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Theodicy on the Field of Play

Theodicy on the Field of Play

    Jack Taylor, a senior shooting guard on the Grinnell (Iowa) College basketball team scored 138 points in a game against Faith Baptist (Iowa) last fall.  In my day, which most of you can't possibly remember, we might have marveled at Mr. Taylor's accomplishment in putting the round ball through the hoop; but we would also have teased him for "being hungry" and never seeing a shot he wouldn't take.  For his part Jack Taylor, at least in published reports, credits God for his remarkable performance: "He [God] definitely multiplied my talents that night.  His fingerprints were all over that game."NB

    Ah, yes, Tim Tebow kneeling in the end zone, eyes shut, praying and praising the Lord for another triumph for "muscular Christianity."  Or the endless clichés of assorted jocks who thank God they were endowed by their Creator (and Redeemer!) with certain inalienable prowess available only to those who believe.  

    Which opening provides me with the opportunity to repeat a couple of anecdotes from my personal history of exploits on the hardwood court in the name,  if not with the endorsement, of the church.  Beginning with the exchange in the attic gym at Jewish Theological Seminary at 122nd Street and Broadway, diagonally across the subway tracks from Union Theological Seminary which I and four others represented.  Players on the kosher team, experiencing frustration in mid-game, shouted again and again, "Jesus Christ!" After the tenth such explosion I shouted loudly (and calculatedly) at my own frustration, "Holy Moses!"  They got the point.

    Several years later, playing basketball in the Bay Ridge (Brooklyn) Church League, I was summoned from the sidelines, where I was nursing a bad knee, to offer a prayer to the huddled hoopsters of Sunset Park Church before the tip-off.  I never cottoned to athletic piety.  Instead, I offered a thoroughly Lutheran prayer, "God, forgive us for what we are about to do."  The church team went undefeated for five years.

    Back to Iowa: were those college teams competing in a Connecticut high school league, Grinnell would have been put on probation for its excess.  Jack Taylor, he of the 138 points, played the full forty minutes.  There was no stalling and no substituting of bench players.  Professional players observe an unwritten rule against "showing up" an opponent: in the Major Leagues you don't steal a base if you are ahead in a blow-out; in the NFL if the game is well in hand you don't keep throwing the long one; in the NBA if you're ahead by twenty with a minute to go, you don't rush for a three point shot.  Of course, the pros understand that what goes around comes around, and the other team's humiliation will eventually be yours, so take it easy. 

    But it is the assumption, that God favors your side and that is why you won, that truly bugs me.  That kind of reasoning plays out in other areas of life besides sports.  I wince every time I hear on TV someone who has escaped a catastrophe in which many died or were maimed, say, "I thank God that I was spared."  Should the wounded and the families of the dead say, "I blame God for my troubles"?  All things happen to all people.  Faith does not construct a protective shield against circumstance. The cross was erected not to ward off vampires, but to establish God's solidarity with us in our suffering and exposure to evil.  The next time you are tempted to praise God for your deliverance, bite your tongue long enough to consider those who didn't get a free pass from trouble.

    Leave it to the Baptists in Iowa to have the last word.  The coach of the humiliated basketball team is quoted with this tip of his hat to the Gospel of Jesus Christ: "We're God-honoring in everything we do. We don't want to embarrass anyone."  I am hard-pressed to find any text to support a "muscular Christianity" bent (hell bent?) on squashing the other team.  But I readily point you to lists of faithful virtues, including compassion for the underdog, in the Bible, several of them in the writings of the Apostle Paul (e.g., Colossians 3:12ff; I Corinthians 13:4-7) and supremely in Leviticus 19:18. 

    As for the fellows in the attic gym at 122nd St. and Broadway, the ones shouting sacred names, I amuse myself with a rereading of Philippians 1:15-18, a text which also salutes, if not endorses, the hawking of wares with carols in December... and brings an ironic smile to my face. 


NB. The report of this game and the quotes from participants in it are taken from The New York Times, April 5, 2013, Section A, Page 14.


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