Tuesday, April 1, 2014

My Way, Which Is God's Way

The other day I had one of the more unpleasant cinematic experiences I've had in years: I saw Evan Leong's documentary Linsanity, about Jeremy Lin, the Chinese-American pro basketball player who exploded into fame like a supernova a couple of years ago.  Because Leong began working on the film before Lin became famous (while he was playing for Harvard, if memory serves), I hoped it would be intelligent, serious, thoughtful.  It turned out to be the sort of thing you'd expect to see on ESPN, a hagiography about a young American of humble origins, seeking and finding his dream.  The main difference, I think (I don't watch enough TV to say for sure), was Linsanity's stress on Lin's Christian faith. That wasn't news to me, of course, but it quickly became obnoxious, combining fundamentalism with Culture of Therapy and Sports Cult jargon for a truly toxic mix.  It culminated in a sequence of Lin making a shot on CGI water, which ought to be blasphemous (JL = JC?); it was followed by Lin himself saying that with enough faith he could walk on water.

Leong and Lin both had to grapple with the inconvenient fact that God had made Lin's career pretty rocky.  When he broke his ankle before his senior year of high school, which stopped his team's progress toward the state championship, he explained the injury as divine chastisement for his pride and ego.  Couldn't it have been a stumbling-block put in his way by Satan to frustrate God's plan and keep Jeremy from his messianic destiny?  In any case Lin remained sure that God was watching his every move, and had a plan for him, but it didn't necessarily involve a successful career in basketball, however much Lin tried to convince himself it did.   At one point he said that he wanted to play basketball "my way -- which is God's way."  Funny how often believers tend to equate the two.  "God's way" apparently turns out to be a return to obscurity, as the New York Knicks gave him up to the Houston Rockets, where his performance was less than stellar.

After Lin began his hot streak, Satan (or God) threw another stumbling block in his path, when his opponent Kobe Bryant of the Lakers was asked by reporters what he thought of Lin.  Bryant replied that he had no idea who Lin was.  So the game was framed as a one-on-one between the two titans, and after the Knicks' victory, a reporter asked Lin what he had to say to Bryant.  Lin tells Leong that he'd thought about what he would say, and considered something like "Has he heard of me now?" but then asked himself what Jesus would do, and decided to go with something milder.  ("You'll have to ask him," or words to that effect.)  This made me giggle.  Jesus, according to the gospels, loved snarky comebacks to his opponents when he didn't merely threaten them with hellfire.  "Has he heard of me now?" sounds quite Christlike to me.  One of my favorite examples is Luke 13:31-33: 
31 At that very hour some Pharisees came, and said to him, “Get away from here, for Herod wants to kill you.” 32 And he said to them, “Go and tell that fox, ‘Behold, I cast out demons and perform cures today and tomorrow, and the third day I finish my course. 33 Nevertheless I must go on my way today and tomorrow and the day following; for it cannot be that a prophet should perish away from Jerusalem.’"
If Lin were really serious about his faith, he'd ask himself whether Jesus would play professional basketball; I think it's a safe bet he wouldn't.

And hey -- isn't Kobe Bryant a Christian too?  Turns out he's Catholic.  I imagine most professional athletes in the US are at least nominally Christian, even if they don't all flaunt their religiosity as publicly as Tim Tebow.  And that's why I find the story of Lin's faith so obnoxious: in order for him to achieve his dream, someone else has to fail, to lose, to be defeated.  Lin's god takes sides in the vast corporate multibillion dollar world of professional sport, and that's not a god I'd want to encourage.  Nor do I think much of those who worship such a god.

The university cinema was almost full that day, mostly with Asian and Asian-American students and families.  That saddened me.  Sure, in one narrow sense it's good that Lin broke through to professional basketball.  Every stereotype should be broken, and watching the movie boggled my mind all over again at the racism of American sport, which found it surprising that a Chinese-American kid could play basketball at the highest level.  (To say nothing of Chinese in general.  It occurred to me as I watched Linsanity that Yao Ming had already broken that stereotype, and to my surprise, Leong actually interviewed Yao for the film.)  If I'd thought about it before, I'd have guessed that Asian Americans had better things to do with their time and energy, but it never would have occurred to me that they couldn't play well if they worked at it.  But Lin's rise to notoriety shocked the sports world, and typically, many Asians celebrated Lin's success as their own.