been settled for you and might not be permanently shelved. Has achieving a moderate level of success chasing your ambitions given you a different perspective on the things you left behind (Mattoon/the church)?
WL: It’s a bit early to tell there. Honestly, “moderate level of success” is rather relative. I don’t think I’ve done anything yet. I mean, I wrote a sports blog that a few people read and I got screamed at on national television [Ed. Note: author Buzz Bissinger screamed at Leitch on an episode of Costas now on HBO on the topic of blogging – high comedy]. This is what I want to do with my life, so, so far, I feel kind of behind schedule. That’s a roundabout way of answering your question.
BA: You spend a ton of time watching sports as a fan and covering sports as a writer. What are your thoughts on athletes who, without being prompted, talk about their faith in post-game interviews?
WL: I have a chapter about this in my book, so forgive me if I quote from it.
“Realize the mindset of athletes like Zach Johnson, or Tony Dungy, or Kurt Warner. Their Christianity isn’t some peripheral aspect to their life; it is their life. [Secularists] might not agree with it, but from their perspective, everything they do, from showing up to church on Sunday, to buying meat, to scoring a touchdown, is done for the glory of Christ. They don’t thank Jesus for helping them win a game; they thank Jesus for everything. What sounds like mealy-mouthed platitudes to us are genuine, heartfelt beliefs for them. And from Johnson’s perspective: That moment, after he has just won The Masters, is likely the most high-profile moment he’ll ever have, on a national stage. One of the founding principles of Christianity is to spread the gospel of Christ. He would have no better opportunity. While the reporters were sighing and waiting for him to say something they could use, millions of Christians at home were awed by Johnson’s humility in the name of Christ. If they had a national television audience hanging on their every word, they’d do the same thing. Why this bothers us more than, say, LeBron James flashing his Nike logo every time he talks to Jim Gray is bewildering.
The fake Christians out there, the ones who do seem to genuinely believe that Christ actually cares about the result of a sporting event (and, in fact, wanted them to win), tend to spoil the brew on this issue. But there is a difference between these guys and Zack Johnson. Whether you agree with them or not, this is their life’s major focus. Just because they believe Jesus was with them while they won, that doesn’t mean they believe Jesus was only with them.”
That’s how I feel about it. Now please, go buy the book!
BA: I’m glad you brought up your book. I have to be honest. I read the first couple chapters sitting on the floor of the sports section in the Exton, Pennsylvania Barnes & Noble. While I enjoyed what I read, I never purchased the book, and I feel like I owe you a few bucks. If I pick it up in paperback, are we even? And while we’re here is there another book in the works?
WL: Yep, we’re even. (Anyone wanting the final word on the Costas Now thing can find it among the new material.) And actually, thank you for asking, yes: There’s another book in the works, about baseball. It’s my last sports book. Perhaps. Hopefully. Maybe. [Are We Winning?, releases May 4, 2010]
BA: As an Arizona Cardinals fan, what are your thoughts on Kurt Warner?
WL: Aw, I love him. He is a 100 percent genuine human being in every way, and watching them win (at least occasionally) with Warner is infinitely more satisfying than doing it with Leinart. When asked by Suzy Kolber what he was thinking when the 49ers lined up for a potential winning touchdown on Monday Night Football a few weeks ago, Warner replied, “how awesome God is.” Whatever your theology, this is pretty astounding, and I don’t doubt it for a second. I’m pretty sure that’s’ also what he’s thinking when he’s pouring juice in the morning for his kids, or pumping gas into his car, or washing his hands.
BA: I’ve got a friend who loved your writing at Deadspin, but gave up going to the site because he felt it was too crass (it was the frequent half-naked cheerleader/co-ed pics moreso than the language, i think). Obviously this guy is an exception in our culture and maybe not the target audience at Deadspin, but were you ever concerned that Deadspin was too crass? Was the occasionally racy nature of the site a purposeful attempt at appealing to young male sports fans, or was it just a matter of you reporting the stories that other sources didn’t want to touch without censoring them?
WL: Without question. It was a constant concern. I wanted the average fan to enjoy it, and that includes people like my friends from home who hopefully wouldn’t read the site and think the devil got me. But my first priority, frankly, is to be funny. Matt Leinart pouring a beer bong down the throat of a co-ed, I think, is funny regardless of your theology. But yes: There was a line there, and I did my best not to cross it. Surely, I did from time to time, but I was not unaware of impact on different types of people. It saddens me that someone might turn away from the site for being too crass, but I understand it.
BA: In regards to the crassness of sports blogs, I think it’s interesting to hear you say that your main priority was to be funny. In terms of your personal writing style, did you ever feel like making the off-color joke was the easy way out? Do you look for alternatives to that or is it always just about making the best joke, no matter what it is?
WL: As far as I’m concerned, making the best joke is what’s most important. That doesn’t mean you don’t make decisions along the way; sometimes it’s funnier to toss out the eff-word, and sometimes it’s just cheating. I think of what Stephen King said about adverbs when I think of profanity. An expletive (or adverb) is like a dandelion on your lawn. One looks pretty, but if you’re not careful, they’ll get out of control and all anyone will see on your lawn are dandelions.
But profanity, I think, has never been the major issue with people possibly being offended by Deadspin, then or now. I think it’s more of a viewpoint. The site thinks nothing in the world of sports is sacred. Therefore, some people will accuse the site of sacrilege. I just think, you know, it’s sports. This is supposed to be entertainment. It’s all in fun.
BA: Finally, do you think you’ll ever go back to spending most of your time as a full-time blog editor for a site as big, or bigger, than Deadspin? Seems to me it’s a brand of writing all to it’s own, and I wonder if you ever get the bug to go back to it?
WL: Well, writing the weekly column, for now, scratches that itch pretty well. New York Magazine is one of the best publications on the planet, full of ridiculously smart people who know what they’re doing a heckuva lot better than I do. I loved writing Deadspin, and one of the main reasons I loved it was because I could write whatever I wanted. That’s quite the privilege, but it’s something, if left unchecked, that can lead to bad habits. I didn’t want to get caught up in that; I’m only 33 years old and plan on writing for the rest of my life. Right now, I’m shutting up, writing like crazy and listening to smart people tell me how to make my work better. In the long run, it can only help me improve. And in the short run? Well, I’m surrounded by the best writers and editors on earth. So I have no complaints. I’m very lucky.
BA: Thanks so much for your time and honest answers Will!
WL: Hey, that was fun. Thanks!