On February 3, with stars Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire at full strength, the New York Knicks lost to the Boston Celtics, dropping them to a disappointing 8 wins and 15 losses. Jeremy Lin, a relatively unknown 3rd-string point guard who’d joined the team weeks earlier, took three shots, missed all of them, and ended up with two points in less than seven minutes of play. As of this past Sunday, when they defeated last year’s world champion Dallas Mavericks on the strength of Lin’s 28-point effort, the Knicks had won 8 of 9 games (largely without their stars) led by the now-starting point guard who received no college scholarship offers and who’d been cut by the Golden State Warriors on the first day of training camp. In his two-plus weeks of fame he’s been spotted high-fiving Knicks super-fan Spike Lee (sporting Lin’s Harvard jersey), graced the cover of Time magazine in Asia, and even been the subject of a Saturday Night Live skit. —eds.
If you’ve unplugged your computer and TV for the last week, you may not have heard of Jeremy Lin, the sudden basketball phenomenon, Asian-American hero, and, like Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow before him, out-of-nowhere success story who wears his faith on his sleeve.
Lin, like Tebow, is a deeply religious evangelical Christian. And while his own religious utterances have been both humble and thoughtful (Lin went to Harvard, after all), the press swirling around him has led to a spate of bad theology—which is a shame, because sports stories have the ability to capture the public imagination and have the potential to inspire us to reflect on truly important religious values, instead of truly awful ones.
The awful values, of course, have to do with theodicy: that God picks sides, and roots for one sports team over another. In the case of athletics, this belief is both ridiculous and widespread. Student athletes, and those old enough to know better, routinely pray to God to help them score the winning touchdown, vanquish their nasty opponents, or win the big trophy. During Tebow’s stunning ascent, and now during Lin’s, dozens of commentators have joined the fray. Their careers, at least the beginnings of them, have indeed been miraculous, so doesn’t this show the hand of God at work in American sports?
Of course it doesn’t. The trouble with this bad theodicy isn’t that it’s ridiculous; it’s that it’s inhuman. If God loves the Broncos, does He hate the Seahawks? If God helps Jeremy Lin sink three-pointers, why doesn’t He help children recover from cancer? Obviously, believers quickly lean on crutches like “God works in mysterious ways,” but such ways are morally repellent and philosophically incoherent, not ‘mysterious.’ You can’t have it both ways. Either God is responsible both for Tim Tebow and for Auschwitz (yes, I realize I’ve just made the reductio ad Hitlerum argument, but there you go), or for neither of them.
Even the milder version of this argument—that God works through righteous people for public relations purposes—is deeply problematic. Besides being a little ridiculous, it, too, is ethically dubious. Obviously, plenty of bad things happen to good people. Righteous people suffer just like the rest of us, while wicked people thrive. Denying this fact is just denying the truth, and to me, denying the truth is denying God.
Another bad theological move is to cherry-pick the good things that happen and ascribe them to God, while blaming all the bad stuff on Satan, or demons, or something. This quasi-Manichean, quasi-Gnostic move has made a comeback in recent years, culminating in the New Apostolic movement’s belief that entire cultures are possessed by demons, who are responsible for everything from Rick Perry’s debate gaffes to the sexual revolution. Of course, this theological maneuver is deeply heretical, from a Christian (or Jewish) point of view. It’s also entirely self-serving. If you like it, it’s God. If you don’t like it, it’s Satan. So God is whatever you like.
As thrilling as Tebow’s and Lin’s stories are, it’s still deeply irresponsible to engage in bad religion. The naivete, the self-contradiction, and the highly dubious ethics make all religious people look bad, and thus comprise a kind of blasphemy, on top of all the rest. Because these bad ideas make God look bad, too.
At the same time, these unlikely heroes really are inspiring, and that’s important too. In fact, if we stay with what’s true about them, rather than what’s false, the religious inspiration is more empowering, not less so.
First, for people of faith, Tebow and Lin provide powerful object lessons in the power of faith to inspire excellence. Each of them had ample reasons, and many occasions, to quit. Doubtless some people in their lives told them to get serious, let go of the pipe dream, and work at the car dealership, or go to law school, or whatever. Before Sunday’s game, in fact, Mavericks veteran Jason Terry refused to give Lin credit, publicly asserting that his success was “100%” due to the coach. But like Lin, who went on to put in his best performance yet (and outscoring Terry 28-13), they didn’t do that, and surely their faith was an important motivation. They believed in themselves because they believed in God, and that belief enabled them to stick to their dreams despite the odds. That is a powerful lesson for all of us, religious or not.
Faith is at its best when it helps people be better people, whether in terms of kindness, or humility, or following their dreams, or any number of other positive values—just as it’s at its worst when it takes agency away. The particular myths that Tebow or Lin happen to believe in are secondary (and of course, I mean ‘myths’ in the sophisticated sense of stories that give meaning to human life, not false tales). What’s primary is that they believe, despite ample reasons not to do so, in the possibility of human excellence and the importance of achieving it.
Second, Tebow and Lin have conducted themselves, in the face of sudden media circuses, with grace. Imagine what it must be like to go from being an ordinary guy sleeping on your brother’s couch to having your every move tweeted and to be followed by paparazzi. Your privacy is instantly gone, any warts you have are instantly magnified, and you are suddenly catapulted into the limelight. Worse, you are now made into a figurehead, for religious people, and in Lin’s case, for Asian-Americans too. If Lin stumbles—if he gets into a fight in a bar, or behaves inappropriately with women, or commits any number of minor sins which ordinary people get away with every day—he lets down not only himself and his family, but his faith community and the Asian-American (and to some extent Asian) community as a whole, which currently views him as a hero. Can you imagine the pressure?
And yet, so far at least, neither Tebow nor Lin has fallen. No crashed cars at three a.m., no extramarital affairs, no steroids. I can’t help but think that their Christian faith has helped them cope with their sudden fame. They have strong ethical values. Each day, they pause to remember that no matter how important they are, they are not the most important things in the universe. They try to remain humble and grateful. This, too, is religion at its best.
So, it’s okay to be inspired by these seemingly miraculous stories. In a nasty campaign season and a still-sluggish economy, they’re a welcome reprieve. And it’s okay to draw religious lessons from them, if that’s what you’re inclined to do. But those lessons should not be about a vindictive and arbitrary God who favors some athletes over others, but should be about the capacity of religion and spirituality to cause us to be better people, however we understand what that means. What’s miraculous is not how God has favored the righteous, but how religion has inspired them to be great.