Friday, February 17, 2012

Stop the Linsanity: Religion, sports, and the abject ignorance of David Brooks

David Brooks has his lofty perch at the Times, and on PBS, in large part because compared to most other conservatives he seems to be a fairly reasonable fellow. (Yes, it's all relative, relative to the likes of Hannity, O'Reilly, and Dear Leader Rush.) I'm not sure if he's liberals' favorite conservative, but he's certainly near the top.

But being fairly reasonable doesn't make him right, and beneath the veneer of calm reasonableness he's wrong a lot of the time. I'm hardly the first to point this out, and it seems futile even to make this point anymore, so often has it been made, but Brooks's embarrassingly bad column today on Jeremy Lin and religion in sports prompts me to stop ignoring him for a moment and address his inanity.

Consider just the laughable opening paragraph:

Jeremy Lin is anomalous in all sorts of ways. He's a Harvard grad in the N.B.A., an Asian-American man in professional sports. But we shouldn't neglect the biggest anomaly. He's a religious person in professional sports. 

I'll give him the first two -- maybe. There aren't many Harvard grads in any North American sports league, that's for sure. There aren't that many Asian-Americans either. But how is it possible to write with a straight face that being "a religious person in professional sports" is an anomaly? Has David Brooks ever watched professional sports? Does he know anything about the athletes who play professional sports?

To be fair, he acknowledges "the faith-driven athlete and coach, from Billy Sunday to Tim Tebow," but his argument is essentially that professional sports, with the egotistical drive to win that is a core characteristic of the professional athlete, is antithetical to religious belief: "The moral ethos of sport is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim," as he puts it.

He's wrong. I would say that the "moral ethos of sport" is in tension with Brooks's simplistic understanding of "the moral ethos of faith":

Ascent in the sports universe is a straight shot. You set your goal, and you climb toward greatness. But ascent in the religious universe often proceeds by a series of inversions: You have to be willing to lose yourself in order to find yourself; to gain everything you have to be willing to give up everything; the last shall be first; it’s not about you.

For many religious teachers, humility is the primary virtue. You achieve loftiness of spirit by performing the most menial services. (That's why shepherds are perpetually becoming kings in the Bible.) You achieve your identity through self-effacement. You achieve strength by acknowledging your weaknesses. You lead most boldly when you consider yourself an instrument of a larger cause. 

That's one way of looking at it, but certainly not the only way. I would describe this as the Nietzschean view, the view of Christianity in particular as self-denying submission, as slavery. There's something to this, yes, but these three religions and the faith they inspire are rather more complex.

What, for example, if you think that you should use what you believe to be your God-given physical abilities to compete for His glory? What if you think that not using them would be to insult your God? Have you seen Chariots of Fire? This is what the great Scottish runner and rugby player Eric Liddell believed. Was it wrong for him to run in the Paris Olympics in 1924? Was he not being properly Christian, David Brooks?

Please. Brooks is no expert on any of this, whatever his various pontifications. It's obviously possible to be a highly competitive athlete, amateur or professional, and also be a person of sincere and devout faith. And the NBA and every other major professional sports league in North America is full of such people. And it's not just Tim Tebow. Every NFL game seems to culminate with a prayer circle at midfield. Baseball players point to the sky, to Him, after home runs. Does Albert Pujols ring a bell? Or my own favorite football player, Troy Polamalu?

Does Brooks have any clue at all?

Rhetorical question. Let's just move on.

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