A (Failed) Great Escape: The Latest Move by Lance Armstrong

This is the second (and, let's be honest, most likely final) in what will no doubt be our long-remembered "God will not be mocked" series.  Last week we talked about playing Little League baseball according to the rules, and the nonsensical nature of a life in which such rules don't exist.  This week, Lance Armstrong has tried to create just such a life for himself.

Over the weekend, USADA (the United States Anti-Doping Agency) announced that it would ban Armstrong (the seven-time Tour de France champion) from cycling for life and strip the sport's greatest champion of its greatest championship. In addition, Armstrong is banned from being involved in any way (participant, manager, owner) in any sport that subscribes to USADA's governance.  All of this comes in response to Armstrong's decision to stop contesting USADA's continued assertion that he used performance-enhancing drugs to win his seven (consecutive!) Tours.

Ultimately, whether Armstrong did or did not use PEDs is not interesting to me.  It is mildly interesting that USADA has continued their dogged pursuit of him despite his never testing positive, despite thousands of pre-, mid-, and post-race tests.  It is mildly interesting that Armstrong was able to win seven consecutive titles in a sport in which almost every one of his major competitors has either been proven to have used, or has admitted to use of, PEDs.  What is really interesting is Armstrong's apparent belief that "not fighting" is a good exit strategy.  The theological question will ever be: Can you just stop playing the game?

In a previous post, we talked about The Belle Brigade's song "Losers," in which they claim that they're not going to participate in the games that make them feel like losers.  They're not going to "care about being a winner.  Or being smooth with women.  Or going out on Fridays. [Or] being the life of parties."  This seems to be Armstrong's strategy too: to check out.  He might well sing, "I don't care what USADA says about me.  I don't care how I'm remembered.  I don't care if I can compete athletically anymore."  Unfortunately, those declarations don't ring any more true than The Belle Brigade's do.

As we've said before, God will not be mocked (Gal 6:7).  The Law is true whether we believe in it or not; whether we ascribe power to it or not.  USADA has stripped Armstrong of his titles. This is the objective truth. Armstrong can decide, all he wants, not to fight.  But like a human being denying the authority of God's law, the choice to give up is an admission, as World Anti-Doping Agency president John Fahey said of Armstrong's decision,  that the accusation "has substance."  Indeed, the rules have substance whether we choose to play the game or not.

The Rundown: Tony Scott and Denzel Washington

Tony Scott, an action icon and director of such (non-Denzel) films as Top Gun, Days of Thunder, True Romance, and Enemy of the State, took his own life on Sunday night. In honor of him, his long-time collaboration with Washington, and due to the fact that a full Rundown of his highlights would take an hour to read, here's a rundown of the great action collaboration of Tony Scott and Denzel Washington.

Crimson Tide (1995)
I should say first of all that I love Tony Scott's movies. His hyper-kinetic visual style, long lambasted by critics, has never bothered me (in the same way, I never felt sick watching The Blair Witch Project) and I was often exhilarated by it. Of course, Crimson Tide doesn't really feature any of that, just crackerjack action and performances by Gene Hackman, Viggo Mortensen, and, of course, Denzel Washington. Having just come off of Malcolm X and Philadelphia, Crimson Tide allowed Denzel a chance to have some fun. He must have liked it, because he would team up with Scott four more times before Scott's untimely death. Crimson Tide may stretch credulity (my father, familiar with Naval protocol, can't stand it) but it's taut, exciting, and superbly acted.

Man on Fire (2004)
Man on Fire is probably my favorite modern Tony Scott picture. Top Gun and Days of Thunder are beloved, to be sure, but are, in a sense, relics of my childhood more than they are favorite films of my adult life. The simple story of a down-and-out military man (Washington) hired to protect the daughter (Dakota Fanning) of a wealthy family living in Mexico City, Man on Fire is nonetheless a tour de force. It hits all the standard revenge plot beats, and even uses (to great effect) the hoariest of hoary cliches (the wide-eyed moppet breaking down the grizzled heart of stone), but is without question a moving story (at times, to tears). Alternating jarringly between tenderness and violence, Man on Fire is the story of a man with nothing to lose, and is not to be missed.

Deja Vu (2006)
In his director's commentary track for Deja Vu, Tony Scott describes what prompted him to sign on to direct. In one of the films early scenes an ATF agent (Washington) attends the autopsy of a woman (Paula Patton) pulled out of a New Orleans river after a terrorist's bomb has destroyed a barge. Seeing her beauty, even in death, he is moved. Scott said that he wanted to try to tell a love story in which the girl-meets-boy didn't happen until after the girl was dead. Talk about the opposite of a meet-cute! A techie's dream, Deja Vu involves cool gadgets, potential time travel, and, of course, the retroactive foiling of the bad guy (Jesus Christ himself, Jim Caviezel). Deja Vu is let down by some of the supporting performances (Matt Craven, Caviezel, and Patton fall a little short but Val Kilmer and Adam Goldberg do well) but is an enjoyable romp.

The Taking of Pelham 123 (2009)
Perhaps Scott's most critically panned film, The Taking of Pelham 123 is a remake of an excellent 1974 film (of the same name) with Walter Matthau and Robert Shaw. Critics, it seemed, were just too in love with the original movie to view Scott's Pelham on its own merits. I don't claim that it's a "necessary" remake (in fact, I can't think of a remake that is), but Pelham is another fun Scott/Washington ride. A terrorist (John Travolta) and his team of heavies (played by real Albanian ex-criminals) have taken a New York subway car hostage. On the case are an MTA dispatcher (Washington), an FBI hostage negotiator (John Turturro), and the mayor of New York (James Gandolfini). There's a bit of unnecessary business attempting to turn Washington into a flawed hero, but it's needed (in a sense) to get the runtime to feature length. That's how tight a thriller this is.

Unstoppable (2010)
In his obituary for Scott, the AV Club's Scott Tobias had this to say about Unstoppable: "Unstoppable was as good as anything he ever directed, a diamond-cut thriller about a runaway train that won some of his best reviews." This may be the simplest story of them all: a train carrying toxic materials is loose on the track, there's no one aboard to stop it, and there's a hairpin turn (and certain derailment) in a highly populated area. Engineers Washington and Chris Pine have to get to that train and get it stopped. Period. Rosario Dawson plays the part Denzel played in Pelham, the train dispatcher coordinating everything from a distance. She also gets the best line of the movie, calling the runaway train "a missile the size of the Chrysler building." The final in a long line of thrilling Tony Scott action movies, Unstoppable may be the simplest, but it's also the most fun.

Little Leaguers Everywhere and Not a Drop of Grace to Drink

The Little League World Series is in full swing (yes, intended). This doesn't really affect me, except that all my favorite ESPN programming is preempted for the week, under the assumption that I'd rather watch 12-year-olds play baseball.  I wouldn't. The LLWS is certainly an interesting phenomenon, though...I played baseball (at a relatively high level) my entire childhood and never even sniffed the World Series.  I was never even aware of how a team might qualify for the World Series, much less play in it.  For most kids, just getting to the Little League World Series is a dream come true; that's what makes what happened in final World Series qualifying this year noteworthy.

A team from Petaluma, CA defeated a team from Nanakuli, Hawaii by appealing a play at third. In short, a Hawaiian runner missed third on his way to score the tying run in the final inning, and was called out after the play, ending the game.  Here's the story.  Note that the author says that the California squad reached the World Series "in the most controversial of circumstances." This would be incredible hyperbole under normal circumstances (there was no doping, game-throwing, or puberty-reaching, all of which would have been more controversial), but here, it's even more out of place: Petaluma won the game according to the rules!  Touching all of the bases is pretty fundamental to baseball, and appeal plays exist for just this sort of circumstance.

The "controversy" in this story is largely due to the heartbreaking nature of Nanakuli's loss. They got the hits required to win the game, but lost on a "technicality." Shouldn't the Petaluma coach have forgone the appeal and let the Hawaiians win? Wouldn't that have been the gracious thing to do?


One of the great misconceptions about Christianity is that grace involves setting aside, circumventing, or ignoring the rules (the law).  Upon hearing this Little League story, a part of my heart thought, "Wouldn't it have been a wonderful example of grace if Petaluma, though knowing about the infraction, conceded the game to Nanakuli anyway?" But...it wouldn't have been.  Grace doesn't mean playing the game as though there aren't any rules. Though grace does imply "unmerited favor," it carries with it the assumption of substitution, the game-changing fact that someone else has followed the rules in our stead.

Life without the law makes as little sense as a baseball game in which base-touching is optional. The law is never optional, and grace and the Gospel cannot forget about the law.  In fact, it is the law that makes us aware of our need for the Gospel (Rom 7:7)!  Our lives, and our faith, make sense when we understand that the rules haven't been done away with, they have instead been fulfilled for us (Matthew 5:18). God, we are told, will not be mocked (Gal 6:7)...his law is holy, righteous and good, and must be upheld. All the bases must be touched for the run to count.  Thank God, though, that all the bases laid out before us have been touched by the one, Christ Jesus, who is holy, righteous and good, when we cannot be.

What's in a Name?

Just when it seems as though nothing more can be said about the Joe Paterno/Penn State scandal, some new wrinkle comes to light, a disturbing new revelation about who knew what when arises, or, in this case, someone writes a book. Journalist Joe Posnanski’s Paterno, which was released on Tuesday is the authorized story (unprecedented access was granted to Posnanski by the Paterno family, including Joe) from behind the proverbial battle lines. Excerpts from the book were published in the September issue of GQ magazine, and one quotation is particularly interesting. “My name,” the Hall of Fame coach was quoted as saying, “I have spent my whole life trying to make that name mean something. And now it’s gone.”

There is a truism in theological anthropology (the study of humankind as it relates to God) that states that as one’s opinion of oneself rises, one’s need for a savior falls. In other words, the higher your view of your moral quality, the less likely you are to acknowledge your failings. The inverse is also true: as your anthropology falls, your Christology will rise. The worse off you see humans as naturally being, the more powerful you need Christ to be. In mathematics terms, these two variables are “inversely proportionate.” They fall and rise in relation to one another, but always in the opposite direction.

So often, our downfalls come at the very times when we think we’ve crested a hill, when we’re finally ready to “make a name for ourselves.” Sometimes, it’s as simple as your car breaking down the minute you finally found the end table that perfectly suits your living room. Isn’t this always the case? Our lives seem incapable of being all put together at once. There is a theological reason for this: God, as the saying goes, is in the business of tearing down our idols, and the most precious idol in each of our lives is our own self-sufficiency: the quality of our name.

When someone hears our name, we want them to think of competence, even excellence: attractiveness, wisdom, and a razor-sharp sense of humor. The last thing we want associated with our name is the phrase “paralyzing need.” As we build the mythology of our name in our mind, we do everything we can to associate it with success: a high anthropology. This leads inevitably to a low Christology—when and where we think our name is great there is no room in the equation, no need, for the one whose “name is above every name.” But when we fall? Or, more accurately, when our true nature is revealed? The name we spent so long cultivating is revealed to be a hollow husk, surrounding a rotten core. It is usually only when we are forced to—when our name is gone, as Joe Pa put it—that we can acknowledge the true state of our humanity: sufferer, sinner, nameless.

But the good news is this: our name is not ours to make or break; it is God’s to give (Gen. 35:10). And this name, the peace and identity that God gives in Jesus, can never be “gone;” it is written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain” (Rev. 13:8; cf. Luk. 10:20).
Joe Paterno spent his whole life trying to make his name mean something; something other than what our names all mean: desperately in need of a savior. Praise God that He knows our true names, and sent us just the savior we needed.

I Can't Believe That Was Good: Real Steel

A new feature, "I Can't Believe That Was Good," will look at art (film, music, books) that is far better than expected.

Real Steel is an inspiring sports movie about boxing robots. Have you clicked away to some other website yet? Derisively called "Rock 'em Sock 'em Robots: The Motion Picture" when it was announced, the Hugh Jackman-starring Steel is the story of a man, his son, and his, er...robot. A formulaic film if there ever was one, Jackman is Real Steel's centerpiece, a washed-up boxer who takes to barnstorming with mechanized fighters when they replace the flesh-and-blood version in the ring. There's the ubiquitous mounting debts, estranged son (played very well, actually, by Dakota Goyo) and the tenuous love interest (Evangeline Lilly). Oh yeah, and the robot.

Real Steel is sort of Rudy, if told from the perspective of Rudy's strength and conditioning coach. Despite the ridiculous premise, stock characters (the evil robot is owned by an Ivan Drago-inspired femme fatale and programmed by a smirking smarter-than-thou Rising Sun board member) and the easily predictable scruffy-underdog-goes-up-against-slick-Goliath story beats, it's easy to find oneself cheering and grinning (at least on the inside) as the heroic 'bot (led by his heroic handlers) amazes crowds in a Gladitorial "are you not entertained?" fashion. Oh yes, we are entertained.

Michael Jordan is (Metaphorically) Killing His Sons

One of the lessons assigned in my church this past Sunday was a selection from Ephesians 4 and 5, wherein the writer implores the Ephesians to live a holy life, ultimately calling them to "be imitators of God" (Eph 5:1).  This is, no doubt, a heavy burden, laid crushingly bare by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount: "Therefore you must be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). This is The Law, in its most capitalized form. It brings about the death of the one who tries to live up to it.

A similar thing is happening to Jeffrey and Marcus Jordan.

In his "The Fix" column for ESPN the Magazine, Chris Jones notes the pressure that Michael Jordan's sons live under:
Most of us probably last gave thought to Michael Jordan's kids during his sometimes vicious Hall of Fame induction speech back in 2009. Interrupting his blistering of former coaches, employers and teammates, Jordan turned to his three children (he also shares a daughter with his ex-wife, Juanita) and said: "You guys have a heavy burden. I wouldn't want to be you guys if I had to."

In his tactless way, Jordan couldn't have been more right about that burden, borne especially by his sons. We might have forgotten about them -- Jeffrey's now out of basketball, and Marcus is likely about to play his last meaningful season, even if he puts Omaha behind him -- but they have never been able to forget what they always will be. Our sons should be better than we are; as fathers, that should be all of our dreams -- that they will be taller, richer, healthier, happier. Jeffrey and Marcus Jordan have no chance of eclipsing their dad. It's their destiny to remain his satellites.
This "no chance" that Jones refers to for the Jordan heirs is the same "no chance" that we have at being passable "imitators of God." So, what recourse do Jeffrey and Marcus Jordan have? They've taken a shot at individuality (sort of) with Heir-Jordan.com, but that site, intended as a way to "leave their own legacy," at this point "contains nothing more than dead links." This sort of father/son pressure is certainly nothing new, and not really anything profound. What is at least a little bit profound is Jones' solution to the problem: Fathers need to leave their sons. He opens his column with these words:
There are no faultless fathers. Some are better than others, but it's just not a job that allows any of us to be perfect. It's too hard, too ever-changing. It requires too many different skills, from tenderness to absolute resolve. And even if there were such a thing as a perfect father, our children would still slip out of our careful reach, because that's the natural order of things: One day we won't be their fathers anymore. Even if by some miracle our lives go exactly as planned, one day we will leave them.
He closes with these:
It's not all bad for the junior Jordans, of course. Our children will probably never have their millions or their high-end legal representation. But at least we can give our kids all of us. And no matter what mistakes we've made, we still have the chance to give our own children, our own sons, something that even Michael Jordan could not give his: One day we won't be their fathers anymore. We will leave them.
God the Father must leave his children in order for them to be saved. In other words, allow God the Son's atonement (tenderness) to satisfy his justice (absolute resolve). As Jones says, this isn't an option for the Jordan children. It is something, though, thank God, that has already been afforded us.

A Gospel-Preaching Trip to Kenya

Bishop Chriss Barasa Lusweti, overseer of the Word of Life Harvest Church (a network of approximately 80 churches in western Kenya and eastern Uganda), has invited me to speak to a pastor's conference in Eldoret, Kenya, in January of 2013. He expects 400 pastors to attend, both from a wide geographical area and from a multitude of denominations. Bishop Lusweti has (incredibly) been a reader of this blog, and believes that I will be able to communicate the Gospel in fresh ways to the pastors who attend the conference.

Being from a rural area, Bishop Lusweti cannot afford to pay for my transportation to Kenya.  He (and his church) will provide local transportation and lodging (with the Bishop and his family) during the four-day conference.  I would like to raise the approximately $3,000 that travel to Kenya, conference preparation, and incidentals will cost.  If you would like to help in this effort, please email me at nicklannon@gmail.com and let me know how much you can help. Below is a brief interview with Bishop Lusweti conducted by a pastor who was a speaker at a similar conference several years ago. You know, to prove he's a real person.

Olympic Stars -- They're Just Like Us! (In That They Usually Lose)

It has been noted that there are 302 gold medals up for grabs at this year's London Olympic Games (or, as Bob Costas insists on calling them, The Games of the Thirtieth Olympiad), which might sound like a lot until you account for the 10,490 athletes bent on attaining them. What this means, of course, is that most competitors come away from the Olympics as losers. Now, before you stop me and say, "Hey, silver medals aren't too shabby, and certainly those who win them aren't losers!", I submit exhibit A: the glowering Russian gymnastics team. Nary a smile cracked their lips...until, that is, Gabby Douglas made a costly error on the uneven bars, clearing the way for Aliya Mustafina to win a gold medal. I don't begrudge the Russian gymnasts their desire for gold...I'd be the same way and would happily celebrate a competitor's mistake (it is a competition, after all), I only bring it up to note that second place, for many of these athletes, is still losing.

But still, the vast majority leave with no medals at all.

In a recent interview with SI.com, graphic artist Sarnath Banerjee was interviewed about an extensive art installation in and around Olympic venues in East London. The installations feature depictions of Olympic failure and self-doubt, and was funded by the Frieze Foundation. The highlights of the interview are actually the images of Banerjee's billboards:

(the caption here is: "In the company of winners")

("Sometimes, in the middle of a jump, Au Dolanbay wonders whether, 
perhaps, he might just have chosen the wrong sport.")

Consider this additional juxtaposition: Though interested in, and identifying with, the losers, Banerjee admits that, like the rest of us, when he watches the Olypmics, he'll be "focused on winners." This is so typical of us humans: we identify profoundly with losers (we are them!) but we want desperately to identify with winners (we could be them!). It takes an honest man to admit that though he's fascinated by losing (and is an athletic loser himself), he'll be focused on the winners at these Games.

Banerjee is able to bring to vivid portrayal the self-doubt and fear that all of us face, whether we engage in competitive athletics or not. Winning is fleeting...just ask Bruce Jenner. Losing, though, is a thing to be lived with, felt, and sublimated. After all, it's not until we admit that we're losers that we can reach out for help.

But How Does Your Embarrassing and Excruciating Loss Make You FEEL? The Pros and Cons of Olympic Sideline "Reporting"

Sideline reporting is a touchy art. Long the province (or ghetto) of beautiful female reporters frozen out of more high-profile jobs, the sidelines of sporting events can (and should) offer closer access to the immediate stories of the contest than that offered by the broadcast booth. Too often, however, sideline reporters satisfy themselves with "human interest" stories about the "feelings" of the athletes either before or after they compete. This is especially true of the Olympics.

The best examples of sideline reporting are usually in basketball and football (the American kind) wherein reporters can often be privy to exchanges between players and coaches (and coaches and medical staff) and communicate what they overhear to the viewer. Of course, they usually don't, because the other team has representatives watching the broadcast, too, and would be interested to know any strategy (or injury news) that the sideline reporter has come up with. This aside, sometimes we viewers learn something valuable.

In the Olympics, this is next to impossible. I'm thinking specifically of gymnastics, track, and swimming, where there is no real strategy (Don't fall! Run hard! Swim fast!) and athletes are largely unavailable before and while they perform. Questions must be asked after the athlete completes the competition.

I have long loathed these interviews, commenting after a recent example: "Can we please stop asking athletes how they feel when they can't even breathe yet? News flash: they feel like crap, especially if they've lost!" Interviewers rarely ask technical questions, which might shed light on WHY an athlete fell short (What happened at the turn? What caused you to lose your balance?), preferring to ask the athletes what their victory "means" to them or how their loss makes them "feel."

But this morning, after watching another series of infuriating Andrea Kremer interviews at the Aquatic Center last night ("Which Michael Phelps is going to show up tomorrow night? Come on, which one?"), I'm wondering if I'm in the wrong.

It is the human impulse to put up a front, to show the world the "us" we wish we were rather than let anyone see the "us" we really are. Isn't it the job of the reporter (if, sigh, we can even call them that) to try to bring down that facade? Isn't Jordyn Wieber MUCH more likely to tell us that she really hates Aly Raisman (if she does, which it appears she doesn't) for taking her spot in the gymnastics all-around final immediately following the performance than she is after she's gotten herself together? Wouldn't you be more vulnerable to real life if I woke you up at 3 o'clock in the morning and asked you what your true hopes and dreams were (or if you'd just gotten out of the pool at the Olympic 400 meter IM final and you couldn't really breathe yet)?

I think we can probably all agree that sideline reporting could be handled with more dignity, aplomb, and precision. It seems, though, that if we desire to be intellectually honest (which I do, when it suits me), we ought to be in favor of these excruciating interviews, as uncomfortable as they make us feel. The potential for real, ugly truth is often unsettling...because, you know,we just might get it.

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