A Theological Reflection on Idolatry, Monotheism, Intolerance, and Violence by Way of Sports and LeBron.
I am thinking through this topic in the voice of Marcellus Wallace when he talked to Butch in Pulp Fiction (helps me get down to brass tacks). However, we are in an alternate universe. Marcellus has since left crime and has become a preacher and has reconciled with Butch. Instead of meeting at an empty bar, they are chilling at a Buffalo Wild Wings after Choir Rehearsal. After witnessing another talking head discuss the legacy of LeBron James compared to Michael Jordan, Marcellus scratches the ever-present band-aid on the back of his head and begins his soliloquy….
This world is made of idols, Butch. Folks gone worship something, and not everything is godly. Idols demand victims. Monotheism demands only one god can be God.
iPhone quit autocorrecting my lowercased “god”… I know what I’m typing…. Mix sports in and you have the yearly crucifixion of LeBron James and before that Kobe Bryant.
You don’t follow what’m’sayin? Alright. Let me make it plain, but I won’t make it easy.
Sports and religion can mix in unholy ways, particularly in a land as religiously sketch as America. Some preachers won’t admit it, and theologians think it’s beneath their study–but sports is a religion here. At least it has religious dimensions. People give their time, talent, and money to it. They congregate in stands, arenas, and on couches while double dipping their consecrated Tostito in the sacred bowl of communion salsa. And what is beer, if it isn’t the most sacred of drinks? We wear sports paraphernalia like crosses, stars, hijab, and beads. Fascinating, isn’t it? Every sport has only one god–the rest are angels, humans, demons, and the evil one. And for the worshippers of MJ, Bron Bron is the newest incarnation of the devil.
Butch, I could go on and on. But I got to get back home to Mia, so let me try to distill this as best as I can.
There are many reasons suckas hate on LeBron. Jealousy, envy, misunderstanding, self-hatred, and ignorance. LeBron might have brought some of the hate on himself. All this is true. But few brothers and sisters understand the theological and cultural roots of their hatred. Few understand they are inheritors of a vision of the sacred that breeds disdain and disrespect for greatness, grace, and the multiple dispensations of sacredness…
I said I would make it plain, not easy. Let me break it down.
MJ is a sports god, but in an absolute monotheistic sports world, only one god can be the true god of any sport... And we also live in an idolatrous culture. We worship our creations, our phones, our TVs, our sports, and our sports icons. Idols are our creations and we kill and victimize others to show our idols that we really love them. Victims must be sacrificed to false gods. Folk sacrifice and victimize their children and this world for material gain. Folk sacrifice and victimize their family and friends for the acquisition of power. Folk will sacrifice and victimize their bodies for fame. And folk have no issue sacrificing and victimizing LeBron for the sake of Michael Jordan. They cannot believe in MJ without disbelieving in LeBron. If they didn’t have someone to hurt, they couldn’t love. If they couldn’t call someone a blasphemer then they wouldn’t believe. This is the essence of their spirituality. This is a spiritual sickness, Butch. It is sick to place our love, hope, and trust in something that needs an enemy.
Like all religions, the worshippers of Jordan have rituals that must be adhered to. And now, the yearly ritual has begun. Congregations have amassed in barber shops, comments sections, arenas, couches, and even this Buffalo Wild Wings. With the kind of irrational clarity that only comes through hate, they will self-righteously declare: “No one can serve two masters.” But even the slave masters serve slavery, Butch. Some of us are still confused and want to be slave masters. And some are still confused about LeBron and want to be Jordan…
It’s time, Butch. The ministers and prophets of MJ have begun to judge LeBron again. And we know the verdict: guilty. LeBron will be called a false god to the idolaters of MJ. They will point out his flaws and powerlessness. They will ceaselessly compare him to Jordan. The idolaters of Jordan will call the apologists for LeBron “idolaters” and won’t see the irony. It will get ugly. LeBron’s worshippers will strike back with polemics of their own. Facebook feeds will become tribunals and inquisitions. Memes will summarize the Creeds of Jordan and anathematize the heretics of LeBronism. Excommunication will ensue. LeBron will be exorcised “in the name of Jordan.” Though folk laugh and say it’s all for fun, there’s something sinister behind their laughter. An uncomfortable smile that betrays spirit of the matter. Basketball has one god to rule above them all. All others are imposters. Kobe Bryant came arrogant and aloof, reserved and overconfident and they said he had a demon. So they called him a snake, a Black Mamba. LeBron James came with “The Decision” and bad PR, but is doing something only Bill Russell has done and they say, “look, he’s a drunkard, a loser, and friend of sinners!” And Steph Curry… that dude’s time is coming too.
It’s sad when multiple manifestations of greatness, grace, and wonder are treated as ugly, sinful, and evil for the sake of a god that is really an idol.
Here’s the truth, Butch. The big “L” (loss) signified in Jesus’ cross has no place in the Gospel of MJ. Only winners can enter into the Kingdom of the Sports Gods… No death and resurrection. No loss and victory. No combination. The worshippers of the sports gods of America–even Christians–have silently shown their distaste for the Gospel of a Crucified Savior. Christians profess a gospel of both/and and not either/or. Crucified and savior. Loser and winner. Human and God. And beyond Christian belief, the worshippers of sports gods have shown a distaste for balance and harmony, yin and yang. Maybe the ancients know more than we think.
In this new gospel of the 21st century, only victors can be god. MJ came down from the cross of the NBA Finals–the ultimate competition–and saved his life. He gave the crowd what they wanted. And now MJ is worshipped. There’s no grave to defeat. He never died when the chips were truly down. He’s a perfect 6 and 0 in the Finals. And so the “worshippers” of MJ no longer remember that sports is not ultimately about winning and losing. Theologically and religiously speaking, sports is the ritualized drama of humans struggling in a world of adversity, joy, creativity, and randomness. Team sports are the ritualized drama of human companionship losing and winning in life.
It’s why a Finals Sweep feels unsatisfying except to the fanatics of the team that did the sweeping. It’s why a Superbowl blowout feels empty. It’s what professional wrestling understands and why it has never died. Sports is ritual and entertainment. Inside the bounds of play, Sports ritualizes the drama of struggle, beauty, life, death, winners, losers, and most importantly, fun and play.
The ancient Jews told their most significant story, the Exodus, and peppered the narrative with victory and defeat.They admitted that some of their ancestors wanted to go back to Egypt; they even admitted that the powers in Egypt could mimic the power of God. They told stories of how a generation couldn’t enter into the Promised Land but had crossed the Red Sea. Even their greatest leader, Moses, never made it to the Promised Land. But he was still great, Butch. In today’s sports world, Moses would be called a loser and a false prophet because he didn’t get the ring. The gospels tell stories of a man called Jesus who lived a life of love, but he was misunderstood; his friends didn’t understand and even denied and abandoned him. He was unjustly put to death by the victors of history, and then he rose from the dead. But his victory was not in a vacuum. He lost. He lost when the chips were down and rose unexpectedly. Both the Exodus and gospels show that greatness is not defined or limited to attaining victory on the biggest stage.
I could go on, but I’ve got to get home and there’s no Wolf to clean up this mess, Butch. This mess makes too much money. These suckas will meme, joke, berate, and destroy the adherents of LeBron. And unfortunately like Jesus, the victims of idols can only be celebrated after we’ve killed them or after they have retired… Then we turn them into idols and do the same to others…
And that’s why I know that what I’m offering is absurd and foolishness. I am offering some good news and a hope that nobody truly wants, but we all need…
Come to Love, come to Life, come to something that binds us and connects us rather than fragments and destroys us… A place where the wolf and lamb will feed together, and Jordan and LeBron can play ball together… for fun… This is the prize, Butch. This is the prize…
Oh yeah… Who you got in the finals, Butch?
Faith, Hope, and Love
© 2016 M. J. Sales