Doris Burke Does What Many of Us Want to Do, or God Has No Jumper

So Doris Burke upset some folks the other night when she interviewed future MVP Kevin Durant after another of his amazing performances, this one over the Miami Heat. You can view the 28-second clip here. You can see how some of my fellow Okies felt about her "disrespect" here in a nice twitter thread. This is an old discussion in some ways, but Burke finally did what many of us do in the privacy of our homes: we laugh when athletes credit God in their postgame interviews or post-touchdown rituals. Oddly enough, many believers feel the exact same way as we skeptics; it's absurd to attribute a particular performance or play or game to God's providence, as if God somehow accounts for human agency in sports contests. One can only imagine a blood-spattered God ringside at an MMA event as he gives one pseud0-gladiator the victory over another, or God in flippers swimming dolphin-like amongst water polo players, trying to avoid genitalia (uncleanness and whatnot) so as to give one side the victory. 

Burke's sin was in laughing at KD when he said his performance was because of God/Jesus Christ. First, it's impossible to know what she was thinking. She might simply be a nervous laugher; it does happen. Second, she might have been just as surprised as I was to hear KD speak so explicitly about Jesus. I'm not sure he's done it in a postgame interview before, but it was certainly the first time I heard it. I would have been just as flabbergasted as Burke seemed to be. Her question, like it or not, is a fair one. "You didn't have anything to do with it?" Of course he did. He shot, he distributed the ball, he led the Thunder to a big win over Miami. Finally, I suppose if we parse this, we might get some general agreements, or at least, I'll concede that if certain things are possible, then he wasn't completely nonsensical in his assertion. If God created KD with all these amazing abilities, then it's possible that God was indeed involved in KD's amazing performance. Of course, his parents would then also be partly responsible for KD's amazing abilities. Either way, within that framework, KD's comment doesn't sound completely nonsensical. 

I'm assuming Burke wasn't laughing to mock KD or his faith. She's a professional, and I've listened to her interview athletes hundreds of times. I've never seen her behave disrespectfully to any declaration of the Lord's agency in victory, however dubious the claim might have been. Seriously, consider some of the athletes who have a cozy relationship with God. Say what you want about the Tebows of the world; he at least has integrity in his faith declarations, as his off the field behavior seems above reproach. He's a walking lifestyle covenant. Put the "I'd like to thank my savior" in someone else's mouth (fill in the blank with whatever athletic douchebag first comes to mind), and it's a first-order miracle that Burke hasn't laughed before. KD, too, though, is an upstanding citizen, so it's incredibly unlikely that Burke meant to offend or mock. 

People of faith would do well to take this as a lesson. Sometimes the words you use have zero coherence when juxtaposed with the reality you purport to describe. When I watch KD put up 30+ points, I don't think, "Man, that Jesus can play some fuckin' basketball." When he then gives the credit to Jesus, I laugh and shake my head, and I still think he's an amazing player; I just think he doesn't really understand human agency all that well. 

By the way, yes, I'm back for now. We'll see how this goes for a while. The break was good for me. I still don't know why I want to comment on these things. You'd think teaching college would be sufficient stimulation, but I still find myself wondering some of this shit aloud, and it's really not fair to put students through that grinder. 

Tongues, Tebow, and Tagalog, or Grating Public Faith

Tim Tebow was praying in tongues yesterday. Not a joke. I'm almost certain of it. I saw him on the sidelines late in the loss to Kansas City, kneeling on the turf, head bowed, lips moving remarkably fast. Unless he was reciting the Lord's Prayer over and over at blistering speed making all his lip movements unreadable in terms of real words, he was praying in tongues. I've tried to discover whether or not he's a charismatic. I assume he is, and I just don't care about that. I'm not going to hate Tim Tebow. He's not done anything hateworthy. He's a remarkably good guy by any account, and he defies the odds occasionally. Four things happened—two before Christmas and two yesterday—that make this a topic I'm finally going to get to.

Here are the four things: I went to a very nice holiday wine party with a very hospitable Christian family and happily avoided a conversation about Tebow. Bill Maher raised a storm of controversy (no shit) when he tweeted:

"Wow, Jesus just fucked #TimTebow bad! And on Xmas Eve! Somewhere in hell Satan is tebowing, saying to Hitler "Hey, Buffalo's killing them"
Yesterday, Bronco punter Britton Colquitt pointed godward with both hands when a Chief's return man (Arenas maybe?) failed to field an otherwise average punt. The ball rolled twenty more yards making it a very good punt. Colquitt assumed this was part of the divine mystery instead of shitty football and responded accordingly. Fourth, Tim Tebow prayed in tongues.

I'm seriously okay with public expressions of faith that respect the Constitution, as in no faculty/admin-sanctioned prayer in public schools, no prayers at inaugurations, etc. Praying over your meal in a restaurant seems oddly normal to me. I don't find it offensive, so long as you don't pray so loud that I have to listen, and then it's not offensive, just annoying. Want to wear a Christian tee shirt or a brooch of the Buddha? Not a problem. I don't want you wearing a "Muhammad was a pedophile" tee shirt to my class and call it religious expression, but if yours says "Jesus is Lord," I'll understand why you feel that way.

All that to say that Tebow's public expressions of faith don't trouble me. I do think it's worse than stupid to assume god gives two shits about the outcome of a game, but I understand why some fundangelicals believe he does. Tebow sports a Bible verse on his eye-black. So? At least it's not Leviticus 18:22. He prays. Billions of people pray. He prays publicly. You get the point. He's acting like a very committed, outspoken man of faith. Give it a rest, people. If you hate Florida, say so. If you don't like that he's big and goofy and gives all the credit to his god, say so. I will admit to some glee at watching his evangelical fan base gnash their teeth when I mock them with tweets about Dagon being god of Denver, just as Maher annoyed millions with his tweet. There seems to be this strange ability amongst certain people of faith to say that they know something isn't true (God cares about football games) while still holding onto a belief that it is true. Mocking them along that axis leads to anger and/or a bit too much celebration when Tebow wins. As one recent poster said: "Go Tebow! Go Jesus!" Yeah, words fail.

Where I get annoyed is with people who simply believe nonsense or when sports are portrayed as spiritual warfare. First, the party. A very nice lady said, "Tim Tebow doesn't talk openly about his faith. It's the media that keeps talking about it." This is willful ignorance or outright lying. She was nice, so I'll go with the former. Her follow-up statement was even more ridiculous: "The Bible says the Gospel is offensive. That's why people hate Tebow." The Bible verse she is referencing is in Romans, and it refers back to Isaiah, and as usual, it's Paul's updated version of the Tanakh. Isaiah warns the people that YHWH will become a stone of offense to them because of their disobedience. In view here is the coming punishment of the nation of Israel at the hands of Babylon. How any of this applies to Tim Tebow being a tad grating is clearly beyond my comprehension. Maybe it's one of those things that must be "spiritually discerned."

Sports as spiritual warfare. For those of you unfamiliar with praying in tongues, it's a common practice in churches known as Charismatic. The churches are a later form of Pentecostalism inasmuch as they believe in the ongoing gifting of the Holy Spirit in extraordinary forms (tongues, prophecy, healing, etc.). If I don't know how to pray, as Paul says, the Holy Spirit will help. Add to that the "though I speak with the tongues of men and angels..." and you have a rationale for praying in tongues. Why Tim Tebow is praying in tongues rather than watching the game is beyond me. Is the Holy Spirit supposed to help him pray that he can defeat the other team (and its Christian players), or is he perhaps praying to accept God's will for this game? Sigh. Evander Holyfield was the first athlete I remember practicing a prayer language during his events. He prayed in tongues when he fought Tyson, about whom an argument for demonic possession can surely be made, especially post face tattoo.

It's an odd cosmology that assumes a sporting event is the battle ground between the forces of good and evil. It's more than a little narcissistic, but that goes hand in hand with the evangelical worldview. I am important. Jesus died just for me. God has a plan for my life. They are taught to study David and Solomon and Peter and Paul and pray for the plan of God for their lives, all the while ignoring the untold millions who simply lived, worked, loved, prayed, and died. Tebow is following in his father's footsteps. His father runs the Bob Tebow Evangelistic Association, a ministry that focuses on the Philippines to "bring the Gospel to the whole country." The ministry web site claims:

In 1998, BTEA began to implement a plan to preach the gospel in every barangay (village) in the Philippines. In a country of 92,000,000, it is estimated that over 65,000,000 Filipinos have never once heard the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Who is doing the estimating? According to the CIA World Factbook, the population of the Philippines is roughly 83% Catholic. Now my math sucks, but I'm pretty sure 65 million is more than 17% of 92 million. Right?

It's conceivable that people raised to believe nonsense like this (the above quote) might have a slightly elevated view of their own importance. God has chosen them to make an impact, or some other such construct. The problem with any story like this is that it's only waiting for you to interpret it along whichever axis you prefer: theist or non-theist, skeptic or believer, fan or hater. Please, pray in public all you want. Cheer for Tebow. I too enjoy watching sports commentators scratch their heads when he wins on determination, athleticism, and love of the game. He's fun to watch, primarily because of his unpredictability. He's a little like Roethlisberger in that way. What I don't need is a well-meaning if deluded believer explaining that God is using the Broncos and Tebow to bear witness. It's football, folks. Football.

Old Time Religion and Penn State, or the Cult of Football

Twice this year major sporting events have been the tableau for a corporate religious experience having nothing to do with church, but looking more like a worship service than many a megachurch techno-orgy. This isn't about pedophilia and Jerry Sandusky; I don't think many more analyses are necessary. Don't rape kids. There. Analysis complete. Of more concern to me this time around is the way in which football is portrayed both as unimportant (it's just a game) and critical to our health (let's play football so the healing can begin). Both of these perspectives are wrong, but they are entirely useful when offerd as counterpoints to the other at the appropriate time.

Penn State played the week after the firing of long-time coach Joe Paterno. Of course they did. Much as we heard calls for the NFL right after 9/11, we heard demands that the game be played so that Penn State could begin the healing process. We can't have terrorists and pedophiles winning the culture war, after all, so let's play football as a hearty fuck off to their attempts to ruin our culture and bugger our children. Makes perfect sense. In one of the greatest ironies of the year, the Penn State faithful linked arms and sang the alma mater. Ironic why? Stanzas 3 and 4 for your reading amazement:

When we stood at childhood's gate,
Shapeless in the hands of fate,
Thou didst mold us, dear old State,
Dear old State, dear old State.

May no act of ours bring shame,
To one heart that loves thy name.
May our lives but swell thy fame,
Dear old State, dear old State.

Indeed. The problem, or at least part of it, is this notion that universities are distinct entities with a system of values, a body of practices, and traditions that give shape to people's identities. This is ridiculous, of course. One need only interview a cross section of professors to see that the values taught at a particular university are all over the place. As for the practices, yes, some degree of uniformity and common memory is instilled in those who walk the old paths, but the student body doesn't even share the same sorts of practices unless they are members of the same fraternity or team or club. The most common arena for common practice is sports. Think of West Virginia's orgiastic entrance celebration or Kansas University' creepy chant to begin the basketball season. What those practices do besides give fond memories of drunken nights is beyond me, but we're supposed to believe that universities are distinct entities because of this sort of nonsense. (I'm sure the SCOTUS would grant them personhood if the money was right, by the way.)

However, as the Penn State fans linked arms and sang, flickering across the face of many was a deep sense of shared well-being, pride, and even anger. Collectively, they sang both to show their pride in their school (whatever the fuck that means) and to achieve a sense of catharsis. That sounds very much like a worship service. The announcers went along by intoning bullshit claims about healing coming out of this game. It's the most absurd justification of football's deep-rooted self-importance I'd seen since 9/11.

Less than a month later, Oklahoma State would experience a tragedy as well. This one wasn't due to the evil choices of a predator, though; rather, the vagaries of weather claimed yet another OSU aircraft. I want to be sensitive here, both because it was a horrible accident, and because I sincerely believe OSU does as fine a job as any university of making students and profs feel they are part of a larger family. (Full disclosure: I teach humanities at one of the schools in their network.) As with PSU, the announcers the night of OSU's epic loss to Iowa State spoke of healing as coming from the game, but at the same time, because the tableau included death, they spoke of football as only a game. It was a bizarre juxtaposition, and had they reversed the context, the statements would have been utterly appropriate.

Healing begins in shared communal experience. I absolutely believe that, but the idea that it's the game that creates the shared space for that is ridiculous. The game serves as a distraction, and because it's not "just a game" (someone is making millions, here, folks), the game must go on. The justification is in the portrayal of the game as a healing catharsis. How does the game heal the wounds of rape victims? How does it heal the hearts of the families of crash victims? What can football offer that community, shared grief, and mutual encouragement can't? Entertainment. Distraction. Sports as self-important cultural phenomenon. The triviality of grown men vying for a piece of leather is elevated by the priests of the game (the announcers who narrate the order of service) to a place of prominence in the psyche of gathered fans. You need football to feel whole. Has more banal bullshit ever been uttered? When someone tells me how important the game is for the healing of a community, that's when I remind them it's just a game. When they tell me it's just a game in a moment of false humility, that's when it's appropriate to say, no, it's more than a game. There is too much money, too many students, too much politics for it to be just a game, and because it's not just a game, you will find ways to justify its ongoing importance even in the midst of genuine tragedy.

How to Read a Press Release, Redux: or, Why Persecutest Thou Me, FOX?

The latest kerfuffle that required a Christian organization issue a press release involves FOX Sports refusing to run an ad during the Super Bowl because it contains "religious doctrine." The ad in question can be viewed at the web site that was set up just for this occasion: In all honesty, had I been watching the Super Bowl and seen the ad, I would have just assumed some Christian organization spent a stupid amount of money for a decently produced 30-second spot (it involves beer! must have been Lutherans), and I would have made some crack about how stupid it is to run a Bible verse and think people will "get it" just by reading it. I would not have been offended by it, nor would I have assumed "religious doctrine" was being propagated. The ad doesn't even mention what the verse actually means, only indirectly encourages viewers to look it up. It's certainly more overt than the "I'm a Mormon" commercials in terms of using a Scriptural reference, but it's as benign as the LDS ads.

The ad was produced by Birmingham, Ala., based Fixed Point Foundation. In the annoying "who we are" video, the "fixed point" reference is drawn from Pascal and Tozer; a weirder marriage of theologians I've not seen. The organization, founded by Larry Taunton, a Samford grad (uh-oh), fancies itself as "engaging the culture," "empowering believers," and "challenging skeptics." I'll be going back to the web site to see if I feel challenged. To their credit, the organization has arranged some high profile debates with the new atheists, including Hitchens, and with the poster child for token minorities in conservative politics, Dinesh D'Souza.

On the staff page, Mike Murphy is listed as the Director of Marketing, and Bekah Page handles PR, so one of those two is no doubt responsible for the press release. According to the release, the purpose of the ad was:

Fixed Point Foundation hopes to encourage fans to look up John 3:16 and consider its meaning.
In case you missed that last part, fans, presumably of football, not John, are supposed to "consider its meaning." Unfortunately, Fixed Point chose the New Incorrect Version to source the verse, so it reads like this: "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life." You'd think an organization committed to the mind would choose a good translation, but it is Alabama... Anyway, as a fan I will now know that God gave his one and only son, not his only begotten son. That's more troublesome theologically than Fixed Point realizes. Only begotten at least implies that while Jesus was the "only begotten" son of God, he was decidedly not the "one and only son of God." That left room for the rest of us who were so inclined to feel the whole father/son thing. No more. Additionally, would it have mattered if God had a second son named Jakob who didn't have to die? Would it have sucked less for Jesus? Would the sacrifice have been less efficacious? Isn't the NIV fun?

This of course has nothing to do with the absurd idea that fans would look up the verse and understand it. Just in case they proved to be more daft than Fixed Point hoped, a handy "simple explanation" is supplied on the web site for intrepid fans. Feel free to read it at your leisure. It's goofy, but not as goofy as the Four Spiritual Laws. The two most grating things about the explanation is how someone from Alabama keeps using "for" instead of "because" (It sounds all Biblical and shit, but nobody talks that way.), and how the writer insists that sinful human nature is some sort of powerful law that must be overcome. Never once does it explain why God sits in his heaven and screams for blood like some sort of Genghis Khan wannabe.

But back to the press release, because we're not done until the Christians feel persecuted.

Fox Sports rejected the commercial on the basis that it contained "religious doctrine." Of course, it seems one can advertize just about anything else. Few movie trailers are deemed too violent or commercials too sexual for primetime. But religious messages, even ones that are part of the sport and encourage viewers to decide for themselves if the message is a worthy one, are unacceptable.

In spite of Fox Sports' rejection, the ad will air in some regional markets, starting with the state of Alabama. It is part of an initiative called "LookUp 316."

Movie trailers like "The Passion of the Christ"? That bit of violent, theological pornography set the standard for buckets of blood per trailer. And how exactly is a religious message part of the sport? Because Tim "Ye Shall be Healed" Tebow wears it in his eye black? Because some knucklehead holds up an 84 cent piece of poster board in the end zone? By that definition, nearly anything in the stadium is part of the sport. Here's to more boobs in football! And beer! And don't forget the kid with the bag of weed in his pocket. This is just silly. Yes, FOX over-reacted, I think. The ad wouldn't have troubled me in the least. If a religious organization wants to waste money on a 30-second spot encouraging drunks to read a Bible verse, that's their prerogative. I don't care if Muslims, Buddhists, Mormons, Jews or Christians want to advertise their book. I'll ignore it like I do other ads, but I think it's goofy to issue a press release so whiny in tone. It's as if Christians don't even read their Bibles. Try Matthew 5:11, 12. Read that, and then sit down to write your press release.

Swear Like There's Salvation in the Words Themselves: (Adult Content Warning)

Profanity is in the news. (expletive deleted) I'm a huge fan. People who know me well, and some who barely know me, know you don't want your kids around me. It seems poor Rex Ryan, the coach of the Jets, is in the same boat. (Be patient, sports loathers, this is only an analogy, not the topic.) I love HBO's Hard Knocks. It is perhaps the best sports program available on television. Every year, HBO goes to training camp with an NFL team, films practices, meetings, cuts, contracts, personal anecdotes, slice of life vignettes, pre-season games, etc. It's great television. Year one was Dallas. Year two, the Bengals. Neither coach is ever likely to yell. They certainly aren't going to do much swearing. However, Rex Ryan...oh...a man after my own heart. In week one, he dropped dozens of f-bombs, gds, shits, damns, and some combo swears. It reminded me of, well, of football.

The news the next day was that Rex apologized to his mother because she was upset about his coarse language. Fine. I get it. I don't talk that way in front of my mom either, mostly. But then it became the news de jour. With only baseball going on right now, and with the 32 fans remaining who actually give a shit about the most boring sport since the pro bowlers tour, any football news usurps the lead story spot on all sports networks, even news that isn't really news. Like Rex Ryan saying of his missing safety, "Well, goddamn, he's pretty fucking good." And then Dan Patrick had to go and ask Tony "Is My Halo Straight?" Dungy what he thought about it.

Here we go. Ask the most outspoken evangelical in football since Kurt Warner what he thinks about cussing. Great idea, Dan. I wonder what he'll say. "Well, shit, Dan, I don't know what to fuckin' make of this. I like profanity like I like blowjobs." Yeah, not likely. He said something to the effect of, "I wouldn't hire someone who talked like that." Convenient. Good thing you're not running a war, Saint Tony. The lie here, and I heard some ex-players say it, is that this is not news. Football coaches swear. Players swear. Dungy might even drop a quiet one occasionally. Dear parents, when we were in high school, our coaches used horrifically colorful, crass language, and we simply didn't tell you. Of course, my father played sports in high school, too, so he'd have been shocked if my coach had led us in prayer rather than tell us to kick some fuckin' ass. And when he did, we yelled like Vikings or Thunderbirds or Celtics or Chieftains with the blood lust on us. We did not go home and tell mom how uncomfortable we were with Coach Sago's language. Nope. Not once.

I've had a long and happy relationship with swearing. I lived in Maud, Oklahoma, when I was in 3rd grade. My dad was overseas. Something about a war. A polite war though. No swearing. I ruled at kickball. We were playing one day, and someone on the other team cheated. I let loose with the longest string of profanity I'd ever used. Not sure if I've ever topped it. A strange desire to make public my fascination with the words my Pentecostal heritage had denied me took hold of me. The effect on my fellow students was immediate. Shock. Horror. Admiration. Fear. Laughter. Even a little mimicry. I landed in the principal's office, of course. He explained why that wasn't appropriate. Paddled my ass. Sent me home with a note. Pentecostal mom wasn't happy about it, but I didn't get any more swats. I've been swearing pretty much ever since.

Even when I was a Christian I had a difficult time understanding the aversion to swearing. Some of the best Bible stories featured it. Unfortunately, the translators chose euphemisms rather than coarse language. When Elijah mocks the prophets of Baal, he is not using polite euphemisms. Alas. It's long lost to Bible people. They think Paul is talking about profanity when he speaks of coarse language or corrupt communication, so they feel free to slander other Christians or atheists or politicians or their leaders, people for whom they are supposed to be praying. But instead of using the redemptive words of prayer, they use the lies of political machination: socialist, fascist, philanderer, radical, antichrist, Muslim... They believe taking the Lord's name in vain is about saying goddamn or Jesus Christ as an expletive. They consistently take the Lord's name in vain by acting like douchebags and telling everyone it's because God has called them to do or say or believe something with such conviction that kindness, meekness, and temperance are subsumed under the rubric of "you can be a dick; just be right." Hypocrites. They assume that gossip and slander said without profanity are somehow justified, but tell the truth with a fuck in the middle of it, and you've sinned mightily. Hypocrites. They repeat the lies and spin of their favorite pundits with no regard for fact checking themselves, and castigate a football coach for saying fuck. Hypocrites.

It's a word. Its meaning is culturally defined. Its status as profanity, culturally defined. The very definition of profanity, culturally defined. It has only the power you give it. It was a lesson we taught the parish teen when she was six or seven, maybe eight. Her then stepmother used it regularly. It traumatized the child. One night before a Christmas concert at Oklahoma City University, we sat in a dark car in the parking lot of the school and made the child repeat the word over and over, at first through her tears. Made her use it in a sentence. Made her shout it. Made her laugh when she said it. Made her say, "Fuck you!" to me. Made her break the taboo, conquer the fear, and demystify the word. It's a word, a goddamn word. Get over it. Seriously. Then we told her to be careful when and how she used it. We had to tell her that certain people will think differently of her if she uses it in front of them. She has a mouth to rival mine now, but you wouldn't know it if you met her in public. That's because we told her some people are so deluded that they believe recourse to profanity is a sign of ignorance or a weak mind, which is ironic, since it seems fear, loathing or offense at profanity would be the sign of a weak mind. Anyway, she's a friend of the language now, too, and she uses it well. And appropriately, and oh yes, there is such a thing.

Still, because I don't want to be a dick, even though I believe I'm right, if you ask me not to talk that way in front of you, I'll respect your wishes, to the degree that I won't swear consciously. As I discovered tonight, habits are hard to break, but I did cut down on my swearing in front of friends who are offended by goddamn. Rex Ryan did better in week two as well. I'm sure your mom is proud, Rex. When you know she's not watching, cuss like salvation is in the words themselves, friend.