The Bible is an important book to people of faith. It is also widely acknowledged as an impressive, beautiful, poignant, diverse, textured piece of literature.
The content of the Bible matters in contexts of doctrine and history and theology, but it is also -- legitimately -- a remarkable collection of literary works. The Good Book is rich in its phrasings, abundant in its amount of unforgettable literary characters, and powerful in its word pictures. The stories of faith are the main reason this book has endured, but the quality of literature -- the riveting nature of the stories contained in its pages -- is another primary source of the Bible's relevance and legitimacy.
Seen through this prism, one can begin to appreciate Army's 2016 football season as a distinctly Biblical journey.
Anyone who owns a merely modest degree of familiarity with Scripture readily understands this.
It's not a feel-good story -- at least not yet. (The UTEP game was, but that's merely a small part of the drama, waiting to be brought to completion.) For now, simply reflect upon the nature of this season.
Army has been visited by death -- a death within its inner circle. It has been visited by fatigue (late in the game against Buffalo). This past Saturday in Durham, North Carolina, the Black Knights were drenched in Biblical rains, a torrential downpour which evoked Noah's Ark. Collectively, Army has encountered what feels like a series of plagues akin to what Egypt endured in the Book of Exodus.
The UTEP game was conquered by Army, but that game nevertheless represented a moment in which it was impossible to offer a straightforward evaluation of the Black Knights on the football merits. Days after Brandon Jackson died, there was simply no reason -- or cause -- to follow that game with a serious X-and-O appraisal of these young men. To do so would be to ignore real life and place an inappropriate focus on wins and losses. Life is bigger than football, and it just so happened to be that football mattered less than the togetherness of a team on that day in El Paso.
This Duke game doesn't involve the same dynamic of grief and mourning and distractions, but just the same, it is the kind of game which doesn't lend itself to a robust and complete football evaluation. Sorry, but it's hard to avoid. This team can't be given a report card after a contest marred by overwhelming amounts of rain.
Television viewers saw this throughout Saturday in the Carolinas. In Raleigh, North Carolina, Notre Dame and North Carolina State had no business playing that game. Fans were offered to be evacuated midway through that contest, which featured a brief delay in accordance with public safety measures taken to respond to Hurricane Matthew. In Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the Virginia Tech Hokies and the homestanding UNC Tar Heels also played in water-logged conditions which clearly reshaped the game and -- by extension -- its outcome.
This wasn't football -- not in Raleigh, not in Chapel Hill, and also not in Durham's Wallace Wade Stadium, where Army and Duke waded through the water and played something which vaguely resembled a sport, but contained little in the way of an actual chess match.
It wasn't UTEP in terms of the emotions and heartbreak Army carried onto the field, but this Duke game was -- in its own ways and for its own reasons -- a throwaway.
There's very little Jeff Monken or the other coaches can take from this game other than to stress the value of securing the ball in horrible weather. This was and is a shoulder-shrugging kind of game. The finer points of tactics get lost in the soggy scenes. The nuances of play calling and attacking its tendencies got out the window when it's hard for anyone to move or cut cleanly, to make movements and counter-movements with the crispness a calm weather day allows.
Army has now played two games in 2016 which simply can't be seen in "normal" football terms. That's unfair to these players -- it's not their fault, after all -- but it is what it is.
Being visited by one plague after another -- a series of misfortunes and mishaps, tragedies and gut punches -- is a plot point in many works of fiction, hardly original but potent if presented powerfully. Before novelists and fiction writers tackled this pattern, the Bible staked out territory. No part of the Bible captures this construct more than the Book of Job.
Incident after incident, episode after episode, Job suffers and is brought to his knees. He knows he's supposed to be faithful to God, but darn, it becomes harder and harder to believe with each new encounter of suffering. The story of Job is the story of anyone who lives life day after day and doesn't see things getting better. Indeed, what happens when this life becomes a constant uphill battle against negative events which emerge from the chaos, frailty and unpredictability of the natural world? What happens when our mortal flesh is subjected to the potency of volatile forces which run their course no matter what other people might try to do, or hope to achieve in the face of various obstacles?
This is not the journey Army wanted, but it is the journey Army is taking, against its will.
One is reminded of the words of Jesus when speaking to Peter after the resurrection in John 21:18:
"Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted; but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go."
The place Army wants to go is to the victory stand against Navy at the end of the season, singing the alma mater second against the Midshipmen. At the start of this season, it seemed the Black Knights had a chance to be favored in that game. Over the past weekend, that dynamic severely shifted... to the point that it no longer exists. The frustrating part is not that Army has played worse than it did against Temple and Rice and UTEP. The frustrating part of this story is that Army is being thrown into situations -- a whirlwind of grief and then, on Saturday, a whirl of wind and drenching rain -- which are not allowing this team to play games under remotely normal conditions.
The Black Knights need normalcy -- something close to it, something which vaguely resembles it -- to restore their season and the quality they displayed in early September. They're not getting it. Mother Nature didn't cooperate against Duke.
It's all very Biblical -- very much like Exodus.
It's all very Biblical -- the story of Army has taken on the stylings of Job.
The crescendo against Navy is so far away, and a huge game with Air Force (among others) also lies in the future, but those goals are worth paying attention to, if only for a moment, because they form the larger story of this season, the part of the story which has not yet been written.
The part which HAS been written has been dipped in the ink of sadness, expressed on a dry parchment bereft of sympathy.
The fates are making life hard for Army, hard beyond normal boundaries of difficulty.
If only this season WAS a trial solely of football merit or coaching strategy. Football has taken a back seat -- formerly to a tragedy, and this past Saturday, to a hurricane roaring up the Atlantic Coast.
Maybe one of these days, life will begin to be a little bit normal for Army.
Unfortunately, the Book of Job and large portions of the Bible have other ideas.
Army can't control if a Hurricane hits the gridiron on gameday. This team and coaching staff can merely try to be patient, and hope that an "Alleluia" of new life will greet the autumn morning before too long.