For those who are aware of my interest in sports, it ought to be of little surprise that I am particularly fond of bracketology , the study of how to fill brackets, most commonly (but not exclusively) related to NCAA basketball. This year’s bracket will include a couple of teams that are a little weaker than usual because two teams that would have been “locks” as at-large candidates, Southern Methodist University of the American Athletic Conference and the University of Louisville of the Atlantic Coast Conference, are out of the running based on either poor academic performance or the choice of the school to self-penalize for various matters. The most important aspect to remember about brackets is that they are quotas—there are a certain number of slots that must be filled; it is simply a matter of determining which are the most suitable candidates to fill those slots. Thinking like a bracket will focus on slots that need to be filled; thinking about qualifications and standards sets a bar that must be crossed. There is a great difference between the two mindsets.
In many ways, my own reading habits are a bracket of sorts. I have a certain amount of time within the week to read books or listen to audiobooks, and I generally like to see those slots filled. They can be filled with quite a few fairly small books, a few larger books, audiobooks, books from the library, books from publishers, books borrowed from friends, and so on. However that time is filled, though, I like to fill it, and that means that I read books on a far broader scale than most people I happen to know, since I have more slots to fill and correspondingly am less picky about what to read, for better or for worse. As a point of fact, in the course of looking at one of my most frequent routes between work and where I now live, I managed to find both a new restaurant to try, and also an obscure independent publisher with some books of interest to review, if they are interested in sending free copies for marketing material. It’s worth an e-mail at any rate, to see if I can fill my reading slots with a new publisher.
The search for jobs would be a lot different if it was approached as a matter of filling a bracket as opposed to the rather strenuous requirements that many people often find when looking for work. As a matter of fact, the search for casual day labor, like construction workers and the like, is a lot like filling a bracket. People with dubious legal residence and an imperfect grasp of the English language crowd in certain parking lots waiting for the trucks from various job sites to come looking for able bodied workers that day. The Bible includes one such parable, the parable of the generous landowner (in Matthew 20), that deals with casual agricultural labor of that type, where there were many people willing and able to work, and so many slots to be filled at different parts of the day, which leads to a much less stringent hiring process. For those of us who are professionals and well-educated, the process is different, since standards are often made to be so stringent and demanding that the number of possible candidates for a job is kept as low as possible, which can make it difficult for people to find entry-level work in a given profession.
Salvation and spiritual judgment would be a lot different approached as a bracket instead of a standard. In a world of a bracket, if one knew that a given congregation or age of mankind had a certain number of automatic qualification slots that must be filled, there would be a strong disincentive to engage in serious spiritual development. In NCAA basketball, one knows the exact number of slots that are available, and one can count the number of teams that are ahead of you, give or take, and have a fairly sound understanding of where you stand among your peers. When it comes to our spiritual lives, this temptation is a fairly obvious one, in that we are keen to look around and compare our own struggles and weaknesses with those of others. Those who have a poor record will point to their more difficult life the way that a team can point to a good strength of schedule as a way of explaining away a large number of losses. Others will point to their avoidance of bad losses—really serious and horrendous errors in life, while others will point to their big wins—to their conspicuous virtues. As tempting as it is to view ourselves the way that a bubble team would try to promote itself for a spot in the big dance, we must avoid this temptation, largely because God is not in the quota business, at least not in the sense that we often are.
The main difference in any area of life that one finds comparing standards to brackets is that brackets encourage us to compare among ourselves rather than to compare ourselves against a given standard. We may not like a given team, like the Duke Blue Devils, and we may think that they have players on their team who are thugs and play the game the wrong way by trying to trip opponents, to take an example not at random. Yet at the same time we know that they are one of the best twenty or twenty-five teams in the entire nation, even if they do lack a strong interior presence and give up way too many rebounds and shoot too happily from mid-to-long range without balance, and have too small of a bench. Even so, we have sixty-eight slots to fill, and every team has its weaknesses that can be exploited, its lack of balance, its dependence on a particular style or approach of play that may fail in any given game due to fluke occurrences like fouls and injuries and someone with a hot hand. We may think a team like Iowa has lost far too many games towards the end of the season, but at the same time they won so many towards the beginning that they still have a worthy tournament resume, even with some blemishes. When one is looking at the last at-large slots, around the forty-fourth or forty-fifth best team, or somewhere thereabouts, one is dealing with teams with a lot of blemishes, but there are brackets to fill, and so one makes the best choice among the alternatives and deals with it. If one was dealing in absolute standards, one would have fewer teams that would meet a given standard, if the standard is rigorous enough. This is a risk we must accept when we deal with standards, that it is not enough to be a little better than our peers, but we are measured against a line, and may be found wanting.
 See, for example: