Monday, June 13, 2011

On LeBron James, Psychoanalyzing Sports, and the Dangers of Expecting Gods in Flesh

LeBron James played terribly in the NBA Finals. Which tells us, umm, that LeBron James played terribly in the NBA Finals. But since I keep hearing people psychoanalyze that to invent some kind of character defect or fourth quarter allergy or "unclutchiness", here's a reminder: The man who can't close games (so we're told) scored 29 or his team's last 30 points in a playoff victory. Here's the tape:

I'm not a "fan" of LeBron James. I don't know him personally, and have nothing invested in his success or failure. But I'm even less a fan of psychoanalyzing sports, especially since, from such a distance, there's so much information we don't have access to.

I think that much of what I call LeBronophobia is both misinformed and misguided, driven less by some great insight into either his character and the game of basketball and more by a cultural dynamic that must build up mythic heroes only to tear them down. Simply put, whatever you think of the man himself (and, since I don't have access to the man himself, I try not to think anything of him), LeBron James is one hell of a basketball player. One of the best ever. He's also arguably the most scrutinized (and often irrationally and inconsistently - the man simply can do nothing right) 26 year old athlete in history.

So, now that we have seen him "fail" in the fourth quarter (which has nothing to do with his teammates, and nothing to do with the opposition, right? Because he has to be either a god who is untouched by circumstances or a tragic failure; he can't simply be a human being who is really, really good at basketball), we have a new narrative: LeBron James can't come up clutch when it matters. He simply doesn't do fourth quarters. I don't need facts. I don't need data. I know what I saw.

So, see this: 29 of his team's last 30 points. In a crucial playoff win.

Why did we forget this? How was it so easily dismissed?

Or, perhaps, deep down inside we remember this and expect him (or anyone else) to be able to do it again, on command, in any situation. Perhaps this improbable feat became the new normal, the standard by which he would always be judged, and failing to ever do it again marks him such a failure that we can dismiss all of his past, present, and future accomplishments and dismiss him altogether.

No matter how much our mythos wishes it were so, there are no gods walking this earth in sweaty shorts and sneakers. When we expect deities (and divinize a past that didn't happen the way we remember it: Michael Jordan missed more shots with the game on the line than he made, and like LeBron James he often passed to his teammates in crunch time, which didn't used to be a character defect) we too easily dismiss the remarkable human feats in front of us. So LeBron James must be a god. And LeBron James can't be a god. And somehow I've learned something from his failure to be a god.

This way of analyzing sports matters, because it both reflects and creeps into our daily lives. How much personal conflict comes out of our expectation that those we love will be quasi-deities, perfect beings capable of reading our minds and conforming to wishes we haven't even learned to express to ourselves, much less our loved ones? And, when they fail to be gods in the flesh, how often do we cast our loved ones the way we cast LeBron James, the fallen angel who has become a devil, best understood through their tragic flaws and not the grace that first drew us to them?

How much self loathing is privately rooted in the expectation that we must be perfect, we must be gods in flesh? How much of my own misery is rooted in the fact that I am not, and never will be, who I wish I were? Because who I wish I were is an impossible standard. I wish I were a god, perfect in power, perfect in understanding, beyond reproach, above critique. And if I cannot be who I wish I were, then I must confront who I am afraid I am, someone unworthy of love, of affection, even of life itself.

When our options are perfect or worthless, we will always be worthless. But we are not who we wish we were, and we are not who we are afraid we are. I am not, and never will be, who I wish I were; and I am not, and never have been, who I am afraid I am.

And LeBron James is not a god. He is a basketball player. And a very good one, who has been to the NBA Finals twice, only to see his team come up short of winning the title. He has played some good games, and he has played some bad games. And some of his bad games have come in the NBA Finals, in the last 6 games.

And, lest you forget, one time he scored 29 of his team's last 30 points. Which tells us just as much about him as his recent failures.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Resurrection is an Affirmation of Death, Not a Denial of Death

Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?

In his classic The Denial of Death, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker argues that the fear of death is the single universal human trait. That is, humans, as humans, are characterized by knowledge of our mortality, and fear of that mortality. From this starting point he weaves a both creative and insightful synthesis of psychology and religion, arguing that what both ideas of mental health and religious beliefs and practices have in common is a bolstering of the human in the face of mortality by appealing to what he calls the heroic.

The heroic is the drive to be a part of something greater than one's self, something that will survive the death of the body. Becker sometimes calls this an "immortality project," something that allows us to affirm life in the face of the existential crisis created by awareness of the inevitability of death. This awareness - which entails both knowing that I will die and that death is an extinction of myself and not some transferring of my personality to some other reality - hangs over humanity in the "age of reason," in which science has displaced religion and rendered it impotent as a "hero-system" (that is, as a system that builds up the heroic in the face of death, that allows people the freedom to live despite awareness of their mortality). When religious narratives, beliefs, and practices can no longer be believed, lived out, and trusted, a crisis of meaning is created. Death can't be denied, but hangs over all of life, rendering it utterly meaningless.

It is through this lens, as well as through the lens of the apostle Paul's words to both death and the church in Corinth that open this post, that I wish, for a moment, to view the relationship between life, death, and resurrection. My thesis is that Becker is basically right about the collective psychological implications of both the specter of death and the figurative death of religion - one of the reasons why, since Becker's own death in 1974, we've seen a "turn to religion" in sectors like continental philosophy. In that "turn to religion" characterized by, among others, Slavoj Zizek and Gianni Vattimo, however, the problem of the loss of religion as a "hero-system" is not solved because of the ironic detachment from belief. It is not an accident that, despite their great insight into the relationship between Christianity and Western Culture (whatever can be meant by those two words, which point to monoliths that can and should be toppled, torn apart, and scattered into a plurality of "Christianities" and "cultures"), neither Zizek nor Vattimo address the traditional Christian doctrine of resurrection.

This brings me to the second part of my thesis here, which is that resurrection, understood in the Pauline sense, is not quite a "denial of death," and in fact involves an affirmation of the reality and power of death, which is then overcome by resurrection. That is, in order for one to be resurrected, one must die - really die. This is partly what is meant by the enigmatic scene we find in the 11th chapter of John's gospel, were Jesus stands outside the tomb of Lazarus, who he is about to call out of the tomb, weeping for his friend. For, in that moment, Lazarus was dead, really dead.

In this sense resurrection and immortality have nothing in common. Someone who is immortal is someone who, by definition, is not mortal, not subject to mortality, to death. In resurrection, however, this is not the case. Mortality is a must. To be resurrected one must not only be subject to death, one must actually die, and really die. (This emphasis on really die is part of what is reflected in credal language of Jesus's descent into hell, a poetic way to say that Jesus really died in the face of heresies that claimed that Jesus' death was not really a death, but only seemed like one. Such language was later literalized, resulting in some beautiful stories of Jesus, on Holy Saturday, going into hell and freeing the dead held there.)

Paul is very clear on the relationship between death and resurrection, noting that resurrection presupposes death. "What you sow," he writes in I Corinthians 15:36, a few verses before the quote that opens this post, "does not come to life unless it dies." This is a metaphorical way to speak of the necessity of death preceding resurrection. And, in fact, for Paul both death and resurrection are understood both metaphorically and literally, with the pattern of death and resurrection being imposed on life both prior to and following bodily, biological death. "I die every day!" he writes, speaking both to a kind of psychological death to the claims of self and to a willingness to endure danger and hardship in the service of the gospel.

This boast, "I die every day!" points to part of what Becker means by the heroic. By being swept up in a cause greater than himself, a cause that will outlast his mortal body, the apostle Paul secures for himself a kind of immortality. This kind of materialistic psychologizing of faith employed by Becker is the kind that Slavoj Zizek is comfortable with. It steers clear of the content of Paul's faith, and instead analyzes its function. But, in doing so it risks collapsing immortality (understood here, of course, with a kind of ironic detachment, for of course we don't mean a literal immortality, but rather both a social immortality and an illusory, even delusional immortality - Paul really will die, but is able to behave as though he won't, affirming his life in the face of the inevitability and meaninglessness of death) and resurrection.

This ignores the fact that Paul has no interest in immortality. He is not articulating a doctrine of immortality, a doctrine of the denial of death. Rather he preaches both the reality and the necessity of death. To gloss this over is to miss the whole point, and thus to construct a very un-Pauline Paul.

Of course, in minimizing the extent to which death, in Paul, is understood metaphorically rather than literally, I also run the risk of constructing an un-Pauline (or even anti-Pauline) Paul. After all, the same Paul who speaks (both metaphorically and literally) of the reality and necessity of death is also the Paul who, wrestling with the implications of his understanding of an immanent parousia writes, in I Corinthians 15:51, "We will not all die.":

Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

This passage may read like a denial of death, the hope of an escape from death. And it is tempting, but far too easy, to dismiss that implication by saying that Paul is here speaking/writing metaphorically, even poetically, painting a beautiful linguistic picture of something that is not to be taken literally. But, as seen above, for Paul the metaphorical, the poetic, does not rule out the literal. The two are often not either/or but both/and, with the metaphorical implications of a passage reinforcing the literal. This is, of course, true with his language of death, in which the deaths died daily reinforce the literal truth that death precedes resurrection; that one must die, really die, in order to be raised from the dead.

So, is Paul here contradicting himself? Or, perhaps better, is he missing the most powerful implications of his own understanding of the relationship between death and resurrection? Yes. Like the rest of us, Paul is only human, and might be shocked - whatever healthy opinion he had of his understanding of the implications of the Christ-event - that his words have since his death been ascribed to God.

In any event, it strikes me as significant that after this rather than denying death Paul gives death enough credence to taunt it. The letter may be addressed to the church in Corinth, but the words that open this post are addressed to death itself. "Where, O death, is your victory?/ Where, O death, is your sting?" These words are a rough quote of Hosea 13:14, but used here in a distinctly Pauline way. They have been taken out of their context both within the Hosea text and within that text's anxiety about the fracturing of the covenant between the Northern Kingdom and God and the impending destruction of the Northern Kingdom. In Hosea the text is concerned with the survival of a nation - another "hero-system." The plagues of death, the destruction of Sheol, are coming to the Northern Kingdom. But in Paul these words take on a new meaning. Rather than being death's taunt to a nation about to be destroyed, they become our taunt to death itself. Rather, then, than trembling in the face of death, Paul's words address death directly, speak into the face of death, and render death something not to be feared, but rather embraced.

This functions much like a "hero-system" in Becker, but again it is not quite a denial of death (though Becker's thesis does not depend on understanding "denial" in the way that I do here). Death is real, even if for a moment, swept away by his own words, Paul forgets this. But the reality of death, rather than hanging over every life, robbing it of meaning, actually confers meaning to life by opening up the possibility of resurrection.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Holy Saturday reflection

A brief reflection for a day that is, to me, so holy because it is - unlike the rest of Holy Week - so common.

Holy Saturday, for me, crystalizes this life, lived as it is somewhere between the fear of death and hope in the resurrection. The God who was near is now far; the God who was alive is now dead and buried, and may never have been God at all. Easter is coming, but how would we know, how would we dare to hope?

Holy Saturday is a day for doubt, for who, on it, could help but doubt, save those without enough faith to even bother to doubt?

Doubt is not the absence of faith. Doubt is not the opposite of faith. Doubt is wrestling with faith, like Jacob wrestling with the stranger, like Jesus forsaken and alone, like Mary and Martha, mourning instead of rejoicing, that the stone had been rolled away.

But today the stone sits, both guarding and hiding the tomb of Jesus, eclipsing all hope, giving no reason for us to suspect it might move, save for by another cruel trick of a world that snuffed out the only hope we ever dared to have. Today we hide. Today we cower. Today we deny we ever had faith, ever had hope, ever had love. For today it seems better to have never been touched by the God who is dead than to have our God lay silent in a tomb, never having been God at all.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Don't Rush Miracles: A Lenten Reflection

This is a sermon that I will be preaching this Sunday at Community Church of Wilmette, in Wilmette, IL. It is based on a sermon I preached last year during Lent at Fourth Ave United Methodist Church in Louisville, KY.

I often hesitate to publish the text of my sermons, because they are meant to be heard rather than read, but from time to time I make exceptions, and this is one such case.

Scripture 1: Genesis 32:22-32
Scripture 2: John 11:30-35

On December 30, 2009, at about 3 o'clock in the morning, my cousin Michael's pickup truck careened out of control and stuck a tree. He was killed instantly. His mangled body had to be cut out of the wreckage. If anyone who knew him had been allowed to see it, they would not have recognized him. He was only 22 years old. I know that in family you're not supposed to have favorites, but I'm not very good at following rules. With all apologies to everyone else, Michael was my favorite cousin.

He was born just before my eighth birthday, and he was not only my first cousin; he was also the first baby I can ever remember holding. Though as a young adult he grew up to love punk and indie rock, I'll never forget that as a toddler his favorite song was Billy Ray Cyrus's “Achy Breaky Heart.” And don't think that I ever let him forget that.

Like all of us, Michael was a complicated person, with a complicated relationship with God. The child of missionaries, he grew up as an American in Eastern Europe, living first in Romania, and then in Hungary. He was surrounded by powerful examples of faith, but as happens to all honest people he long harbored fears and doubts. He wasn't one to shy away from the dark corners of the life of faith, often mirroring Jacob's wrestling with God.

Our first scripture reading this morning is that story from Genesis. In it we find an anxious Jacob about to meet his brother Essau for the first time since robbing him of his birthright. After sending gifts ahead to appease both his brother and his own guilty conscience, Jacob sent his entire camp; his wives, his servants, his children, and all his worldly possessions across the stream to the other side, where he will eventually have to follow. But not yet. Not yet.

The text doesn't tell us why; perhaps he was nervous, perhaps he was afraid, perhaps he simply needed to take a moment to help him face up to what was about to happen, but after helping his entire camp ford the stream, Jacob returned for a moment. Alone, all of his companions and all of his belongings, everyone he could turn to, every thing he could hide behind on the other side of the stream, he wrestled with an unnamed man all through that night.

Scripture tells us that they, Jacob and his unnamed opponent, wrestled until the break of dawn, locked in a clench with no clear winner, neither able to shake off the other, neither able to triumph in their struggle. Who the man was, as well as why the man is wrestling Jacob is never made clear. And, I'd say, it doesn't matter. What matters is the struggle itself, which wrenches Jacob's hip from its socket, giving him a limp for the rest of his life, and which even changes Jacob's very name.

“You shall no longer be called Jacob,” the man told him. “You shall now be called Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”

A rabbi friend tells me that in this story it is the name that Jacob is given, “Israel,” that is the most important part of the story, not just because it shows us that this story is part of the creation myth of ancient Israel, but also and especially because of the meaning of the word “Israel” itself. It is a two-part word. The easy part is the second half, the suffix, “El.” “El” is simply a Semetic word for “God.” The first half, however, the prefix, is a bit more tricky. In Hebrew, the prefix “Isra” has a couple of different meanings. As fits this story, it can mean “to wrestle,” “to struggle,” “to fight.” But my rabbi friend also tells me it has another meaning, “to live with.”

These meanings – “to wrestle with,” “to struggle with,” “to fight with” on the one hand, and “to live with” on the other – taken together mean that there is a close relationship in the life of faith between living with and struggling with, or fighting with. Ultimately, in the life of faith – and, I might add, in family life – to live with is to wrestle with, to struggle with, to fight with. To live with God is to struggle with God. The life of faith is a life lived in the tension between living with God and struggling with God, living with God and fighting with God.

Jacob may have been standing alone, wrestling in the dark with a strange man in the tense moments before confronting his own betrayal of his brother, but he was also and especially learning something valuable about the nature of faith. To have faith is to live in the midst of struggle. It is to wrestle with God, to sometimes fight against God, but always, always, to live with God.

Faith is grappling with a stranger. Faith is groping in the dark. Faith is staggering alone in a deep and nearly endless night, praying for a dawn. Faith is being seized, being squeezed, by a mystery that wrenches your hip and wrests your name. And faith is living with God.

The year before he died Michael came to stay with me and my family in our home in Louisville, KY for a little bit, and gave me a glimpse into his complicated faith. Just as to live with God is wrestle with, struggle with, fight with God, so too my appreciation for my cousin's adult faith came in the midst of conflict. Sitting across from each other at RichO's Public House, a pub in New Albany, IN, just across the river from Louisville, we argued late into the night about how to read and interpret the Bible. As the night dragged on our volumes increased, each trying to shout down the other until Sami swore that she'd never be seen with either of us again.

I don't think we agreed on a single thing that night; and it was wonderful. We gave each other permission to disagree, and to disagree passionately, about what was most sacred to us, arguing with equal parts heat and love. His willingness to stand up for his understanding of the Christian faith, even to his older and much more formally educated cousin, taught me that while we may disagree on the particulars of faith, we each shared a common faith, a common passion for theology that bound us more closely to each other than any agreement could have.

In that moment we both wrestled with each other and lived with each other, just as in our respective faiths we each wrestled with and lived with God.

One of my favorite songwriters is a man named Terry Taylor, who in one of his songs asks of those of us who easily profess, and, I might add, profit from our faith, “How did this get/ How did this get/ So easy for you?” His message is this: If it's easy, if it comes easily, whatever it is, whatever you call it, you can be certain that it isn't faith.

Another great songwriter, Steve Taylor (no relation to Terry Taylor), makes roughly the same point as he echos Flannery O'Conner in his song “Harder to Believe Than Not To”:

Nothing is colder than the winds of change
Where the chill numbs the dreamer 'til a shadow remains
Among the ruins lies your tortured soul
Was it lost there, or did your will surrender control?
Shivering with doubts that were left unattended
So you toss away the cloak that you should have mended
Don't you know by now why the chosen are few?
It's harder to believe than not to
Harder to believe than not to

Too often Christian discourse steers itself away from the dark places. We are, after all, afraid. Afraid of the darkness of doubt. Afraid of the shadow of death. We are afraid, I suppose, that admitting our doubt will drive out our faith, that admitting our darkness will drive out what remains of the light. And so we retreat from our fears. We deny our own doubt. We flee from the shadows, pretending they aren't there. But such fear, such denial, such retreating from the shadow of doubt, the shadow of death, is neither faithful, nor, I would argue, Christian.

Faith cannot be afraid of doubt, lest we admit that doubt is stronger than faith. Light cannot be afraid of darkness, lest we admit that in the end the shadows have power over the light that, in fact, creates them. And Jesus stood next to the tomb of Lazarus and wept for his friend.

So the Gospel of John tells us in our second scripture this morning. Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, had been sick. Word was sent to Jesus to come quickly, but by the time he reached the village of Bethany Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days. Dead. Grief, and the accusations that so often accompany it, abounded. Echoing the words of her sister Martha just before the passage we read this morning, Mary confronted Jesus. “If you had been here,” she said, “my brother would not have died.”

“You could have saved him, Jesus,” she might have added. “You could have saved him, but you took your time. And there he lies in his silent grave, pawing the dust and awaiting the end of time.”

Grief. Accusation. Rebuke. Anger. Fear. Despair. The air must have been thick with these things as Mary's words reverberated in Jesus' ears while he walked slowly to his friends' tomb. And when he got there, what did Jesus do? He wept. Jesus wept. He mourned for his friend.

Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him about the resurrection. Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him that death would not have the final say. Surely Jesus needed no one to tell him of the coming Easter, which would shatter the power of death, which would rob it of its sting. And surely Jesus needed no one to tell him that in his hands, in his hands were power of life. Surely Jesus knew that in a few short moments he would call out to his friend, and from within the grave, and beyond the grave, receive an answer. Yet in that moment, at that place, Jesus wept, Jesus mourned with the others the death of his friend Lazarus.

I thought about this passage as I stood at Michael's grave after his funeral. The words “Jesus wept” repeated themselves endlessly in my mind as I too shed my own tears for the dead. And as I watched the casket holding his body lowered into the ground, draped in flowers and in final farewells, I needed no one to tell me of Easter. I needed no one to tell me of the resurrection of the dead. I needed no one to tell me that he was in a better place. I needed no one to tell me to rejoice for and with the dead. For my cousin's truck careened out of control, and traveling far, far too fast, hit a tree, robbing parents of a son, robbing siblings of a brother, and robbing me of my favorite cousin.

Jesus weeping outside the tomb of Lazarus, knowing fully that in a moment he will call, “Lazarus, come out!” and to everyone's surprise be met with an answer from the man himself; that is the best metaphor for this season of Lent that I can think of. Lent calls us not to be afraid of the dark moments in the life of faith. Lent calls us not to be afraid of the quiet spaces that are too often punctuated by our tears of mourning, by our silent weeping for loves long lost. And, Lent tells us that the denial of death is one of the most powerful expressions of the fear of death; that the denial of doubt is really a lack of faith, a belief that doubt will ultimately prove stronger than faith.

Lent calls us not to skip ahead to Easter, but to fully experience this quiet season of self reflection, where in the darkness of doubt and death the seeds of resurrection are planted and watered. Lent tells us to be patient. Lent tells us not to rush miracles, for in the immortal words of Miracle Max in the Princess Bride, that always produces rotten miracles.


Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Living Love for Lent

For some reason (perhaps because I'm reading John D. Caputo's The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion) this question from Augustine comes to mind for Lent: Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo? What do I love when I love my God?

I've decided that for Lent, rather than giving anything up or taking anything up, my discipline will be to seriously reflect on this question and its implications. What do I love when I love my God?

"God" and "love" are given, but as given they are also undefined. Both the love of God and my love for God (as well, 1 John 3 would have me know, my love for others, which is an expression of my love for God - the only expression it may ever have) remain mysterious. Open ended.

This is a question, then, like a Zen koan, without a rational answer. A question that defies rationality, and in so doing refuses to allow either "love" or "God" to be fixed. But perhaps meditating on the question will allow me to somehow live in the love of the God who 1 John (again!) says IS love. To live in love, and to live out love. To love this Lent. To let love - unfixed and undefined - become my habit.

There's no certainty in this. First, I am finite. Worse, I am a sinner, a selfish bastard in love with himself and thus incapable of love in any true and meaningful sense of the word (and yes, there's a certain irony to using "true" to describe a word that resists and resents all definitions of it). Beyond that, "love" itself, as well as the "God" who "is love" cannot be satisfactorily defined. There is thus no real test of either "love" or "God," no way for me to be certain either that I am loving or when I am loving that I am both loving God and loving as God would love.

But life is not without risk, and Lent is a time to meditate on, among other things, not just the possibility or even probability, but rather certainty of error. So I am certain that I will err in love, and so I beg that you reading this will in love forgive me when my love errs. Then perhaps we will live out in our lives what cannot be defined in our language; that is, live out the love of God.

Quid ergo amo, cum deum meum amo? What do I love when I love my God? Augustine's question, like all good questions, is unanswerable, if by "answerable" we mean can be answered in some definitive sense, with an answer that we can somehow deem "true" or "false." But this Lent it is my hope against hope that it is a question that can be lived.