On February 9, 2013

Everyday idolatry: Worshipping Nike

Temple in Chennai, India“No weapon formed against me will stand.” -Ray Lewis, quoting the book of Isaiah after his Superbowl win

A couple of weeks ago, when Lance Armstrong was finally forced into laying bare his secrets to a suspicious public, I was disappointed along with everyone else. Because I like Lance Armstrong. I followed his career, I read his book (turned out, it really wasn’t about the Bike), and I was thankful that there were still heroes to look up to.

Earlier in his life, Lance Armstrong has spoken out as an atheist. He doesn’t believe in God. But I think that he’s wrong, not about God, just about how he does not believe in one.

Sports Illustrated did a fascinating article on Lance last year when the world he had carefully constructed was just starting to crumble.

“Armstrong lives as he rides — surrounded by a cocoon of aides and helpers, his gimlet eyes focused on victory…. The self-described atheist has become a deity… but the inquiry’s findings may cause the Armstrong faithful to ask, Was the miracle a mirage?” —Selena Roberts and David EpsteinSports Illustrated, 2011

His eyes were focused on victory.

Victory. Which is a god of the ancient world.

Actually the god’s name was Nike.

You can’t make this stuff up.

The Sport of Idolatry

I think it’s fascinating how easily we dismiss the ancient world as superstitious. But we sacrifice and bleed for the exact same gods they did.

Now I love sports, I love playing and watching them. I’ve been in fights over them as a player on the field and a fan in the stands. (Once I was actually at a Soccer Game in Greece where my section lit the stands on fire…before the game even started!) But I want you to imagine if you weren’t so immersed in our culture, if you didn’t understand and already have categories for what you were watching.

You would see the stadiums filled with people who had painted their face and body, you would hear them cheer and moan, as they watched from a distance someone else perform some kind of act. If you didn’t know what you were seeing I imagine you would reach for religious words like Temple or Clergy or Worship.

Not worship of the team, or the sport, but to Victory.

Back in the first century, the popular religion during Jesus time always showed God as being on the side of winners.  He was the victor for the Greeks.  He was the one who stood on the side of the powerful. He was the God who you were talking about when you wanted to intimidate your enemies. This God took sides, and he always sided with the winners.

So think about this for just a second, it’s not just saying that God loves the winners more. It’s saying to see who God loves, watch who wins.

That was the world that Jesus entered into, and it’s almost impossible to understand just how radically Jesus was changing the way they thought of God. It’s impossible because it has to change the way we think of God. It was ridiculous to the Greeks to think that God could ever lose and even be a God of the losers.

It still is.

We Are All Lance Armstrong

So this is a Nike commercial from 2001, famous for Armstrong talking about the value of hard work, and his support of anti-doping regulations. And we now know that he was filming this while creating the most elaborate system of cheating the world has seen. He sacrificed every friendship, his family, and his body. But don’t be too hard on him, because this is a god that we’ve been worshipping for a while now.

53% of Americans believe that God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success. 40% of Evangelical Christians believe that God cares about who wins the Superbowl. And as, an article I read this week points out, both the Christian Faith and the NFL make their home on Sunday, and “after 50 years of mixing the two, it isn’t all too clear that faith has come out ahead.”

So maybe we shouldn’t be so hard on Lance Armstrong or Ray Lewis, because they might actually be just revealing the bent that we all have. They are the extreme examples of the ancient assumption that Nike is god.

Now I live in West Texas so I should repeat, I love sports, especially football, and I route passionately for my teams as well. But the tale-tale sign that we’ve made a good thing into an idol, is when it cannot produce what it has promised. I wonder what the Monday after the Superbowl is like for the winners? After you’ve bled and sacrificed and given your life toward one goal. I imagine that one of the worst things of worshipping a goal like this is what happens when you achieve it. (As a 5/7 pear shaped person, I obviously wouldn’t know).

Tennis Champion Hana Mandlikova was once asked how she felt about defeating other great Tennis players and she said, “Any big win means that all the suffering, practicing, and traveling are worth it. I feel like I own the world.”

Then they asked her how long that feeling lasts, she replied, “About two minutes.”

Because winning is nice, but victory really isn’t everything.

Nike isn’t Lord, and God is actually on the side of losers.

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  • http://twitter.com/pcunningham3 Philip Cunningham

    So I guess we need to re-name the atonement theory? Christus Victo? (Christ the Loser)

  • http://twitter.com/pcunningham3 Philip Cunningham

    Kidding, of course.

    Excellent post. Just read it. Always enjoy reading your takes on faith’s intersection w/ sports.