I cannot remember a world without bracketology. The word first emerged in college basketball circles some years ago to describe the annual, addictive process of selecting the 65 teams for the season-ending, championship tournament. Everything before that time in my life exists as darkness and chaos.
In the early days, I used to read this word as tongue-in-cheek, a cute exaggeration of one of life’s trivialities. But bracketology is no longer a flippant matter.
The word is everywhere. Once solely the possession of ESPN, other networks have seized upon it, because we viewers cannot grasp the magnitude of March without it. If ESPN analyst Joe Lunardi has a business card, the title under his name would be "Bracketologist," and it would not be a joke. A new book has even hit the shelves entitled The Enlightened Bracketologist which utilizes tournament-style brackets to determine what we really love and hate in various categories ranging from “fruit” to “inventions” to “Tell me again why they’re famous.” (In case you were curious, peach edged apple for the Fruit Championship, sliced bread won easily over paper in the Invention competition, and favorite Nicole Ritchie beat out cinderella Jeffrey Dahmer for the Tell Me Again Why They’re Famous title.)
This book describes the science known as "Bracketology" in its introduction:
What is enlightenment? Better question: What is bracketology?
Bracketology is a way of seeing the world so that we can become more enlightened—about what we like, favor, prefer, abhor or abjure. (Bracketology can even help us determine if we prefer the word “abhor” to “abjure.”) It is a system that helps us make clearer and cleaner decisions about what is good, better, best in our world.
Bracketology—the practice of parsing people, places and things into discrete, one-on-one matchups to determine which of the two is superior or preferable—works because it is simple. What could be simpler than breaking down a choice into either/or, black or white, this one or that one?
The book is incorrect about the simplicity of Bracketology concerning field selection for basketball’s NCAA tournament. Bracketology has become standard linguistic fare these days, because choosing the 65-team field has become a science. A group of people, known dauntingly as “The Committee,” compiles mounds of evidence about every team and uses these heaps to whittle the 300+ college basketball teams down to 65. The statistics are mind-boggling—conference record, RPI rating (which, like the NFL’s quarterback rating, no one understands), strength of schedule, balance of the conference schedule, record against tournament teams, conference tournament performance, "good" wins, "bad" losses, total team height, average shoe size, grade point average, number of pizzas eaten during the year … the list goes on. The Committee supposedly uses all of these statistics to determine the best 65 teams. Then, onward we march.
ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, a Spartan commentator amidst mere Persians (by 300‘s historical interpretation at least), commented during one segment of ESPN’s daily 25-hour coverage that he just wished the chairman of The Committee had defended the selections, not with bracketological stats, but with the simple statement that they thought these were the best 65 teams in the country. Bilas’s point: with all of this "bracketology" science, one tends to miss the forest for the trees.
As usual, Bilas’s point was as solid as a Greg Oden blocked shot. Statistical arguments about the worthiness of teams are futile. With such an array of data available, anyone can make a case for any team. Except, of course, for the Clemson Tigers.
Bilas’s comment convicted me of the "bracketology faith" to which I often subscribe. I spend so much time trying to understand theological RPI ratings, attempting to figure out God by looking at a variety of details. How does God want me to feel about the death penalty? Is the Calvinistic worldview more correct than the Armenian one or can a dizzying combination of the two exist? Should I volunteer at the church nursery or spend that time in Sunday school?
Now, do not get me wrong, I believe these are valid and important questions. After all, the average margin of victory does provide information about a basketball team just as coming to grips with certain questions helps to better understand God’s character. However, a tendency exists in my life to lean legalistic, often times placing too much emphasis and too much stress on these questions at the expense of something greater. This is why the book of Galatians and its statement that “a man is not justified by the works of the law but through faith in Christ Jesus” (2:16 NASB) is so easy for me to read yet so hard for me to live.
God is not a science. He is not bracketology (though I bet He understands the RPI rating). When I focus solely on logical and empirical evidence, when I use Him to try to make the right 65 decisions, when I refuse to pull my eyes away from one tertiary detail, I miss the majesty and beauty of the Almighty Sovereign.
God is big.
Jesus died on a cross for me and rose from the dead so that I do not have to die.
The Holy Spirit lives in me.
To cop a phrase from University of North Carolina basketball coach Roy Williams, Team Trinity is pretty doggone good.
Theology has great utility; divine questions deserve much attention; the search for God’s desires demands real sacrifice. But these things will never satisfy. The person of Jesus Christ is the living water for which I thirst, not any logic or any ministry or any political opinion or any works of the law. These will never be enough.
Here’s to resting in the reality of the living God, to being still and knowing God, to adhering to Bilas’s encouragement to say that God is best and refusing to stress over the static reasons why I know this to be true.