Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Hair-Pulling Hooliganism

If you watched the above clip, you won't be surprised to hear that Elizabeth Lambert has been in the news a little bit lately. This happened two weeks ago now, and so has just about blown over. It was big enough to make it beyond the sports world, though, showing up on The Today Show, among other "news" outlets. The most interesting aspect of the event, to me, is Ms. Lambert's apology. After taking full responsibility for letting her "emotions get the best of" her, Lambert went on to claim that "this is in no way indicative of [her] character or the soccer player that [she is]."

She has, in consecutive sentences it seems, attempted to take responsibility AND to shirk it! Tony Kornheiser, a sportswriter from my childhood in Washington, DC, and a co-host of Pardon the Interruption, a sports-talk show on ESPN, wasn't buying Lambert's claim for even a minute. "Not who she is!?" he exclaimed. "It's EXACTLY who she is. It's just not who she wants to be!" Hallelujah! This is an insight that we've discussed before as it relates to David Hasselhoff, Mel Gibson, Michael Richards and others. Are the racist/violent/abusive acts they commit when they're "out of control" indicative of who they are, or not? As others have quoted before me, the Biblical argument seems to be that "the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" (Jeremiah 17:9), and that, therefore, the "out of control" us is the REAL us, and the sanitized, ready-for-public-consumption us is the cover-up.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Jesus: More Socialist than Obama?

I watch The Colbert Report every single evening. It might be the most consistently funny show on television right now. Colbert's constant accusations that Obama is a socialist were, for some reason, ringing especially loudly in my ears this week. Luckily for me, the question of whether or not Obama is a socialist is not that important to me. But what about Jesus? Whas Jesus a socialist? A couple of weeks ago, I went to a clergy conference where the main speaker was Dr. Walter Brueggemann, a noted Old Testament scholar. In his talks, he took what has come to be a popular idea in New Testament studies (that Jesus was a political radical, having come to set himself against The Empire, both as it existed in his day and as it exists now) and applied it to the Old Testament. He claimed that the Old Testament was written after the Babylonian exile as a religious treatise against Empire (in whatever form it takes) and Empire's influence over our lives.

Now that we don't have something as easily identifiable as The Holy Roman Empire to think of when we think of "Empire," Brueggemann and others would have us look at the "military-industrial complex" or "Western consumerism" as the Empires against which Jesus would have us rebel. Brueggemann's thesis, along with Colbert's rants, have got me thinking: Was Jesus a socialist? Was he interested in creating a socialist world?

Consider this classic description of the early church, shortly after Jesus' ministry on earth:

They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe, and many wonders and miraculous signs were done by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2: 42-47)

Sounds like socialism, right? The believers "had everything in common," and "gave to anyone as he had need." I asked Dr. Brueggemann at the conference if this "Christianity as anti-Empire" message posited a Jesus who was a politically dissident leader, and if so, did that have any effect on the definition of "the Gospel." He saw through me instantly, and knew I was asking about the Atonement. He told me, and the assembly, that the Gospel is Jesus' announcement that there's a new government in town: no longer the "Evil Empire" but a Christ-led government which cares for the poor, meek, and downtrodden rather than rewards the obedient consumer.

All well and good, you might think. But isn't it a gross overestimation of human nature? Why is it that socialist governments in the actual world always turn into socialist...dictatorships? Well, it seems to me that once people get into a place where they have enough power to put a socialist agenda into place, they start to think to themselves, "Well, I'll keep a few extra things for myself. I deserve it!" A typical home is pictured to the left! You can see the slippery slope from there.

So, in the end, I'll claim Jesus as a theoretical socialist. I'm a socialist too, if not for my view of human nature, which keeps my support of socialism to the theoretical level, and not the practical one.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Id of Andre Agassi

"Why?" the sports pundits wail. "Why have you done this to us!" Andre Agassi's recent admissions, in his book Open, that he took crystal meth for a year during his professional tennis career, lost matches on purpose, hated tennis, wore a wig during major tournaments, and, perhaps most importantly, didn't wear underwear for the last ten years of his career, have rocked the sports world. Many pro tennis players, such as Martina Navratilova, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal, and Marat Safin (most recently) have been critical of Agassi, mostly for the drugs and tanking. It is, however, the outcry from sportswriters and talkers that interests me most.

Mostly, they seem saddened by the fact that Agassi has sullied his amazing reinvention of himself. Early Agassi was a classic me-first athlete who dared to challenge the all-white dress code at Wimbledon. Then, Agassi bottomed out (due, we know now, to a crystal meth addiction) and his world ranking fell off the table. In a true humanist dream, though, Agassi came back. Hair shaved (or wig removed) and focus restored, he climbed back to the top of the tennis world, and retired as one of the most popular athletes in the world. If this sounds like an exaggeration, you're underestimating tennis' international popularity.

Agassi was a poster boy for our pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps ideal. And then, post-retirement, his philanthropic work is unparalleled. And now, people are seeing all of this as undermined by the admissions in Open. "Wait," pundits seem to be asking, "Could Andre Agassi be...a bad person?" They are angered for having loved someone who may not have deserved it.

The biggest question coming up on the sports talk shows, and I saw it again on Mike and Mike (on ESPN 2) this morning, seems to be: Why jeopardize your standing and perception by admitting to stuff that you've, to date, gotten away with? Why not just keep it bottled up? If you had to let it out, why not hire a shrink? Why spill it on us? Sigmund Freud, as you might imagine, is pounding on the inside of his coffin, reminding us of what he said about the human psyche.

It is Agassi's id, the animal center, that caused him to act out during his life. It is his super-ego that has judged him harshly for it. When Rick Reilly interviewed Agassi, and talked about losing matches on purpose, he asked Andre, "how do you justify that?" Reilly played into the human expectation: we self-justify. That's the job we give ourselves. Our super-ego judges us, and we self-justify. Agassi, in a moment of true self-actualization, said, "I don't." Agassi found that he had to admit his true nature to the world, so that people would know who he really is. He knows that his huge amount of philanthropic work, wonderful as it is, is simply covering up the true Andre Agassi. If he's to be loved, he knows that he needs to be loved for who he really is, not just for who he appeared to be. The truth of his life was holding him hostage...for years. The truth of his life, let out, has set him free (John 8:32).

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Thoughts on Halloween Lameness

Halloween was last week. I've never been that excited about Halloween myself, owing probably to the incident in my youth, when, having to go to the bathroom while trick-or-treating far from my home, I was shocked to be refused entrance to house after house. "May I please use your bathroom?" I'd beg in my best "I'm a cute suburban white kid with good grammar and it's barely dark out here -- what could go wrong?" voice. I eventually had to run home in mortal fear of peeing my pants -- the scariest Halloween ever.

What has interested me about Halloween is its intersection with culture, and especially Christianity. Growing up in the church, I've seen churches attempt to do all kinds of things with Halloween, from ignoring it completely to throwing elaborate competing "Harvest Festivals." My
favorite Christian/Halloween story comes out of Eden Christian Academy of Pittsburgh, PA (slogan: Pretending People are Perfect since 1983). A dear friend worked as a teacher there, and experienced this first-hand. Presented with the problem of what to do about Halloween one year, the faculty went back and forth: Use it as a teaching moment to communicate about the occult? Embrace what has become a harmless evening of candy-getting rather than a celebration of pagan ritual? Of course not. So afraid were they of dealing with the Halloween "problem," they did the least productive thing they could have: They cancelled school.

Why is it that Christians are so afraid of Halloween? Well, it all comes from Eden's slogan, which I conveniently made up to suit my purposes. In real life, Eden doesn't seem to have a pithy slogan, but has an 8 point statement of faith. The "problem" with Halloween, though, is a seeming fear that a "bad" thing will corrupt "good" kids. I don't know about you, but I was a kid, and Halloween was the least questionable thing we were up to. It's not just Christians, either. Check out this list of rules for costumes at a Halloween parade at Riverside Drive School
in Los Angeles:
  • They should not depict gangs or horror characters, or be scary
  • Masks are allowed only during the parade
  • Costumes may not demean any race, religion, nationality, handicapped condition, or gender
  • No fake fingernails
  • No weapons, even fake ones
  • Shoes must be worn
Some of this is pretty standard P.C. stuff, but what costumes are left? In a school district in Illinois, students are being encouraged to dress up as historical characters or delicious food items rather than vampires or zombies. I am not making this up! A lot of this information can be found in a funny AV Club article. The writer of the article ends with this warning to parents: "Most kids can tell the difference between reality and dress-up -- and if they can't Halloween is the perfect time to learn. Your children have all their lives to become lame fraidy-cats. Why make them start now?"

When it comes to Christians and Halloween, if we can admit that we are not perfect beings trying by any means to avoid corruption, maybe we can dress up like Freddy Kruegger and get some fun-sized Kit Kats. If we believe, as Eden Christian Academy claims to, that our righteousness is sourced in Jesus Christ and not in ourselves, we don't have to worry so much about the possible corruption that bobbing for apples and trick or treating might cause...We can do the zombie dance and just have fun!

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