Monday, February 4, 2013

Did God Cause the Ravens To Win the Super Bowl? (Or: Is God a PED for Christian Athletes?)

Considering the fact that my fortnightly weekend responsibilities at R. R. Donnelley precluded any experience of the "televisual feast" (to quote spoon salesman Mr. Hutchinson in one of my favorite Fawlty Towers episodes) provided by Super Bowl XLVII last night, I have spent my morning reading about the game which, as I should have expected, turned into a real barnburner following the embarrassing power outage that delayed proceedings for a half hour during the second half. What caught my attention above all were the postgame comments by retiring future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis. Lewis, in case any are still unaware, has recently become a somewhat famous and outspoken Christian athlete despite his chequered past (and present, in view of the somewhat amusing, if pathetic, reports about his using "deer antler spray" to recover speedily from a torn triceps muscle)(for my take on Lewis's conversion, see here). Lewis, like he did following the Ravens' earlier playoff victory over the Denver Broncos (see here), quoted Isaiah 54:17:
No weapon forged against you will prevail,
    and you will refute every tongue that accuses you.
This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord,
    and this is their vindication from me, declares the LORD.
The clear implication of Lewis's words was that God himself had a direct hand in the outcome of the gameindeed, that God would prevent Lewis's gridiron opponents from "prevailing" against him, thereby "vindicating" his faithfulness to the Lord. One's initial reaction to such a proclamation is one of bemused unbelief (indeed, almost nothing is capable of stunning me any longer). Are the Baltimore Ravens really "the servants of the Lord"? Are there no professing believers in Jesus on the Forty-Niners roster? Indeed, has Lewis, despite his good intentions, ever really enquired about the actual meaning of the Isaianic text in its historical and literary context?

To ask the question is to answer it, of course. Isaiah 54 comes near the end of a section of the Book of Isaiah (Isa 40-55) which was meant to console the Jewish people in the midst of exile. The prophet's message was a clear and simple one: God, in covenant faithfulness, would deliver Israel and Judah from their exile in a second, greater Exodus through the work of one called "the Servant of Yahweh," and establish a new covenant ("a covenant of peace" [54:10]; "an everlasting covenant" [55:3], explicitly identified as the fulfillment of his promises to David) with them that would extend its blessings to the nations as well. More to the point: God's faithful protection of the renewed people of God would not be in the cause of the people's own efforts to defeat their opponents. Rather, this is a promise to protect them (the heretofore "afflicted" [54:11]) from the onslaughts of attacking enemies, those whose attempts to "stir up strife" with them will result in the enemies' "fall" on their account (54:15).

Lewis, in other words, is mired in a hermeneutical morass of his own making. But it is a morass in which large segments of the American populace are foundering. A poll published on 29 January by the Public Religion Research Institute revealed the following highly interesting tidbits of information:

  • 53% of all Americans believe that "God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success." A startling 72% of Christians from racial minorities, and 67% of white Evangelicals expressed this belief.
  • 27% of all Americans believe that "God plays a role in determining which team wins a sporting event." 40% of minority Christians as well as 38% of white Evangelicals assented to this proposition.
These results are simply staggering. I know I am both an urban Northeasterner and a holder of a terminal academic degree, both of which predispose me to a more negative response to such statements (as might be expected, respondents in the South and Midwest were much more amenable to them than those who lived in the Northeast and West Coast). Nevertheless ... are those who subscribe to such beliefs immune to both empirical evidence and proper methods of interpreting the Bible? For example, are believing athletes more successful than unbelieving ones? Among the greatest baseball players, which among these was known for their Christian commitment: Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, Willie Mays, Mickey Mantle, Pete Rose? Mantle only became a Christian long after his playing days were over, and died at the ripe old age of 63. Among all-time greats, I can only think of three who were widely known as Christians: Christy Mathewson (who likewise died young, at only 45), Honus Wagner, and Mariano Rivera. What about football players? Jim Brown, O. J. Simpson, Chuck Bednarik, Dick Butkus, Dan Marino, John Elway, Lawrence Taylor, Tom Brady. Granted, there have been prominent Christian football players, e.g., Bart Starr, Roger Staubach, Reggie White, Brian Dawkins. But the fact remains that there is no apparent correlation between one's success and longevity and the seriousness of their Christian commitment. It only gets worse when we turn to basketball: Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (can his remarkable longevity be ascribed to the blessing of Allah due to his conversion to Islam?), Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, LeBron James. And hockey? Please. In other words, the silliness of correlating athletic success with faith commitment is self-evident.

How, then, do we account for the widespread perception among Christians that this correlation exists? In a word, the reading of the Bible—in particular, the Proverbs—through the grid of a presupposed, Western (if not particularly American) worldview, unencumbered by even elementary rules for how to interpret such literature. The so-called "health and wealth" message of such popular hucksters as Joel Osteen and Joyce Meyer is only the most extreme manifestation of this tendency to read uniquely American ideas about "success" and "blessing" into the Bible's message (all the while forgetting that America is not Israel living under the Sinai Covenant). But the tendency is there in the "average Christian reader" as well, who reads proverbs as promises rather than the nuggets of proverbial, generalized wisdom they are. I well remember, after a lecture on the Proverbs, one of my students coming after class to protest what I had said along these lines. "I prefer to read them," she said, "as promises." Well, she was entitled to her own opinion, but of course not all opinions are equally worthy of assent. Sadly, such Christians as she are guilty of the elementary error of failing to balance what the Proverbs say with the well-nigh deafening counterexamples provided by Job, the lament psalms, and (especially) Qoheleth's ruminations in the Book of Ecclesiastes. Most egregiously, such Christians ignore the clear teaching of both Paul and Jesus himself that suffering is one of the marks of the people of God in this era in which the kingdom of God and the so-called "messianic woes" coexist in tension with one another. Godliness is profitable, of course. But its profit lies in the spiritual arena, not on the fields, gymnasia, and rinks of athletic combat.

But does not the all-sovereign God play a role in the results of athletic contests? As I said last year in a post responding to the Tim Tebow phenomenon, "both 'Yes" and 'No.'" I am a card-carrying Calvinist, after all, who believes in the recondite doctrine known as the "decree of God," based on such texts as Ephesians 1:11. Nothing lies outside of God's all-encompassing foreknowledge and eternal plan. But this does not mean that God directly causes everything to happen. Nor does it entail that we can necessarily discern why things happen the way they do (for those who are interested, these matters are all bound up with the distinctively Reformed doctrine known as "concurrence"). Indeed, Martin Luther's opinion was of a piece with Calvin's on this matter, and the great Reformer often (most notably in his magisterial Bondage of the Will with reference to the doctrine of predestination) pointed to the principle enunciated in Deuteronomy 29:29:
The secret things belong to the LORD our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.
Luther (metaphorically on these occasions) nailed this one. To put it simply, even though the omniscient God both knew beforehand that the Ravens would win, and in a sense incorporated that in his all-encompassing plan, we cannot deduce that God unilaterally worked so as directly to bring about this victory. Nor can we infer any reasons why this victory occurred. This means, of course, that prayers by players or fans to the effect that their team would win are inappropriate and verge on the immature, if not infantile (and I say this not simply because such prayers of mine uttered in my youth for my own Philadelphia teams to win were so rarely answered in the way I had hoped!). In a world wracked with poverty, injustice, and war, Super Bowls, World Cups, Open Championships, and World Series competitions are ultimately unimportant matters. Better that we Christians start adopting God's priorities. If we are to pray—and I well remember my late teacher Clare Hitz's refrain that "we can always pray"—let us rather pray the way God would have us pray, as our Lord himself taught us in the Lord's Prayer (Matthew 6:9-13):
Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
 your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
 Give us today our daily bread.
 And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
 And lead us not into temptation,
    but deliver us from the evil one.

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