Thursday, April 18, 2019
Thursday, April 18, 2019
Tiger Woods’s victory at the Masters is being called his redemption story, but Christians should think carefully about the secular use of theological words like ‘redemption'
The worlds of sports and athletics are often incredibly revealing about human nature and human experience, the highs and the lows. The stories of sports sometimes serve as parables for understanding human life. And sports has had a very important role in societies ever since the ancient Greeks and the Olympics right down to the present day. But sometimes we need to note it is also the case that theological language shows up in unexpected places, even when you're talking about headlines that have to do at least officially with sports. That was certainly the case Sunday when Tiger Woods came back after 14 years to win a fifth green jacket, winning the Masters Golf Tournament after 14 years. After a huge personal scandal. After his use of painkillers came to a very public disclosure after he was arrested having been found on the side of the road with his car running.
You're talking about a man who also had to overcome excruciating back pain and repeated back surgeries. A man who had to against all odds and expectations prove that he really could come back and win a major again as significant as the Masters golf tournament. Putting on that green jacket on Sunday, Tiger Woods was making a very clear statement about an almost unthinkable level of absolute individual determination translated into his victory. A victory that was exceedingly public, as had been his exceedingly public humiliations. But what kind of language is adequate for this kind of account? What kind of language is necessary to describe the experience of watching Tiger Woods win that 5th Masters jacket on Sunday? What did it mean? Well, it's very interesting to assume that first of all, it has to mean something. It is very, very revealing that human beings have to try to find meaning.
There are certain moments, certain experiences, there are certain observations that simply cause us to step back and say, this must mean something. There's a big story here. The story of personal determination. The story of an experienced golfer who had at one point, been the definitive golfer of his age, who had fallen off the leaderboard and yet had charged back eventually coming within striking distance of Jack Nicklaus's record for winning majors and also coming close to Arnold Palmer's record for the wins at the Masters tournament. It's a big moment. It's a big moment for golf. It's a big moment for sports. It was a big moment for television. But isn't it really a big moment in other terms? What kind of language was used? Well, the most interesting language was theological.
It was interesting to see how many people said that what happened on Sunday represented the redemption of Tiger Woods. Why that word? Where did that come from? Well, for one thing, it points out that a society that's increasingly secular still has some of those theological words, at least available in the cupboard, ready to be drawn out when they appear to be needed. Looking at the story of Tiger Woods on Sunday, considering his achievement, considering the morality, many people had to go into that vocabulary cupboard and pick out a theological word, redemption. What did they mean when they said redemption? Well, maybe they met merely vindication. What kind of vindication? The vindication of the fact that Tiger Woods did come back after so many believed he could never come back. People pointed to his back. They pointed to his age. They pointed to the deterioration of his personality over the last several years and they said there's no way that he can come back. There are so many new golfers on the scene who were so much younger, so much stronger, so much healthier.
There's no way that he can find his way back on the leaderboard, much less win a golf tournament as prestigious and as competitive as the Masters, but he did. Was that vindication? Well, it certainly was vindication of Tiger Woods determination to return. It was that kind of vindication. It was an absolute demonstration of the fact that his critics had been wrong and he had been right. He was back and when he put that jacket on in that moment of victory, you could see in his face the fact that he knew the world was watching, that he had just proved his critics wrong. But thinking again of vindication, was it really even that, was it a vindication of Tiger Woods character? In one sense, yes. In what sense would that be? It was the fact that his character is evidently a character marked by such self-discipline and determination that he would sacrifice just about anything; he would put up with just about any level of pain.
He would endure the risk of public embarrassment and humiliation further by being absolutely determined to come back and to be successful. It took a long time. There were many twists and turns, but that aspect of his character was absolutely vindicated. No one can question as if anyone even questioned this in the younger Tiger Woods, that here is a man of almost absolute will. But the word vindication has at least two other dimensions of meaning. One of them is legal and the other more importantly, is moral. Tiger Woods really did not have to worry about legal vindication here. But moral vindication? That's a very interesting question. When it comes to his character, what was really demonstrated was sheer determination. The character is a lot more complicated than that. Sheer determination is not the sole criterion of character. Character has a multifaceted moral dimensionality to it. There are different moral attributes and there are different traits of moral character that must be demonstrated before anyone is vindicated publicly in character.
Tiger Woods certainly vindicated himself on one dimension of character, but it's an extremely limited understanding of character. There are still big questions, big questions of character still unanswered. But we're talking about this today because it's not just even the word vindication. It's back to that theological word, redemption. What did it mean when people said that Tiger Woods had experienced or had achieved a certain kind of personal redemption story? That was even addressed in afterthoughts. Patricia E. Gaston, writing for the Washington Post, offers an article with the headline, "Tiger Woods's Victory was no personal redemption story, it didn't need to be." The point Gaston seems to be making is that winning a 15th major and a fifth green jacket at the Masters should be enough. Americans and others should not demand more to the story. They shouldn't really demand character out of athletes. They're just looking to athletes for athletic performance.
The better the performance, the higher the achievement, the greater the adulation. That should be all that it amounts to. No one should be demanding character. No one should be playing out a morality tale. No one should be looking for a personal redemption story. In one interesting part of her article, she says, "That's why I have a hard time understanding why folks are so judgmental of Woods. I'm no apologist for adultery, she wrote. He is only human, meaning Woods, and because he hits a little ball in a cup and does it very well, does it make him better than the rest of us? In fact, she says, it has made him a human target for all of our judgments and admonishments." Well, is that a fair assessment or not?
Well, it is true that he makes a great deal of money and he's actually known to us because of his skill and hitting a little white ball into a cup. But that can't be what this is about. This really can't just be about hitting a little ball into a cup in a hole in the ground. That wouldn't attract much human attention. No, but this points to the fact that there is a huge construct of public culture that includes sports. And you're talking about an organized game, an organized event of hitting those balls, hopefully into that cup in the ground. And you are talking about something that now has a long tradition. You're also talking about the fact that there are different levels of sporting events. Golf tends to be socioeconomically and historically at the top or near the top of those athletic events.
In most cases, golf is an individual sport. It reflects an individual achievement. It's very different than a team sport such as football or basketball or baseball. But you're also looking at the fact that big sport means big money. It means big celebrity. It means big attention. We're talking about Tiger Woods because just about everyone in the United States and elsewhere in the world for that matter, knows who Tiger Woods is. The same thing was true of boxing. At one point, Mohammed Ali declared probably rightly that he was the most famous human being then living on earth.
But here Christians need to note if you're talking about human beings, human beings that become well known either for one achievement or something else, they are going to attract attention. And make no mistake, Tiger Woods is an extremely wealthy person because he has successfully attracted that attention. Golf attracts the attention. Big Golf attracts big attention. And the big achievements, the big golf, the big moments, they attract especially a lot of attention. And that attention, here's what we should note as Christians, inherently becomes attention to character. It cannot be otherwise, and we know why. It is because human beings made in the image of God cannot but think in moral terms.
We can't look at something, even just what someone describes here as hitting little ball into a cup in the ground as nearly hitting that little ball into a cup in the ground, it becomes something that does reveal character. But then we have to look closer at that word redemption. Did Tiger Woods really redeem himself? Did he achieve some kind of redemption? Is it even possible for human beings to redeem themselves? Well, of course the attempt here is to use redemption in a largely secular sense. Once again saying that he has overcome his demons, he has overcome his deficiencies, he has overcome all the controversies, he has overcome all the surgeries, he has learned a new golf swing and he has come back and come back as a winner. But that really can't be what redemption means. And here we go back to the fact that the secular society has pulled the word redemption out of the cupboard without recognizing that it is essentially a theological category. At least it is now.
Even when you look at the New Testament, the word redemption meant being bought, being rescued, being bought with a price. And the point is that our redemption was achieved by Christ. He did for us what we could not do for ourselves. Even if we had died on the cross to bear the penalty for our sins, our death could not have made atonement even for one of our sins. But when Jesus Christ died on the cross, the very son of God, the sinless son of God who had perfectly fulfilled the law, he accomplished our salvation. He redeemed us. He redeemed sinners who could not possibly have redeemed themselves. I'll admit I was very encouraged when I got home from church on Sunday and discovered that Tiger Woods had won. Maybe it's because of my age. It was just encouraging that someone could come back at that point in life and win, and win in such a big way against all odds.
I'll admit that even as I saw the replay of that final hole and I saw the celebration, I wanted too to applaud. I thought at the time, this is a very moving scene. But then I had to ask myself, why is my own heart move? What does this mean? And I think Christians should just be honest to say sometimes we really do see a human achievement, even something in sports and say, “I'm glad I got to see that.” That becomes a part of the human story. We shouldn't be embarrassed by that. We are interested in the twists and turns of the human story. But when it comes to the claims that somehow this represented the personal redemption of Tiger Woods, here's where Christians have to say, we really do hope and pray for the redemption of Tiger Woods.
But that won't be something he can achieve himself. That will come only when Tiger Woods realizes that all of his determination does not amount to his vindication or his redemption. His redemption could come solely by faith and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ. And Christians are right, not wrong, to pray that one day it will be so, even if it won't make the headlines because the world doesn't consider that kind of redemption so important.
What a recent article challenging religious liberty reveals about the culture’s demands on churches and religious institutions
But next I want to turn to another big change in the culture. One we ought to watch pretty carefully. We saw one dimension of it yesterday on The Briefing with a story about the rugby player, now an ex rugby player named Israel Folau in Australia. But now we're going to come to Louisville, Kentucky, a story that has been unfolding earlier on The Briefing just weeks ago, we discussed the fact that two Roman Catholic diocese had been in controversy that would be in Indianapolis and in Louisville because officials who had been working within those Catholic schools had lost their jobs.
The interesting thing was that many of them had been school counselors because they had been found to be involved in a same sex relationship. And at least in some cases, involved actually to the point of being married in a same sex marriage as it is called. And thus the controversy arose when Catholic authorities in Indianapolis and in Louisville required the termination of the employees in the Catholic schools who had been found to be in violation of Catholic policy. In many cases, it became clear that it was the sexual romantic relationship that in most of these cases, had led even to marital status. That became the issue that separated the employee from the Catholic schools. But of course, we were looking then at the fact that when the stories broke it demonstrated that the larger secular society finds it increasingly unthinkable that anyone would hold anyone else to a set of moral standards that our society is deciding to abandoned, especially on LGBTQ issues.
And what we also saw back then was that even though in this case the organization is the Roman Catholic Church and its Roman Catholic schools, the reality was that there is a decreasing tolerance and respect for religious liberty in this country. To the point that many in our society are just about ready to say that religious organizations and religious schools are simply going to have to get in line. It's becoming increasingly unthinkable to our secular society that religious liberty actually means religious liberty. There's more to the story as you might expect, and in this case, it comes in the follow-up to this story in Louisville, Kentucky in the coverage in the local newspaper, the Courier Journal. A few days ago, Joseph Gerth, a prominent columnist for the newspaper, wrote an article. The newspaper headlined it, "Scandal is really about the church." The subhead, "Archdiocese can't get past its homophobia." Before you even look at the story, you've got a pretty good idea of where this is going, but we need to watch the argument itself.
Gerth began his article with these words, "The archdiocese of Louisville has a problem with homophobia." That tells us just about everything we need to know about where the article's going. The use of the word homophobia rather than even the word homosexuality. But we're also looking at the fact that there's a history to this with Gerth criticizing the church for the fact that it's broken relationships with the boy scouts of America after the BSA changed its stance, its policy on these questions. But then it gets right to the fact that the school counselor had been terminated here within the Catholic Schools of Louisville. And he wrote about the woman asking, what is her offense? He answered, "She fell in love." More specifically, she fell in love with another woman and she married her. And that, he wrote, according to the archdiocese of Louisville, is a fireable offense. He went on to say, "The marriage, it seems, violates what has become one of the central tenants of the Catholic faith, thou shall not marry someone with the same body parts as yourself and get found out by your bosses."
Well, that's very clever and no doubt Joseph Gerth believes that he's on the right side of history and the right side of morality in making this argument. It appears that he is authentically outraged at the moral determination of the archdiocese of Louisville. But in a larger sense, it appears that he's ready to say that anyone who holds to a theologically based negative judgment upon LGBTQ issues, is really just demonstrating that word that was used in his opening sentence, homophobia, not an authentic moral judgment. Gerth is himself Catholic and he makes very clear that he had personal connections to the pastor and to the school involved in the story. He writes, "I'm not sure why the Catholic Church and others focus so much on people who are gay. Sure, he says, the Bible says in Leviticus that men should not lay with other men, but Jesus is silent on the issue."
Well, that's interesting. You hear that increasingly from people who are just throwing it out. Jesus is silent on the issue, is he? Well, what becomes very clear is that Jesus, referring to the Old Testament law, including let's just point out, the law that says that a man shall not lay with another man as with a woman. Jesus said of that law that not one jot or one tittle would pass away until all has been fulfilled. He said, "I have not come to abolish the law, but that the law may be fulfilled." At no point did Jesus in his public ministry point to the Old Testament law and dismiss it saying, well, that was then, but this is now. Instead, he actually made it even more intense saying, it's not enough not to kill someone. If you have murder in your heart, you already are moving towards murdering them.
It's not enough not to commit adultery. He said, "You have even begun to commit the sin of adultery if you are lusting in your heart." That's an extremely important truth. If you're going to point to Jesus and you're going to use Jesus against the moral judgment of the Old Testament, you're going to have to realize that Jesus has already cut off that alternative. If indeed you are going to look to the Jesus who was revealed in the New Testament. If you're going to invent a Jesus of your own modern moral imagination, you're going to end up with a Jesus who will say anything you want, teach anything you want. That's the bottom line.
Something else we need to note here is the larger context in which we're being told that this has become a modern preoccupation of the Roman Catholic church or it can be extended to say a modern preoccupation of Evangelical Christians. Is that a fair claim? It is certainly fair to say that if you look throughout the history of the Christian Church, you are not going to find too many comments opposed to the legalization of same sex marriage. But wait just a minute, that is because it would not have been imaginable. What you do find is that the definition of marriage has been central to the teaching of every single historic branch of what has been identified as Christendom.
Eastern Orthodoxy, the Roman Catholic Church, Protestant Evangelical Christianity, all of it has understood what marriage is and has held to the unanimous declaration that it is to be the monogamous union of a man and a woman based upon the fact that God created marriage and declared it to be good based upon the fact that God has said that sexual expression is to take place within and only within the covenant of marriage as the union of a man and a woman. If it's a modern preoccupation, we need to know it's only because the modern world has declared war upon the morality revealed by God and marriage as God had instituted it.
The Guardian attacks religious teaching on gender, revealing that society requires complete secularization and opposes all religious truth claims
Then next, we're going to turn to an even more important article on a similar theme. This one appeared in the Guardian, a liberal newspaper published in London. The author is Beatrice Alba. The headline, "If we reject gender discrimination in every other arena, why do we accept it in religion?" This is a big story that zeroes in on something Christians had better observe very closely. Alba's point is this. When you are looking at religions and especially she's looking at the Roman Catholic church and its historic Protestantism. When you see arguments that there is a distinction between men and women, when you have what she says is a basically structure in religion, it should no longer receive privileges in society.
In the most chilling part of her article, she says to the larger society that parents, regardless of their own religious freedom to hold to their own religious beliefs, do not have the right to teach those beliefs to their children if those beliefs come down to a violation of gender nondiscrimination. She argues early on that what she calls the marginalization of women in religion has come under surprisingly little scrutiny. She intends to bring that scrutiny. She also points to the fact that the law in Australia and elsewhere mostly in the west allows religious churches and organizations to discriminate on the basis of gender and sexuality to understand that they are operating out of Biblical or theological convictions that are to be respected by the society. But she argues that these exemptions should no longer exist. Society has now progressed to the point where religious organizations should simply have to join the revolution or it would appear, go out of business or at least keep absolutely silent and furthermore, handover our children to the revolutionaries.
By the time you look further at Alba's article, it's clear that she's really aiming her guns at just about all organized religion, which she finds to be inherently sexist. As a theologian, I want to point out that when she sees a distinction in the understanding of male and female, she argues that the distinction must necessarily take on the form of discrimination and must represent male superiority, especially if there is a difference in function. As you see in Biblical Christianity, the distinction in function between men and women, especially as it relates to the teaching office in the church, the fact that men rather than women are to be the teachers in the church. She says that represents a simply unthinkable and unsupportable sexism. Later in her article she says, "Children have the right to be free from discrimination and it is an abuse of their human rights to not treat them with equality and respect."
If we reject discrimination on the basis of gender and every other area, why do we accept it in religion? She says, "We should not make exceptions for gender discrimination. The same discrimination and prejudice along racial lines would not be tolerated." That's a very revealing statement. Here she is just openly stating that the religious exemptions, the recognitions of the rights of religious liberty simply should go. They are past their expiration date. Society is moving on. She concludes her article by saying, "Yet religion is seen as sacred and we find ourselves walking on eggshells around the topic, but she says, as long as religions disrespect and marginalize almost half of the population, they should not be immune to criticism." Well, criticism is very different than legal discrimination against religious organization. But I simply want to end by going back to the first words of the sentence when she says, "Yet religion is seen as sacred."
Well, here's a clue. That is what makes religion, religion. The claim that it is indeed corresponding to a sacred reality. But that means that when you are looking at religious truth claims, they are making claims of a higher authority than secular authorities, which is the real problem here. A secular society finds it inconceivable that there could be any authority beyond a secular realm of meaning. But finally, I end on the observation that if you were to join the religious denominations, institutions, colleges, and churches trying their best to stay all current with the sexual revolution, that's not going to be enough. Because even if you hold in the end to just a vestige of the fact that what you represent is making a truth claim about the sacred, then you're going to be out of line. A secular society will not be satisfied until you or your church or denomination or institution are fully, totally unquestionably secular. It's at least healthy to understand what the secular world is really demanding.