Unforgiven: Brit and Tiger and the Problem of Speed-Cycle Grace

Sure, I like the concept of grace abounding as much as the next miserable sinner. But Brit Hume got it badly wrong in proposing that Tiger Woods might want to try out Christian grace as though it were some kind of fire extinguisher for his burning pants.

You really have to watch the video to appreciate the full-on awkwardness of Brit Hume’s original January 3 riff, but it may also be worthwhile to parse the transcript:

He’s said to be a Buddhist; I don’t think that faith offers the kind of forgiveness and redemption that is offered by the Christian faith. So my message to Tiger would be, ‘Tiger, turn to the Christian faith and you can make a total recovery and be a great example to the world.’

Digging himself in a bit deeper on Bill O’Reilly’s show the next day, Parson Hume elaborated:

He needs something that Christianity especially provides and gives and offers, and that is redemption and forgiveness. I was really meaning to say in those comments yesterday more about Christianity than anything else… I think that Jesus Christ offers Tiger Woods something that Tiger Woods badly needs.

Especially provides, or uniquely provides? There’s quite a significant difference. I think that Hume meant to say uniquely, but could not quite bring himself to say it. Uniquely is certainly what many American Christians heard—and heard to their immense self-satisfaction. But what many have called Brit Hume’s clumsy effort at proselytizing is not the main issue. I agree with Michael Gerson (gulp) that “a semi-retired broadcaster holds no unfair advantage over a multimillionaire athlete.”

Hume, of course, is simply wrong on the facts if he imagines that Christianity came up with an approach to repentance and forgiveness that is unique among the major faiths. Christianity carries over (albeit in a distinctive and Paulinized/Hellenized form) the Judaic concept of t’shuva. So a uniqueness claim will not stand up to real scrutiny. Besides, by now we have a number of serious Christian thinkers (Paul Knitter comes to mind) who say that you cannot with integrity really hold on to your Christian faith absent some of the wisdom and consciousness of the Buddha.

But if only as a thought experiment, let us posit for a moment that Christianity does indeed offer very special or even exclusive access to redemption and forgiveness. Let us suppose, in other words, that Hume was on to something.

We could conduct this experiment on the premise that different religions perform different functions with relative degrees of success and that one of Christianity’s standout contributions—one of its Greatest Hits, as it were—is its approach to repentance (or metanoia, in the Greek).

Even on this hokey speculative premise, Brit’s proposal to Tiger falls down pretty quickly. The reason is Tiger’s immense celebrity and his corresponding immense need to get himself out of a jam as fast as possible in order to protect his franchise.

I am quite sure that the very best dogmatic authorities across the centuries would back me up in saying that treating repentance as a speedy way to get out of a jam represents a serious abuse of the both concept and the practice. The urgency undermines the authenticity.

We are already familiar with how these things tend to go among high-profile American Christians (Bill Clinton, Ted Haggard, etc.) The guilty party is deeply embarrassed by public exposure of his misdeeds; he makes a public vow to rehabilitate himself; then, in order to underscore the notion that he is really, really sorry, he also brings into high public relief his Christian repentance, sometimes going so far as to say that he has called upon respected religious figures to serve as his repentance coaches: his spiritual hall monitors. By means of this well-worn ritual of mutual self-deception and spiritual sleight-of-hand, the good Christian people of this nation are able to breathe a sigh of relief, while the exposed miscreant breathes an even deeper sigh that he has managed to pull it off. (We must note in passing how, in nearly every such instance of very public repentance, the sinner is a powerful male whose sin is related to sex; I am still waiting for the greedhead banker or the embezzler or abusive employer who feels the need to fall to his knees and call on the name of Jesus for a new start.)

This kind of speed-cycle washing in the blood of the Lamb brings to mind the way Ambrose Bierce defined the term “Christian” in his still-invaluable Devil’s Dictionary: “One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.”

Memo to Brit Hume: finding Jesus in the midst of an embarrassing public crisis should never be treated as a get-out-jail-free card. The turning away from sin and the turning toward divine grace that an authentic theology of repentance contemplates is never a quick fix. What John Calvin called sanctification—making one’s life holy and thus in some small part reflective of God’s superabundant grace—is a slow lifelong process, and one that is not without continuous struggle. Put another way, the baptized Christian formally renounces the Devil and his works, but that doesn’t mean the Devil goes away.

Carl Jung, a Calvinist preacher’s kid, was quick to identify and celebrate a more instantaneous form of repentance. Jung pushed the definition of metanoia toward a repentance-lite concept of a sudden change of mind or disambiguation (gotta love that word!) brought on under conditions of emotional meltdown. If this re-branding of Brit Hume’s suggestion that Tiger take the Jesus way out, then maybe Brit really was on to something—and maybe Tiger should slap a big “JC” where “AT&T” used to be on his golf bag. No one should pretend, however, that there is anything genuinely Christian about such a move.

But really: When you’re Brit Hume, where would you find the time to learn anything at all about the various and more nuanced meanings of Christian repentance? Better to just run your mouth and keep on running it until the foot-in-mouth incident fades away.

I mean, who’s really gonna care besides a bunch of bitter Buddhists?