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NFL's Steve Johnson on God's Will and Loss: An Issue Christine O'Donnell Didn't Tackle

4 years ago
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Is it possible that Buffalo Bills wide receiver Steve Johnson has a firmer grasp on at least one corner of Christian theology than failed Delaware Senate candidate Christine O'Donnell?

Some of the evidence can be found, no kidding, on Twitter.

Last Sunday, the woeful Bills had managed to battle the Pittsburgh Steelers into overtime. Bills quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick floated a perfect pass to Johnson for what should have been the winning touchdown. And Johnson simply dropped the ball. Minutes later, the Steelers won.

A couple of hours later, Johnson turned to God -- and Twitter:

"I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO . . ."

From the reaction in some quarters, you might have thought he'd poured ants on a crucifix or something. How dare he "blame God" for his fumble-fingers?

Christine O'Donnell, Steve JohnsonNo question his reaction was pretty unusual. How many, many times do we see winning athletes point up at the sky or drop to their knees or look into the camera and give all glory to God or Jesus? Far less common to hear about Johnson's reaction.

But that doesn't mean it's not straight-up mainstream theology. While it ain't easy to push the idea of theodicy into a 140-character limit, that's what Johnson managed to do.

Theodicy is all about how an all-good, all-knowing, all-powerful deity can allow what appears to be undeserved pain. Johnson is well-known as a devout Christian of the sort who believes that God is directly in charge of everything. So it's totally consistent for him to toss a question to the Almighty after such a painful moment.

In spirit and tone, you can find similar examples from Christian and Jewish religious writing and in fiction, from St. Theresa of Avila to Sholom Alechem's Tevye. But the most famous cry of its kind is surely in the Bible's Book of Job.

Job is a good, successful man who gets all of his worldly goods and even his health taken away as a test from God.

Johnson has his Twitter followers. Job kvetched to his homies: Eliphaz the Temanite, and Bildad the Shuhite, and Zophar the Naamathite. And he complained to God. Some of his protests would work as tweets:

"What is my strength, that I should wait? And what is my end, that I should be patient?"

"If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of all humanity? Why make me your target? Am I a burden to you?"

What does this have to do with O'Donnell? During her unsuccessful Senate campaign, she invoked God's will several times.

"God, you gave me this desire," she was quoted as saying. "You gave me this desire of my heart to serve the people of Delaware, to go in there and be your voice in Congress."

Beyond that, she saw the hand of the Almighty in her tracking poll numbers:

"The day that we saw a spike in the polls was a day that some people had a prayer meeting for me, that morning, for this campaign, so I believe that prayer plays a direct role in this campaign," she said.

After she lost, she posted a final news release to her campaign website. She blamed the GOP establishment for not supporting her. She blamed the politics of the election, in which Democrats did well in Delaware. God's will was not mentioned. And I can find no media account of her discussing her theology in the light of her loss.

After his first tweet to God this week, Johnson responded directly to the public attacks. In more tweets:
"I learned A lot Within 24hrs. Saw Both Sides.(Ups&Dwns) I AM HAPPY & THANKFUL 4 YESTERDAY! w/out Sunday iWldnt have grew closer w/The Lord!!"

"And No I Did Not Blame God People! Seriously??!? CMon! I Simply Cried Out And Asked Why? Jus Like yal did wen sumthin went wrong n ur life!"

And truly, who among us has not wondered why -- "wen sumthin went wrong n ur life?"

Why don't more of the athletes (or politicians, for that matter), so quick to shout out to God in victory, pull out the Job card in defeat? I went looking for scholars of religion who are into sports. Turns out they aren't hard to find. There are so many of them that the American Academy of Religion has a "Sports and Religion Forum."

The Rev. Frank Berna is the director of the graduate program in theology and ministry at La Salle University, a Catholic school in Philadelphia. He's written about the nexus of faith and sports. Johnson's tweet, he said, should not be ridiculed by anyone who respects Christian theology.

"I think it is a more sophisticated -- honest and realistic -- approach to prayer and a relationship with God often avoided by Christians," he said. "On the other side of praise and thanks, one can appreciate the lament 'why have you forgotten me, O God.' "

But Christians who avoid the issue may have understandable theological reasons, he said.

Because the suffering of the totally innocent Jesus is central to the Christian story, some people might think that complaining about their lesser pains would be, well, churlish.

"Suffering, even seemingly undeserved, ought to be borne with patience for one's own weakness, or the sin of others," Berna said. "And, it can make you a better person; 'God has a reason for everything.' "

The other reason emphasizes God's inevitable judgment -- and you don't want to hack off the judge.

"One would not want to anger the judge with a misguided complaint -- and, who can know the mind of God?" Berna said.

Joseph L. Price is a professor of religious studies at Whittier College who has written extensively about sports and religion. He's the author of two books on the subject: "From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion" and "Rounding the Bases: Baseball and Religion in America."

He can rattle off plenty of athletes who gave God the high-sign when they won. Here's one example:

"Celebrating their roles in the Cleveland Indians' pennant-clinching win in 1997, Bip Roberts and Tony Fernandez credited the Indians' extra-inning victory to divine intervention. Roberts, who had been scheduled to start at 2nd base in, as he put it, "the biggest game of my life,' was scratched from the lineup after getting injured during pre-game warm-ups. His replacement, Tony Fernandez, hit a solo home run for the game's only run, and in televised post-game interviews he credited God with helping him to see the pitch well."

Far less common, Price said, is a jock who says publicly that he or she sees God's will in the bad times.

"Because Christian faith affirms the conquest even of death, its devout at times adopt a triumphalistic or imperialistic attitude. Thus acknowledging defeat or suffering is often difficult to conceive, much less express," he said.

But maybe more athletes have done so and we don't know about it because the media ignored it. For many years, Price said, many media outlets shied away from including any religious content in sports stories, even if the athlete considered his or her faith relevant to the sport.

"In that era, the L.A. Times had established an editorial policy that discouraged -- if not prohibited -- reporters from writing about players' expression of faith in times of victory (and defeat)," he said.

Not to mention that we still see and hear a lot more in the mainstream media from the winners than we do from the losers. So even if it happens, and even if a reporter is inclined to note faithstuff in sports, losers just don't get quoted as much.

But Facebook and Twitter have knocked down the walls between the athletes and their fans. If someone like Johnson wants to share his religious angst, it gets out there at the speed of tweet.

"It will be interesting," Price said, "to see if other fervent players follow Johnson's lead in showing the human face of faith."

One prominent athlete who preceded Johnson in talking up God was NFL quarterback Kurt Warner. He famously gave Jesus credit after leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl win to end the 1999 season.

However, his public comments after two Super Bowl losses are short on religious talk. Ditto in stories from his years bouncing from one team to another before finding renewed success.

But it seems that he was feeling a lot like Johnson those years. How do we know? From Twitter. Yup, the now-retired Warner tweets. And he sent a message to Johnson (and the Twitterverse) a few days ago:

I asked same thing when released in STL & benched 3 times, But then God did his thing... Be ready! Enjoy watching you play!
Filed Under: Religion, Media, Culture, Ethics

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Ken

A more thoughtful and respectful article towards Christianity than I anticipated. Thank you. However, while the book of Job does describe Eliphaz, Bildad, et al as "friends" of Job and continues to do so throughout the book, I have come to consider them a "9/11 Commission" more interested in investigating the manifold calamities which affected the people around Job than expressing friendship. Some of their remarks are classic "how-not-to"-s for relating to the afflicted.

December 05 2010 at 2:36 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Deborah

I so understand this article. It brings me so much closer to God on a much more personal level! His WILL IS ALWAYS DONE. And Thank God FOR THAT!

December 05 2010 at 10:05 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Deborah's comment
johntangier

I would thibnk god's concerns would be more of a religious natutre than if some over paid player catches a ball.

December 05 2010 at 1:17 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
Bobby

I could understand blaming God for that haircut!

December 05 2010 at 9:02 AM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply

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