Jonathan Tjarks is something of a rarity. He’s a popular staff writer for The Ringer, where he writes about basketball and also life. Tjarks is also a Christian who maintains a personal blog where he writes about the Bible (he’s also written for TGC: “Your Neighbor Is Probably a Unitarian Universalist”).
Curious about how a Jesus follower like Tjarks fares at a place like The Ringer, and how his faith and work interact, I (Eugene Park) interviewed him recently on my church’s podcast. Here’s an edited transcript of our conversation.
Could you share a brief testimony of your faith?
I didn’t actually grow up in the church. My parents were really secular, and I grew up in a science-first household. For us, politics and evolution were religion. I had no grid for the church at all growing up, and I lived a pretty “normal” lifestyle. Then I got really into partying, drugs, looking for meaning in life in the world, and not really finding anything. When I was about 24 or 25, a co-worker of mine, a pretty strong Christian, shared the gospel with me and brought me around his family and church. I didn’t really have much going on in my life at the time, so it was appealing. But I just didn’t really believe in supernatural things. I was very much raised to believe in materialism, and the idea of Christianity seemed hocus-pocus. But I respected the way my friend lived his life, and so I kind of looked into Christianity. I could get behind the idea of Christianity. But I couldn’t believe in a God.
I could get behind the idea of Christianity. But I couldn’t believe in a God.
So that’s where I was for a while. Then I kind of had this spiritual experience. It was almost six years ago now. I was at a New Year’s Eve rave rolling on ecstasy. I’m at this concert, I’m out of my mind, and then I see the mask from V for Vendetta on the virtual background. Everyone’s dancing and I’m watching and thinking, Oh they’re really worshiping this mask that could be a demon. I just had this sense of, Oh my gosh, there are spirits in the world. This is crazy. I freaked out and thought if there are spirits in the world, there’s probably God. And if there’s a God, then I better be on his side, and I better be a Christian. After that I called my friend, trusted Christ, joined the church, and started walking with God from there.
How has your experience been in the church, being relatively new to the faith? Any interesting observations about the church?
Well, I think for me, the biggest thing I had in my head was: “Oh, I’ve got to be a Republican basically, to be a Christian.” So I was pleasantly surprised. In my head I’m wondering if this is going to be a right-wing rally, but it hasn’t been anything like that at all. I feel, at least in my church, politics is less important than it is in the world.
As a Christian in sports media, how do you combat the temptation of letting your work define who you are, especially since your writing is the subject of constant scrutiny on social media?
That’s one of the great temptations in American society. It’s all about how identity comes from your profession. When you meet someone it always starts, “What do you do?” It’s so hard to not make your work part of who you are, especially if you have a “cool” job where people always ask about it.
Honestly, it’s something I constantly struggle with. I know for me personally, I try to keep work and personal life separate. I’m not on social media as much because it just became too hard. Work was following me around constantly. Thirty years ago, if I’m writing for a newspaper, I write the article in the paper and it’s done. One person might talk to me about it. But now in my profession, you write an article, and you’re getting feedback constantly about it. So for me, I try to keep myself separate from social media so that I have some distance to live a normal life.
I’m at a point in my career where I have a name in my industry, people know who I am, people follow me. And if all of my friends were in this industry, then it would be, “Look at me. I’m a writer at The Ringer!” But I have these friends at church who don’t know anything about sports. They couldn’t care less. And so for them it’s, “You write about basketball? That’s bizarre.”
In your work at The Ringer, how’s your experience been as a believer? Do your coworkers know about your faith? How do they interact with you about it? Are they hostile, neutral, interested?
They’re more, “Wow, that’s interesting.” Media is such a secular industry. In my experience, people I know in the media who are Christian make up maybe 1 percent or 2 percent? Christians are an anomaly.
Media is such a secular industry. In my experience, people I know in the media who are Christian make up maybe 1 percent or 2 percent? Christians are an anomaly.
Because I work remotely, I don’t see my coworkers as often, but I’m intentional when I see or run into them. I’ve shared my testimony with a few people. I don’t know if that necessarily did anything for them.
No one’s ever said anything bad about my faith, at least to my face. In my my line of work, if I was an outspoken Republican, it’d be a much bigger deal than if I was a Christian. If I said “Go Trump!” that would be a big deal. But me talking about Jesus—to them that’s just weird.
Given that, do you have any advice on how to share your faith with your coworkers? For many of us in a secular workplace setting, we get fearful about talking about Jesus. How do I drop that in a conversation? Do you have any advice on doing that in a winsome manner?
Just invest in people naturally and build relationships as best you can. I look back to the guy who shared the gospel with me initially. We became friends first, and once you become friends it lowers the barriers. Between me and him it was more about sharing life. We became good enough friends that I met his wife, I met his kids, I went to his small group. In that sense it was a natural transition. And that’s what appealed to me more than him giving me 12 Bible verses. In my experience, it’s more about sharing your life with people. If you’re walking with God and walking with Jesus, that’s what shines through in your life.
Few people get asked about their lives. Most people are just waiting to talk about themselves.
Honestly, in my experience—and part of this is being a journalist—few people get asked about their lives. Most people are just waiting to talk about themselves. The act of being intentional and asking questions about other people’s lives—I think people respond to that. Everyone is so self-oriented, self-motivated, just waiting to talk about themselves. Give them an opportunity, and that opens the door.
Sports can be a source of idolatry that distracts more than aids your spiritual life. As a Christian and being heavily in the sports world, how do you ensure sports doesn’t become a distraction or idol?
The advice I give, especially to my friends about to get married, is to pick one sport. Because if you’re going to be married, you can’t be a fan of all sports. There’s just not enough time. I’m a fan of the Dallas Mavericks, but I’m not going to live or die by them. You can have your one team. If you have three or four teams, it’s not going to work!