Michael Vick's American Redemption

A long time ago, I posted about Michael Vick. For those outside the sporting world who need a review, Vick was the one-time most exciting player in the NFL. The number 1 overall draft pick from Virginia Tech in the 2001 draft, Vick played for the Atlanta Falcons for six seasons before being arrested for and convicted of running an illegal dogfighting operation. He served 21 months in federal prison before declaring bankruptcy, being cut by the Falcons and sued for repayment of salary, and finally being signed by the Philadelphia Eagles in 2009.

Eagles owner Jeff Lurie said when he was thinking about signing Vick that we "needed to see some real self-hatred" for what he had done. Eagles fans protested outside the stadium, wanting nothing to do with Vick. An athletic quarterback known more for what he could with his legs than with his arm, Vick was roundly dismissed by sports pundits. It was assumed that, older now, his legs would betray him, leaving him to rely on passing skills that he never really had in the first place.

The pundits, apparently, were wrong.

Through three weeks of the 2010 NFL season, Michael Vick has been called, by the Washington Post's Michael Wilbon, a well-respected NFL commentator, the season's most valuable player so far. Steve Young, one of the all-time great quarterbacks to play the game, says he is "electrified" by the way Vick is playing and his potential for the season. Vick trails only Peyton Manning in passer rating, the cumulative statistic for judging quarterbacks. He has thrown six touchdown passes and no interceptions. As ESPN's Tim Keown says, though, "It would have been quite a bit easier had Michael Vick returned from prison and remained a mediocre backup."

What Keown is getting at is the conundrum that Vick has placed us in with his performance. In his article, Keown questions the validity of the "redemption story" tag that gets thrown at Vick. He cautions us not to think of this as more than a great football story. If you listen to sports talk, on radio or TV, you can hear the tide turning in Vick's favor. The fans who once picketed Lincoln Financial Field (where the Eagles play), now hold "Vickadelphia" signs.

But is this redemption? Keown says no. He says that we (Americans) love to say that "we're the land of second chances" and that "we're a forgiving nation" but accurately notes that "we do intolerance and rigidity when it fits our purpose." Keown argues that this situation feels redemptive to us because Vick is playing so well. "We're a country that values winners over the redeemed. The redemption we're seeking is often just the excuse to feel good about rooting for someone whose past is thoroughly distasteful." So where does that leave us with Vick? While his career may be being redeemed, what about Vick himself?

In this article from The Baptist Press, Art Stricklin details Vick's first adult public confession of faith in Jesus Christ. At the annual Super Bowl Breakfast hosted by Athletes in Action and Campus Crusade for Christ, Vick joined more "public" Christians Tony Dungy and Kurt Warner on the dais. Warner was there to receive the AIA Bart Starr Award, annually given to the player who exhibits character and leadership on and off the field, an award Michael Vick will never be considered for, let alone receive.

Vick described becoming a Christian in high school, but said that "the more success he achieved on the football field, the less he needed God." He said, of his time of incarceration, "I got back to my roots. The only thing I could do in prison was fall back on God. I wanted to do things right, that I didn't do the first time." This is a typical story: the disgraced celebrity who finds Christ in the joint. But why does it rub us the wrong way?

We prefer American redemption, the kind that Vick is enjoying on the field. We like success stories: people who play well. We want winners. As for God's redemption, we wish that our disgraced athletes would talk about their faith and reliance on Christ before they get disgraced, when it seems like they're just doing it as a P.R. ploy. Just as in American redemption, we prefer winners: people who live their lives well. We prefer Kurt Warner and Tony Dungy to Michael Vick.

But aren't we Michael Vick?

Isn't it when we're desperate that we become serious about our faith? When life is treating us well, we don't talk about our reliance on Christ. It is when we are disgraced that we fall back on God...just like Michael Vick. In our strength, we have no need of him.

Michael Vick's American redemption is a redemption story on two fronts: a wonderful football player who seems to be playing wonderfully again; a longtime Christian who seems to have rediscovered his profound need for a savior. These are redemptions we can get behind. Maybe some attention will be taken from Vick's American redemption and given to his Christian one.

Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy

This is HILARIOUS and, I think, true:

Well, there you have it. What's your reaction?

Duplicity, Real Love, and the Pure Gospel

I've often said, as I ply my trade, using examples from movies to illustrate the themes of law and gospel, that it's a lot easier to find examples of law in movies than it is to find examples of the gospel. The reason is simple: humans just don't love one another the way God loves us. That kind of the love (the unconditional kind) is simply beyond us, and wouldn't ring true if two characters in a movie behaved toward each other in that way.

But I may have found an example. The below clip, from the Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton) -scripted and -directed Duplicity, has two characters speaking to each other in the language of love. The REAL language of love. Watch:

Now, don't worry about all that junk about the formula, that's just this particular film's macguffin. (For the wannabe cinephiles out there, "macguffin" is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock to describe the object that everyone's after, the thing that sets the story in motion, but the nature of which ultimately doesn't really matter at all. Think the Maltese Falcon in The Maltese Falcon. Does the fact that it's (69-year-old SPOILER ALERT) made of tar make the movie any less exciting?) Do you feel the power of the scene?

These are two people, in a relationship, who haven't been able to trust each other since the day they met. They've just stolen a formula, worth billions, and are both pretty sure that the other is going to try to get all the money for themselves. In a situation like this, love cannot exist. But then, Julia Roberts begins to play the God role. "I know who you are. And I love you anyway." What a statement! These two sentences, when placed one after the other, have insurmountable power. Clive Owen is powerless before them. But more importantly, he is transformed by them. His distrust becomes trust. Not knowing what Roberts has, he offers the formula. And, in this wonderful scene, he tells us his reasoning. "I look at you...I can't stop looking at you...and I think, 'That woman. She knows me. And she loves me anyway.'"

This is the best non-cheesy illustration of the kind of love God has for us and its effect on us that I've ever seen. And believe me, I know that "loves me anyway" needs a serious theological fleshing-out, but the power of the statement cannot be ignored. God knows us, in all our conniving, self-centered, and jealousy-laden splendor, and loves us anyway. And this love is a creative love, creating trust where there was distrust, care for others where there was self-centeredness, and love where there was jealousy.

Frasier Crane and The Sermon on the Mount

Frasier has had a rough day. Someone parked in his spot at the office, making him late for work. Someone talked through the movie he tried to enjoy at a theater. Someone then rented the videotape out from under him. The clerk helps the person on the other end of the phone rather than helping Frasier, who has taken the trouble to come down to the store. His upstairs neighbor plays his rock music (which consists entirely of the lyrics, "Flesh is burning, na na na na na na."). Finally, when a man steals his waited-for seat at the local coffee shop, Frasier has had enough. Grabbing the man by the collar, he runs him out of the shop, shouting, "What you need is an etiquette lesson!"

This third-season episode is called "High Crane Drifter" in homage to the little-known Clint Eastwood film High Plains Drifter, in which a drifter (who may or may not be a ghost) blows into town and cleans it up by brute force. Frasier chastises himself for allowing his more animal nature to come out. He prefers, he says, to settle his disagreements like an adult, with words and reason. But the newspaper hails him as a sort of folk hero. And, to his dismay, people begin to follow his example.

Daphne, tired of someone taking her wet laundry out of the washing machine, decides to use a red article of clothing to take revenge on a load of whites, leading to a great line: "Those were my panties and I wasn't afraid to use them." People all over town start taking Frasier's example to heart and begin giving little "etiquette lessons" of their own. A caller whose neighbor used a leaf-blower at 7am, brags about smashing the leaf-blower into a tree. Another shoves a pound of rotten shrimp into a rival's air conditioner.

After dozens of callers describing their vigilante exploits, Frasier exclaims that they've gone too far! "I displayed a minor bit of force to just make a point...I didn't go around smashing windows or torching lawns! Where does it end?" His caller replies, "Are you saying that what I did was wrong?" "Of course I am!" shouts Frasier. And the caller responds, "But what you did was okay?" This stops Frasier in his tracks. And then, and this is one of the reasons I really love this show, Frasier realizes what the right thing to do is, and does it: "Come to think of it, what I did was just as wrong. I mean, who am I to draw the line at the acceptable level of force?"

This is a theologically profound statement. "Who am I to draw the line?" Well, you're no one. It's not our line to draw. We WANT it to be, which is why Frasier starts on his rant, and why we find The Sermon on the Mount so distasteful. Being angry is the same as murder? Lust is the same as adultery? This is ridiculous! And yet, as Frasier admits, if we are the ones left to draw the lines of acceptability, won't the next person just push it a little further than we did? Where does it end? If murder and adultery are seemingly more gross violations, surely anger and lust are the core of their inception. Frasier realizes in that moment what God has provided for all along: Righteousness must be complete to be worth anything at all. It is only God who can draw the line, and it is only God who can toe it.

Frasier Crane and the Illusion of Self-Control

In the final season episode "Murder Most Maris," Niles' (David Hyde Pierce) ex-wife is accused of murder. Niles is implicated as a possible accessory, for lending her an antique crossbow, which became the murder weapon. His life swirling out of control, Niles "chooses" to be calm. Martin (John Mahoney), the Crane boys' father, observes, "Wow! He's really holding up well!" "A little too well," Frasier (Kelsey Grammer) retorts. "I'm starting to fear that he's not dealing with his emotions at all!" Martin says, "Right. That's the whole secret to holding up."

This exchange illustrates a disconnect that people, and Christians, experience. What is the difference between what is on our outsides and what is on our insides? What is real? Which is more powerful? As Martin suggests, we often think of obscuring what's really going on as a skill. The grieving mother who gets right back to work, or the mourning father who never cries. This is called, in some circles, "strength." But is this kind of strength worth anything?

As "Murder Most Maris" continues, Niles' life becomes more and more unbearable, and he becomes more and more robotic in his insistence that everything is fine. Finally, he goes to Cafe Nervosa (the inevitable coffee shop where everyone is always hanging out) with Roz (Peri Gilpin) and asks for a straw, only to be told that Roz just got the last one. Here's what happens:

So you see the point: whatever's underneath will eventually come out. The core will come to the surface. The reason we find The Stepford Wives so creepy is that buried emotions are unnatural. This is the illusion of self-control. We tell ourselves that people like Niles are exhibiting great self-control. Martin certainly thinks so. But he's not actually controlling his discomfort and stress, he's simply hiding it. We find that he's only acting calm, cool, and collected. And no one can hide their true selves forever. We put a smile on our faces and say, "I'm happy." But isn't it well-known that clown make-up hides despondence?

Christians often feel it necessary to hide their insides (their sinfulness) from each other, fearing that they'll be revealed to be lagging behind on the great path to righteousness. However, and of course, God looks on the heart. And as we say all the time, it's a good thing that Jesus came for sinners, and not for the righteous! It's a good thing that he came for those of us who can't handle our lives, rather than for those of us who can. The Gospel is good news when we find ourselves exposed, as Niles does, by situations beyond our illusions of control.
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