How Debating Great Quarterbacks at the Bar Will Save Western Civilization

By Bob Hiller

Moral relativism..BOO! Ha! Scared you, right? Is there anything that gets us religious folk in a tizzy more than the relativism of our culture? I suppose one could argue that the culture is not so much relativistic over what is right and wrong. Rather, they’ve just decided to name wrong things right things. After all, when someone says, “What’s right for you may not be right for me,” isn’t that just a boring, wimpy way of saying, “You’re wrong?” Nonetheless, ours is a time where many attempt to blur the lines of what has been traditionally considered right and wrong.

In an effort to get out from underneath what are considered “culturally shaped structures,” many are questioning traditional views of what is morally good vs. what is morally wrong. What is ugly to one person may be beautiful for another. Thus, all beauty is defined relatively. The good, the true, and the beautiful are no longer objective, transcendent categories, but have been reduced to subjective preferences.

Whoa, slow down there, Hiller! Looks like the sports dude may have been listening to too much Virtue in the Wasteland. Aren’t we stepping a little bit outside of our box this week? Maybe. But, a recent episode of ViW did, in fact, get my wheels spinning as the men discussed CS Lewis’ book The Abolition of Man. In this book, Lewis gets really mad at a school text book for how it’s authors relativize the beauty of a waterfall. The text book taught children not to say that the waterfall was beautiful, but that they felt it was beautiful. Thus, they made beauty a preference and feeling, and not a transcendent category. Lewis says this sort of thing is going to destroy us.

And it has. I have a friend who teaches art at a University who is constantly trying to convince her students that there are objective standards by which a piece can be criticized. Nothing drives me crazier than when I talk music with someone and they say something foolish like, “The Beatles sucked.” In no way is this true. I point out how far afoul such comments are only to hear the response, “Fine, well, I just don’t like them.” Not liking something doesn’t mean the thing itself sucks, rather that you don’t prefer something that is an actual good. Preferences have no bearing on the actual goodness of a thing. You may like, say, Boston more than the Beatles, but that doesn’t make Boston better. It only makes your preferences questionable.


And, as an aside, reducing all such conversations to tastes and preferences is just more boring than discussing why something is good. It is just narcissism to use a piece of art or music as a reference point for talking more about “me.”

I think this is where bar room debates about sports are the salvation of our relativistic society. Think about it. This week, Peyton Manning retired, as did Detroit Lion’s wide receiver Calvin Johnson. No doubt both men will be in the Hall of Fame. And it is not because fans preferred them over other players. It is because they were objectively better than most other players. Upon their retirement, discussions broke out in barrooms across the country: Is Peyton Manning the best quarterback of all time? Where does he rank among the best ever? How does Calvin Johnson’s career stack up compared to the likes of Jerry Rice, Terrell Owens, and Michael Irvin? Who are the top five receivers of all time? And so on. These conversations would lead to rankings of all kinds of players in all kinds of sports.

What sports talk hosts and sports bar patrons get that “post-modern” ethicists and art critics seem to miss is that there are objective standards by which the good can be distinguished from the bad. Think about all the hullabaloo in Denver when the Broncos got rid of the beloved Tim Tebow and signed Manning. Preference plays no role in arguing over who is a better quarterback in this instance. To be sure, there are people in Denver who love Tim Tebow because he’s a nice Christian young man and looks good in underwear ads. But if you watch him play, compare his arm with other quarterbacks in the league, and analyze his numbers, you will inevitably conclude that he is a far inferior quarterback to Manning. Yet, a recent survey found that Tebow is still among the NFL’s most popular players. This is remarkable as he isn’t actually playing on a team. He isn’t playing on a team because he isn’t very good. No matter what some fans may prefer, their preferences to not a great quarterback make.


Arguing over a list of the greatest quarterbacks of all time reminds us that there are objective standards which distinguish something that is good from something that is bad. Sure, you could say that many people will have different guys on their lists. Granted. However, those differences will still be based on facts and numbers that we all know to be true. The arguments are still grounded in objectivity. You can analyze and criticize quarterbacks in objective ways. The difference between the good (Manning) and the bad/ugly (Tebow) is real.

What is true of sports lists debated over beers is true of music, art, and moral standards as well. There are objective truths that transcend us and our preferences which, when understood and pursued, create for a more beautiful and fruitful existence. Not only this, but they make for far more interesting conversation at the bar.


3 thoughts on “How Debating Great Quarterbacks at the Bar Will Save Western Civilization

  1. Actually, you just as often find that even objective standards suck.

    Lucy Van Pelt: What has Beethoven got to do with Christmas? Everyone talks about how “great” Beethoven was. Beethoven wasn’t so great.
    [Schroeder stops playing]
    Schroeder: What do you mean Beethoven wasn’t so great?
    Lucy Van Pelt: He never got his picture on bubblegum cards, did he? Have you ever seen his picture on a bubblegum card? Hmmm? How can you say someone is great who’s never had his picture on bubblegum cards?

    How did we ever talk baseball without WAR? We argued about Seaver vs. Guidry without ever talking WHIP. No matter what the stats say, someone weights them in his own head, we all do. In art, how does it work that Rembrandt is a genius and so is Jackson Pollack? People will argue both, objectively. When I look under rotting logs and rocks and see the crawling things, I find them beautiful and fascinating, a testimony to the joy of creation. Most people I know just want to avert their eyes and not know they are there being good, as God created them to be. Everyone agrees, sunsets are pretty, but some of us of think bats are, too. Most would concede they’re useful but are “ugly”, “creepy” things and not beautiful, at all. Foot binding, neck rings, nose piercings, tattoos – human aesthetics are all over the map and objectively justified in their own cultural and religious contexts.

    When has there ever been an “objective” standard for anything?

    Thank God that faith is never an argument. We know those things that are “most certainly true.” You can accept them, reject, them, struggle with them, but they remain what they are. Good and beautiful are what God declares to be good and beautiful. In our mouths and minds, even those words get messed up and misapplied. So, when asked if something or someone is better than something else and that judgement is based on anything not encompassed by God’s declarations, your view is as good as mine is all we can say.


    1. Great thoughts, Hlewis! I think I’m picking up what you are laying down, but let me ask a few things…

      First, that may be my favorite Peanuts exchange ever! Though, perhaps not the best one…

      Which brings me to my question. Are you suggesting that since people don’t agree over the beauty of bats there is no such thing as beauty? Do you think since people disagree over the merits of Rembrandt vs. Pollack there is no such thing as good art?

      And, certainly you would agree there is an objective standard to our faith, namely the resurrection of Jesus. If that did not objectively happen and is proven false, we are of most people to be pitied.


      1. Believe me, I want there to be some objective standard of beauty in art and in the world. I have very string aesthetic preferences which include an outright disdain for the Hallmark card schmaltz of praise music.In worship, all my “Yous” can go back to “Thous”, “children” and “all” can revert “sons” when we sing. The abominable architecture of Lutheran churches that we’ve suffered since the second half of the 20th century can disappear. But, I like Beethoven and the Ramones, Brahms and Social Distortion, Thomas Tallis and John Coltrane. I like opera but could live forever without the garbage spewed by Michael Bolton, Sarah Brightman, Josh Groban. But all the old people can’t tell the difference between those pretty voices and Jussi Bjorling. He was a great artist – to them, that makes me pretentious. But I know a great tenor when I hear one. Should we go into human appearance and how so many guys like surgery on women, see it as am improvement? Come on, you’ve been in enough bars. How about school and church groups going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and wishing there weren’t genitalia on the statues and that some of the paintings ought to be covered up? I call them cretins. But, you’ve been around enough pastors and “concerned” parents. Literature? Ever been asked why you’d read a great book for anything other than a class assignment? My wife and I have a personal library of over 4,000 volumes. I am getting ready to scrap the dining room for a library (we can still have dinner parties in the library – I just need the walls). It never fails that people come and say things like “you read these?” I am reading a newer translation of The Decameron. It’s the third copy I own and I haven’t picked up my older ones on a couple of decades. to think, I was never assigned to read it, no one ever made me read it or Chaucer or Beowulf (I just acquired the Tolkien translation – the fourth translation I own). I like Kafka, too, and Murakami, and Borges, and Dumas. It’s OK to indulge in lighter things as long as you acknowledge their lightness and have a real idea and desire for beauty and art. But most people conflate the pleasure of lighter things with art and push art away.

        I could go around thinking the world is mostly blind with tin ears and no discernment and I would find most of my friends and family incapable of seeing what’s obviously, in my estimation and the estimation of what they would term “elites” and “know it alls” (code for stuck up and not really smart or, not “normal”), great art. We settle for being pleasant and eccentric. I also fish, hunt, camp, hike, love good whiskey, smoke a pipe, and I knit. The aesthetic of my life is far from most people’s. I don’t insist on beauty and art in my relations with others.

        On the other hand, if cancer draws people around a sick or dying person in prayer and moves them to share God’s word and assurance, even the disease serves God, beautifully. God can bring beauty from such circumstances. No man can make “Here I am to Worship” a beautiful piece of art or even a sound expression for divine service but look how happy it makes the praise team and the old ladies who dance at weddings sway in pews while it embarrasses the younger people!


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