By Abigail Woolley Cutter
If you throw yourself whole-hog into a vocation of academic theology and ethics, becoming an expert in several sub-fields and publishing upwards of fifteen single-author books, some might think that’s enough. But to be a high-performing athlete in addition? It could make for a life of double intensity — or maybe it’s just the necessary counterweight to all the mind work, keeping a person whole.
Steve Long, Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at SMU, the author of books on theology and economics, Thomas Aquinas, Paul Ramsey, Karl Barth, and Methodism, and — full disclosure — my doctoral supervisor, has been a dedicated long-distance cyclist for most of his life. Previously (before a serious injury in college forced him off the court and let him discover he loved academics) he had been an avid basketball player. Even after taking up scholarship, the athletic dedication never stopped. When I was his student, I was accustomed to receiving emails stamped 5:00 AM, since, as everybody knew, he spent his early mornings cycling many miles before showing up at the university.
When I heard in October of 2020 that he had suffered a heart attack and was in the hospital undergoing surgery, and later that the pacemaker site had become infected and he needed further, even riskier, surgery, it was the last thing I had expected. No one ever deserves these crises, and the “shadow of death” is bound to surprise and frighten us whenever it appears. But Steve was at the height of health, energy, productivity, and (so far as I could tell) Christian joy as well.
Steve, thanks be to God, did not die. Instead, in a process that reminded him of his earlier injury and long convalescence, the experience of facing his own mortality invited him to look at his life and work anew. The Art of Cycling, Living, and Dying is the book that resulted, a combination of spiritual autobiography and performative reflection on theological method.
In any case, the story of a person’s life, and the work of telling it, is a precious thing. Perhaps excluding the portions that meditate on the history and mechanics of bicycle riding, this book feels much like a record that a parent might leave for his children. It chronicles details of Long’s family tree, peppered with specific memories of idiosyncratic friends and relatives. Between these stories, it muses on how someone influenced him, what a particular experience led him to reexamine, or how he ended up charting a path different from his family’s. If a reader expects flowing narration like we often find in a work of creative nonfiction, she will not find it, but might be challenged at times by non-chronological telling unaided by use of the past perfect tense. If, on the other hand, one listens — like at the hearth, or at a hospital bed, as if to the life story of a loved one who has stood facing death — one will be rewarded. One way to see this book is as a model of the kind of work we all should aspire to do as we seek to trace the threads of our life and prepare to let go of it.
Long’s training as a theological ethicist, however, makes the project something else, too: it is a case study in theological method. Just as Long was my doctoral advisor, Stanley Hauerwas was his. As I read this book, replete with stories and experiences linked to a panoply of ethical questions, I couldn’t help but think I was watching a demonstration of Hauerwas’s “story-formed community,” where beloved exemplars and deep communal bonds are even more foundational than axioms and authorities. If Long’s other, systematic books are the front of a tapestry, this is the back. It is fittingly untidy, illustrating how this theologian’s mind wrestles in response to experiences in body and community. Don’t be misled by the organized and theoretical nature of his scholarly books, it seems to say: the work of theological discernment uses all the resources of human life. While I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the integration of life and scholarship, I occasionally wished for a longer exploration of the processes Long went through as he settled into ethical positions related to his experiences. A few contested issues are raised and dealt with in just a few sentences, perhaps giving the impression — especially for readers who think differently, or who have not read his other work—that he reached a surprising conclusion without fully considering it.
I recommend The Art of Cycling, Living, and Dying for readers interested in spiritual autobiography, in how we humans grapple with God and morality, in what it might look like to be an athlete and an academic, or in Steve Long the person and thinker. Cycling enthusiasts interested in these things would particularly enjoy the book.
The book is easily accessible to non-cyclists and is not a piece of cycling evangelism. Since I began reading The Art of Cycling with my husband, however, our family has acquired good commuting bikes and a carriage for hauling the toddlers. Were we reasoned into it by the book? I don’t think so. Perhaps it was “caught, rather than taught” from our relative who is a cyclist, with Steve Long’s help. Many things come together to shape our lives, and the Lord works in mysterious ways. Then the shape of our lives, we know, will go on to shape our thought.