In Defense of Steve Johnson

Steve Johnson–the flamboyant wide receiver for the Buffalo Bills–is receiving a lot of flack in the press this week for blaming God (via Twitter) for dropping what should have been an easy, game-winning touchdown pass in Sunday’s loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Most commentators are questioning why he would do such a thing.  I question why he’s the only NFL player to do such a thing.

For all the narcissistic self-righteousness crammed into those 140 characters, Steve Johnson is displaying a consistent theology. Is it ridiculous for a receiver to blame a dropped ball on God? Yes. But it’s no more ridiculous than a d-back giving props to Jesus for a hit that leaves his opponent splayed on the turf. Play-makers have made such “glory to God” gestures so commonplace on the football field they hardly draw attention anymore (hence the need to write quotations from Batman movies on your uniform these days.) Yet, all these chest-thumping and heaven-pointing rituals belie a theology that casts Jesus essentially as a warrior deity who glorifies his worshipers and thwarts their adversaries. In essence, every Sunday the grid irons of America become the battlefields of Troy in the psyches of some NFL players.

So, say what you will about Johnson’s assertions. I am not defending the theology of his outburst.  But the fact remains that if you’re going to give God direct credit for the plays you make, then giving Him direct blame for the plays you don’t make is the logical progression of such a theology.  He deserves credit for at least being honest about that.  Hey, someone on the Pittsburgh Steelers must have prayed harder than Johnson on Sunday, coaxing Jesus over to their side. Or maybe Jesus has always been a Steelers’ man. Perhaps that was a terrible towel He tied around his waist to wash His disciples’ feet in John 13?

The real question in my mind is why don’t such theological notions (both Christian and non-Christian) disturb us more often?  Commentators don’t comment on them when they find expression in a touchdown celebration. Perhaps they seem innocuous or even entertaining within the confines of the sport itself.  However, when such theologies leave the stadium  and arrive on the street (as Johnson’s now has), they become more serious matters.  As mere Twitter rants, they may pass as comical arrogance.  But outside of social networking, these same notions manifest themselves as varieties of the prosperity gospel: an unhealthy mix of self-help, faith, and materialism that (mis)leads rich and poor alike to think they can receive bountiful blessings in exchange for generous donations of praise and cash.  And in seedier, more zealous corners outside the mainstream, it is these very same notions that can–and do–morph into the beastly agents of crusades and jihads.

As we make our way into the holy season of Advent (as well as into the playoffs), I hope Steve Johnson’s tweet will give us all pause to consider the implications of our beliefs and the motivations for our faith. The babe coming to the manger is coming to challenge the systems and structures of this world–political, social, theological, and whatever else they may be–and to call us all back to the basics of what life and faith ought to be about: loving God with our whole selves and loving our neighbors as we love ourselves.  By His own example, He showed us that He was anything but a warrior deity–even though that’s exactly what most people wanted the Messiah to be–and taught us that  giving glory to God has much more to do with washing feet than pointing to the sky.

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