The Jeremy Lin Problem?

David Brooks writes an article entitled The Jeremy Lin Problem. The problem with Brooks’ title—and article—is that there is no problem.

The issue (as I’ll call it) according to Brooks’ hypothesis, is that Lin is “a religious person in professional sports” which leads to the “moral ethos of sport” being “in tension with the moral ethos of faith.”

The moral universe of modern sport is oriented around victory and supremacy. The sports hero tries to perform great deeds in order to win glory and fame. It doesn’t really matter whether he has good intentions. His job is to beat his opponents and avoid the oblivion that goes with defeat.

The modern sports hero is competitive and ambitious. (Let’s say he’s a man, though these traits apply to female athletes as well). He is theatrical. He puts himself on display.

He is assertive, proud and intimidating. He makes himself the center of attention when the game is on the line. His identity is built around his prowess. His achievement is measured by how much he can elicit the admiration of other people — the roar of the crowd and the respect of ESPN.

His primary virtue is courage — the ability to withstand pain, remain calm under pressure and rise from nowhere to topple the greats.

That’s where Brooks’ athletic analogy goes off the rails. Rather, an athlete’s primary virtue is an ability to perform the skills required for the sport being executed.

This is what we go to sporting events to see. This sporting ethos pervades modern life and shapes how we think about business, academic and political competition.

But there’s no use denying — though many do deny it — that this ethos violates the religious ethos on many levels. The religious ethos is about redemption, self-abnegation and surrender to God.

At this point, Brooks’ theology has also departed the building. Without attempting to cherry-pick Scripture (emphasis added below), there is 1 Corinthians 10:31: So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. I think sports fall in the “whatever you do” category.

How about Colossians 3:17? And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. Again, sports can be considered under the umbrella of “whatever you do.”

Or 1 Peter 4:11? If anyone speaks, he should do it as one speaking the very words of God. If anyone serves, he should do it with the strength God provides, so that in all things God may be praised through Jesus Christ. To him be the glory and the power for ever and ever. Amen. Yes, “in all things” does include sports.

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That’s why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause.

The most perceptive athletes have always tried to wrestle with this conflict. Sports history is littered with odd quotations from people who try to reconcile their love of sport with their religious creed — and fail.

Ah, I like that part better but Brooks still fails to grasp that sports is not life, nor is it “religion” (except perhaps for SEC football. I also suspect one of the NFL’s goals is to make itself as much a religion as SEC football).

Jeremy Lin has wrestled with this tension quite openly. In a 2010 interview with the Web site Patheos, Lin recalled, “I wanted to do well for myself and my team. How can I possibly give that up and play selflessly for God?”

Lin says in that interview that he has learned not to obsess about stats and championships. He continues, “I’m not working hard and practicing day in and day out so that I can please other people. My audience is God. … The right way to play is not for others and not for myself, but for God. I still don’t fully understand what that means; I struggle with these things every game, every day. I’m still learning to be selfless and submit myself to God and give up my game to Him.”

The odds are that Lin will never figure it out because the two moral universes are not reconcilable….

I disagree. It seems Lin (along with Tim Tebow and plenty of others) has figured it out quite nicely.

Jeremy Lin is now living this creative contradiction. Much of the anger that arises when religion mixes with sport or with politics comes from people who want to deny that this contradiction exists and who want to live in a world in which there is only one morality, one set of qualities and where everything is easy, untragic and clean. Life and religion are more complicated than that.

“Anger”? Where’s the anger we see in ‘mixing’ religion with sports or politics, David? The anger I see is that aimed towards Biblical Christianity, Jews around the world, and Israel by secularists and other religions. It may have a lot to do with politics (and power), but it has nothing to do with sport.

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About Professor Mockumental

I enjoy almost all forms of parody, buffoonery, and general high-jinks. Satire has shown itself to be an essential societal need; I therefore humbly offer my services in such a manner. I enjoy mocking the usual suspects at the New York Times (Charles Blows, Moron Dowd, and the earth is flat guy) and Washington Post (Dana Milkbag, E.D. Dijon, and David Ignoramus). There are many others as well, but sadly, there are always too many targets and too little time.

Posted on February 17, 2012, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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