My Son Taught Me to Play Chess: On Sentimentality and Christian Writing

In graduate school writing programs, sentimentality is the enemy because it can often convey a lack of cleverness or intellect. We are a part of the generation that has embraced irony and snark to the fullest degree. Irony, when used correctly, can be a weapon of the weak against the strong, but I feel like we live in a world where we all use it all the time for everything, regardless of our level of strength or weakness. Being too clever for everything means that I never have to fully commit to anything on an emotional level, which means I’ll never get hurt. If I pre-emptively make fun of my favorite NFL player or my favorite band, movie, or even genre, I’ll never be disappointed when that thing (inevitably) disappoints me. I will have been too clever for it.

That said, many people rip Christian writing because of how overtly sentimental it often is. But, I don’t think it’s sentimentality that kills Christian writing as much as it is a propensity for making the message trump the characters in the story. In making the “takeaways” obvious, we kill any shot we had at telling a decent story. Writing is hard enough without having to include an obvious subheading every four lines and having to shoehorn in a Bible verse that was specially harvested (often out of context) to prove my point.

During the decade-long Michigan winter we’ve experienced this year (the winter of my discontent) my son taught me to play chess. He’s twelve. He came home from school one day and asked me if I wanted to learn to play. “Who taught you?” I asked, a little incredulous, and a little bit threatened by the fact that he may have a teacher who’s more grizzled and awesome than I am and who taught my son to play this game. It’s like somebody else teaching your son how to throw a football.

“My friend Michael,” he said, putting me at ease. And then he taught me how to play chess, patiently explaining each of the pieces and the moves they make. I have to admit that for a minute I thought the whole thing would be a huge gong show that would devolve into me getting really frustrated and him getting offended. I thought this because, news flash, my son is far from perfect and so am I. But instead what happened is that he pretty flawlessly taught me the game and then we played a bunch of it, for a long time, in front of our fire in a way that was not unlike how Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed’s old trainer played chess in front of a fire when they were in Siberia training for the Drago fight. This scenario was not lost on my twelve year old, because I introduced him to the screen magic of Rocky IV last year.

What I’m running the risk of, here, is writing in a sentimental way about parenting which, I feel deep down, is probably really annoying to the reader. It’s annoying because when people write sentimentally about their kids it is almost always done in such a way as to make the parent look awesome.

What I really want to say is that playing chess with my kid, while it was snowing outside, and while we were having our 83rd straight sub-freezing day, was really good for my soul. It caused me to thank God, profusely, for allowing me to have a son and have a family and enjoy that family in spite of all of the crap that I’ve done in my life and all of the ways that I don’t deserve a sweet son who comes home from school and wants to play chess with his old man.

In the same way, I recognized that while parenting is often a pride-swallowing siege, God still allows moments of joy and refreshment in it. There are people out there who find kids to be an endless fount of enjoyment and pleasure and interest. We are not those people. Often, we find kids to be loud, dirty, illogical, and frustrating.

But the chess was a gift from God because it allowed me to see how wonderfully he made Tristan. It showed me Tris’s desire to connect with me, and it showcased his strategic, analytical mind (full disclosure: he wins more often than I do). And it reminded me that the Gospel is really the only answer for the irony-saturated culture we live in, because embracing it is the most earnest and un-ironic thing a person can ever do.

“I’m broken and I need to be fixed.”

“I’m dirty and I need to be clean.”

“I’m guilty and I want to be free.”

These are things, about which, nobody can raise a sneering eyebrow or sniff derisively. These are the statements that will, ultimately, save us.

Ted Kluck

Ted Kluck is the author of many books, on topics ranging from Mike Tyson to the Emergent Church. Both "Why We're Not Emergen"t and "Why We Love the Church" (with Kevin DeYoung) won Christianity Today Book of the Year awards, and "Paper Tiger: One Athlete's Journey to the Underbelly of Pro Football" won a Michigan Notable Book award in 2008. His work has also appeared in ESPN the Magazine and Christianity Today. Ted has played professional indoor football, coached high school football, trained as a professional wrestler, served as a missionary, and taught writing courses at the college level. He lives in Grand Ledge, MI with his wife Kristin and sons Tristan and Maxim.