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The Rev. James Ellis III The Rev. James Ellis, III

The Rev. James Ellis III is Chaplain of Discipleship at Hope College in Holland, MI.

Member of:

Cooperative Baptist Fellowship

Representative of:

Hope College, Holland, MI


And, They Called It Idolatry

February 21, 2010

I am tired of the extensive news coverage that Tiger Woods' marital troubles have received lately. First there were allegations that Elin, his wife, had clobbered him with a golf club, thus contributing to his single-car accident in front of their luxurious Florida mansion. Then, everyone began salivating over rumors of multiple mistresses, pointing to the notion that he was a bona fide sex addict. Then, there was the hoopla about him not having yet made a statement. Now, there are an outpouring of opinions over the statement that he finally has made. Was it contrite enough? Is he really repentant? Will Elin divorce him anyway? When will Tiger return to golf, and when he does will he still be the same dominant player? These are just a few of the questions that are being asked. And, of course, all of this, by us, the public, and the news media, is largely considered breaking news. 

What struck me as particularly interesting in Woods' prepared remarks was this statement: "Parents used to point to me as a role model for their kids."[1] Here Tiger seems to have hit the nail on the head regarding why there has been pandemonium over his infidelity and brazen narcissism, both of the public and private kind. So many of us have envied him, wanting to be him ourselves-because of the money, fame, or something else-or we have wished that our children might someday achieve his extraordinary level of success; partly so that we can vicariously live our unfulfilled dreams through them, which many of us do anyway. 

This got me thinking about why we worship people, particularly, however, celebrities who have more money, fame, and clout than most of us will ever attain. I have never liked Tiger Woods. I have never disliked him though either. I don't enjoy golf, playing or watching it, and so I have generally been rather neutral about him. He won another Masters. Great. He broke another record. More power to him. All I knew about Tiger was that he is arguably the greatest golfer of all-time, and that he is ridiculously rich. Oh, and I always see him in those Buick advertisements and commercials. Again, for someone not the least interested in golf that was all that I cared to know.

Why should Tiger be anything more than an example of a talented, hardworking professional golfer? After all, isn't that what he is? I am in no way excusing his deplorable behavior. I believe that is a conversation for another time, and under a certain set of guidelines. But, what sense does it make to romanticize the moral maturity of someone whose prized professional position is based exclusively off of their ability to perform well for the public?

It is ludicrous to hold Tiger up as a role model unless you are talking about that which relates to his aptitude as a golfer. He is good at golf. There is no denying that. Evidently, it is the other, more demanding aspects of life that he has problems with.

Isaiah Thomas is a hall-of-fame former NBA basketball star, so it shouldn't have been surprising, albeit disturbing and disappointing, when allegations surfaced a few years ago that while employed by the New York Knicks he sexually harassed a fellow female executive (she was eventually awarded a $11.5 million settlement).[2] His claim to fame was basketball not workplace ethics. Why do we become so emotionally involved when someone like Mark McGwire finally admits to steroid use or when a religious figure like Ted Haggard is caught in an adulterous love and drug scandal? Why do we feel so let down when Michael Jordan gets divorced after 17 years of marriage? Or when Barbara Walters reveals that she had an affair with a married man, Senator Edward Brooke? Or when John Edwards and former President Bill Clinton admitted to their respective affairs, of course after having vehemently proclaimed their innocence? Why are we so offended when celebrity sex tapes surface, drug addictions are uncovered, or allegations of abuse are confirmed? 

Honestly, some of the reason for our incessant interest in and emotional attachment to these kinds of developments may have to do with the fact that many of have "no life," and find joy in watching others fall from their lofty positions of influence. And, especially for people who are off limits to us like celebrities, we like to be nosy.

The bible has a word for this disposition of worshipping people, or things for that matter. It is idolatry, which is anything that becomes a god to us[3]. It is that which we misuse in attempts to heal our brokenness in ways that only God can. Believers are called to put idolatry to death.[4] In 1 Corinthians 10:14 we are implored to "flee from idolatry." Surely, this is a very countercultural concept that challenges the very fabric of popular American culture, but nonetheless we would do well to heed the directive still.[5] Your children, career, religiosity, bank account, automobile, physique, zip code, or fully restored classic muscle car can become an idol. Your "shoe game"[6] (this goes for both men and women) can no doubt become an idol. And, so can your intrigue about the private life of celebrities.

We like to worship celebrities especially because it makes us feel better about our shortcomings and mistakes. They may have the money and fame, which we, too, are often pursuing in our own ways, but at least if their lives are a mess and ours aren't to the same degree, well then we have just leveled the playing field a bit. Or so goes the rationale. It has been said:

Celebrity is methadone for the soul, produced by consumer capitalism to paliate unfulfilled psychological needs, social resentments, and spiritual discontent. Beneath its glittering façade of spectacle, there is nothing but the old Adam, imagining idols in a ceaseless and failed effort at worshipping a self that the worshiper from the beginning finds wanting.[7]

In reality Tiger Woods is just a dude who gets paid a ton of money to play golf. We ought to view him in light of that truth, while recognizing that he is much more than that. He has fears, anxieties, baggage, joys, pains, and sin in his life just like the rest of us.

I don't know about you, but I don't have the time, energy, or interest to be engrossed in the good, the bad, and the ugly of celebrities' lives because I have my own to live. And, with God in Jesus Christ as my redeemer, I plan to live this life to the fullest in a manner that reflects the redemption that I have found.

Worshipping idols-whether inanimate objects or human beings-is not included in the lyrics of my "Redemption Song."[8]

 


[1] http://sports.espn.go.com/golf/news/story?id=4928017

[2] For more information about the allure of sports in America see William C. Rhoden, Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete (New York: Three Rivers, 2007), Shirl J. Hoffman, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010).

[3] Exodus 20:3-4, Leviticus 26:1. See also, James 3:13-18.

[4] Colossians 3:5.

[5] For deeper theological and cultural considerations of idolatry and celebrity worship see G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2008), Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters (New York: Dutton Adult, 2009), Cooper Lawrence, The Cult of Celebrity: What Our Fascination with the Stars Reveals About Us (Guilford, CT: Skirt, 2009).

[6] This is a colloquialism that speaks to one's shoe collection. For men it is most likely athletics sneakers, and for women it typically involves both the quality and quantity of one's name brand stilettos, and other expensive footwear, such as boots.

[7] Deena Weinstein, Michael Weinstein, "Celebrity worship as weak religion," Word & Word 23, No. 3 (Summer 2003): 301.

[8] Of course, Bob Marley's theology ultimately pointed to "Rastafari," which is incompatible with orthodox Christian beliefs, which I hold. His songs, however, still are meaningful as they uphold a powerful sense of cultural pride and countercultural ethics, not to mention with superior musical talent, that have rarely been seen again, hence my reference to his song.


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