You Can Do Anything You Set Your Mind To: C'mon...REALLY?

I watched The Astronaut Farmer the other night.  I got it for $1.99 in a bargain bin at a Morristown record store.  It was cute.  Worth $1.99, but maybe not $6.00.  Billy Bob Thornton plays Farmer, an ex-NASA astronaut who builds a rocket in his barn.  He intends to use it to go into space, fulfilling a never-realized dream.  His plan is going swimmingly (in that no one except his family and small town neighbors know what he's doing) until he tries to buy 50,000 gallons of high-test rocket fuel over the internet.  In comes the FBI, suspicious that he might be building a weapon, and the FAA concerned he will show their multi-billion dollar budget to be unnecessary at best and might set a dangerous precedent for other amateur space enthusiasts at worst.

At the FAA hearing to discuss his submitted flight plan (which was originally ignored as a prank), Farmer stands up and makes a stirring speech:

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Now, this kind of sentiment is held close to the human heart.  Truth be told, though?  It totally rubs me the wrong way.  There are a host of other examples, the most ridiculous of which are the many professional athletes who claim that their recent championship is proof that "you can do anything you set your mind to."  This is also a staple of movie star Reader's Digest-style fluff journalism.  Question:  "If you could tell people one thing, what would it be?"  Celebrity Answer:  "Stick with it.  Don't let doubters get you down.  You can do anything, as long as you're willing to put in the work."  Gag me, please.

Michael Phelps, the 14-time Olympic gold medalist, was interviewed after stepping out the pool following one of his gold medal wins.  I can't find the clip online, but he was asked what the victory meant.  His (paraphrased) quote was:  "It just proves that if you want something enough, you can do anything."  This is, to my mind, ridiculous.  Did the other swimmers simply want the victory less than Phelps did?  Would someone with a shorter wingspan, smaller muscles, and less ability to hold their breath underwater be able to beat Phelps, as long as their desire was sufficient?

The problem with claims like Farmer's, or Phelps', is that they overestimate human ability.  In any kind of honest assessment, we would have to admit that we can't do anything we set our minds to, and that sometimes, desire is not enough.  Ask the silver medal winner.  The Christian intersection is this:  the more capable we feel as humans, the less likely we are to admit a need for a savior.  The theological way to put this is "as one's anthropology (view of man) rises, one's Christology (view of Christ) must fall."  If it were true that God helped those who help themselves, then hard work and belief would be necessary ingredients to a Christian life.  But, thank God, that phrase is not in the Bible.  It is good news, indeed, for those of us who can't win the big game, make the big shot, land the big role, or even competently live our own average lives, that God helps the helpless.  But to understand that Good News, it helps an awful lot to realize that you're helpless, and that "You can do anything you set your mind to" is just a platitude.

Batman and Robin? Jesus Christ!

This post may not age well.  I'm writing it on June 7, 2011, the day of game 4 of the NBA Finals.  The Lebron James- and Dwyane Wade-led Miami Heat enjoy a 2-1 game advantage over the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks.  Readers who know the outcome of tonight's game and of the series may consider the observations made here to be hopelessly naive, or at least uninformed.

But here we go.

One of the main storylines of these NBA playoffs, if not THE main storyline, is the leadership of the Heat.  Is it Wade's team?  LeBron's?  Who is the alpha dog?  As is common in sports journalism, the Batman and Robin tandem is used as an illustration.  For instance, Michael Jordan was Batman, while Scottie Pippen, his "sidekick," was Robin.  Jordan's superiority is unquestioned.

LeBron's deference to Wade in the fourth quarter of the first three Finals games has been reported as a kind of personal weakness.  Indeed, his decision to sign with the Heat at all, where Wade has spent his entire superstar career, is seen as an admission of "sidekick" status.  Skip Bayless, of ESPN, recently tweeted that "the biggest reason LeBron chose to join DWade was that LeBron knew DWade could win him rings. From that moment he was LeRobin James."

I don't want to write a sports column here.  For the record, it seems to me that the Heat are a two-leader team.  Maybe we've never seen it before, and we've been told that it can't work, but I think we're seeing it now.  What is interesting to me is that we have a need to place people on a scales.  Who is better?  Who is the leader?  Who is Batman and who is "only" Robin?  We do this because of what the Reformer Martin Luther called the theology of glory.  Human life is naturally a quest for glory, and to that end, we have to stack ourselves against everyone else.  Even if we are acknowledged to be the best, we are stacked against the weight of history.  If LeBron is the best player today, is he better than Jordan, Bird, or Russell?  And if that weren't heavy enough, there is the most nefarious comparison of all:  Is LeBron James AS GOOD A PLAYER AS HE OUGHT TO BE?  Truly, as Luther said, the quest for glory cannot be satisfied.  It must be extinguished.

And this, at least outwardly, is what LeBron James has done.  He has accepted a "Robin" role (or at least accepted everyone calling it that) for the betterment of the team.  He has extinguished his quest for glory.  And thereby, he has come to the precipice of his worldly glory, an NBA championship.

For Christians, when we acknowledge that our quest for glory (Christ-likeness) has been extinguished, we can accept the glorious salvation that is given to us freely, through no accomplishment of our own.  Where LeBron defers to Wade, we defer to Christ, who plays the game better than we ever could.

Jim Tressel is Britney Spears

Anyone who listens to sports radio or watches sports talk TV will have heard about the Jim Tressel/Ohio State story.  As a primer for those who don't, Tressel is the head coach of the Ohio State football team.  The NCAA, the governing body for college athletics, forbids athletes (who are required to be amateurs) from benefiting from their athletic ability.  So, for instance, when athletes get involved with agents, accept gifts from boosters, drive free cars from local dealerships, etc, and the NCAA finds out about it, trouble ensues.

NCAA rules also require coaches and administrators to report violations of which they are aware.  So, with all of that background,  here's what happened at Ohio State:  Over 20 players traded signed memorabilia to a Columbus-area tattoo-ship owner for discounted tattoos and cash.  As trivial as that sounds, it's a big deal to the NCAA, because it infringes on the players' amateur status.  When these shenanigans became public, Tressel claimed that he didn't know anything about it.  This turned out to be false.  Tressel had been informed of the violations months earlier and had participated in a cover-up designed to hide the infractions from the NCAA.  After all the dust settled, Tressel resigned on Monday.

The REAL reason this story has so much traction in the sports media, though, is Tressel's to-date persona.  The description for his book The Winner's Manual: For the Game of Life describes the book as "a perfect blend of football stories, spiritual insights, motivational reading, and practical application, The Winners Manual provides an inside look at the core philosophy that has positively impacted the lives of thousands of student athletes and served as the foundation for two of the most successful college football programs of all time."  Tressel has presented himself as a man of faith who does things "the right way."  Now, he is revealed to have done several things the wrong way, and knowingly and determinedly so.

On his show Jim Rome is Burning yesterday, Rome asked his guest, Matt "Money" Smith what he thought of Tressel.  Smith called attention to the dichotomy between Tressel's spiritual claims and his worldly actions.  "You can't have it both ways," Smith said, claiming that Tressel's facade was a fraud.  How indeed, can Tressel be BOTH a man of faith AND a selfish sinner.  Rome, on the other hand, suggested that he could be both, even tough the two were irreconcilable.

Martin Luther would have agreed with Rome.  Luther's description of the Christian condition was simul justus et peccator, or "at the same time righteous and a sinner."  Faith such as Tressel's (or yours) doesn't prevent you from still being human.  Remember when a young Britney Spears was a young Christian?  She was a sex-symbol, but claimed that she was saving herself for marriage.  When it came out that she had slept with Justin Timberlake, she said, "I thought he was the one I was going to marry," and the world accused her of hypocrisy and stopped taking her seriously as a Christian.  Matt Smith and many of his colleagues in the media (with Rome's notable exception) are doing the same thing to Jim Tressel.

Christians need to be able to say, "I'm a Christian and I messed up.  My messing up is the reason I'm a Christian."  This is the Christian answer to the world's accusation that those who mess up can't really be Christans, that we can't have it both ways.  We live in two worlds, inescapable sin and glorious salvation.