Sunday, December 02, 2007

Sean Taylor: Error or Irony?

(((Religious sports stars; Having your God cake and eating it (so to speak), too; What God does and doesn't do for us; Media and the use of celebrity religion)))

In the days since Sean Taylor was shot and killed in what appears to have been a burglary gone horribly wrong, I have noticed a trend at least in ESPN coverage. They really like to play the tape of him saying, "I've been blessed. God has looked out for me."

I suppose this is supposed to be poignant. And of course when any celebrity dies, every talking head trots out the religious platitudes, so I suppose this should be no different. Lots of Americans believe in God and believe in prayer. Fine.

What gets under my skin is this kind of crap—where the successful claim God's blessing has gotten them there. This is generally understood as humility, attributing to God what one could simply boast was the result of one's own skill or effort, and/or the skill and effort of other merely mortal beings (compare Lance Armstrong on overcoming cancer: it wasn't God; it was good doctors). But the end result is that you claim God's favor for yourself and your "side," whether that's a sports team (athletes who thank God when they win a game . . . what, the other side didn't offer enough sacrifices?), an ethnicity ("Gangs of New York" is great on this), or a nation-state (fighting in a foreign country, say, Iraq). Even if we thought they might be right, in what sense can this possibly be considered humble? God loves us because we are righteous, and we know that because we win. Otherwise, why would we win?

But then there are the backflips and other painful spiritual gymnastics forced on the faithful when they lose. God is testing them. Or, in its most radical version, God is simply asserting God's own authority. Because, as God, he occasionally has to prove he's God by being arbitrary and childish, instead of, I don't know, showing up and telling us not to be childish and arbitrary with each other.

So, God looked out for the 24-year-old Sean Taylor, until last weekend. But since God is ultimately responsible for everything, it has to have been part of God's plan. God blessed Sean Taylor, but then he didn't. He un-blessed him. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away, as Job says.

I like the book of Job. There are many things to like about it, including God's assertion that only God is God, and Job's insistence that it still isn't fair (and God agrees). But the God of Job is in no sense a reassuring God. The God of Sean Taylor precisely is reassuring, despite his unpredictable behavior. But how are unpredictability and unreliability reassuring? The God of modern Christians is the reliable rock on which we are supposed to build the structure of our lives, but the God of Job goes to great lengths to remind us that, to put it in the terms of Ecclesiastes, the sun shines on both the wicked and the righteous.

God is teaching Job a lesson. God is undermining Job's pride, and Job's experience is of hubris, the pride of understanding that goes before a fall. But who pays for Job's lesson? This has also always bugged me, like an itch I can't scratch. Why is it that Job's children die to teach him this lesson? And why does this have to happen to Job to teach us the lesson?

And then, well, why does it have to happen to Sean Taylor to teach us the lesson? I wish I could with confidence argue that it doesn't, but in any case I'm pretty well convinced that if there's a God as smart and as powerful as most religious people (and even most theologians) like to think, that God could come up with better, less devastating and costly ways to teach lessons.

So what are we to make of the incessant repetition of Sean Taylor's pious, Job-like utterance? The only thing I can figure is that we're supposed to think that Sean Taylor was a pious man who lived a full life and was loved by God even though God "took him home" at age 24 in a pretty nasty way. Or, as Joe Gibbs would seem to have it, we're supposed to learn from it: the world, even—or perhaps especially—with a Christian God running it, is unpredictable, unreliable, and a special gift that many humans in the world get a lot less of than others.

Perhaps this is even true, but how is it different from a Godless world?

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