I have no icon of football hero Brett Favre, but if he continues to play well this year, somebody will be tempted to make one. Safe to say veneration heads his way each Sunday from millions over America.
Brett Favre makes me feel better about being over forty. Of course at no time in my life did I ever have the physical and mental skills that Favre puts together every week of the football season, but a middle aged guy can pretend that if Favre can still play, he can.
Is hero worship any good?
It has an obvious up side. A child sees Favre’s excellence and it dazzles him at first. Later he comes to recognize the hard work and dedication required to make it possible.
A child would view Favre with dazzled eyes but a real man sees him better. He would glory in his manly exploits as an image of excellence and be provoked to go and do likewise in his own chosen profession.
Mark Olson rightly rebuked me pointing out that classical heroism is not a Christian idea.
People who don’t admire the Bible need to come to grips with the unique nature of the Book of Books. The Good Book, amazingly, dispenses with the toadying and points us directly to God. There are no Homeric heroes and we don’t praise a man just because he is a good at something. Homeric cultures believed that a hero was admirable, because he was good at something and his gifts covered a multitude of errors.
Homer shows the foibles of his heroes, but passed few judgments. They are great men and Thersites who tries to rebuke his king is clownish and is punished for his temerity.David, the great king of Scripture, sins and his excellence is no justification. Nathan the prophet rebukes him in safety and the king is forced to repent.
We are left with saints and even the greatest of them, the Virgin Mary, gives back to God only what He has given her. She is blessed “only” because she heard the Word of God and did it.
So are heroes bad for us? Not if it is where we end up, but I do think it can be a good school for our souls if we think it through. The boy and man who has a hero may be able to progress beyond it to admire saints and then worship God. Hero worship is not so much non-Christian as sub-Christian.
Homer was right to honor excellence. The amazing deeds of our sports heroes, for example, are stunning examples of God’s design in the universe. Plato and other Greek philosophers recognized the problem with staying at that point, however.
A good athlete may after all be a bad man. Can we call a bad man excellent?
Should we admire a man who is good at football (or in the Greek context boxing) and bad at living? In that sense the sins of our sport’s heroes, like Favre’s well documented pain killer addiction, either distract us or force us to realize that some virtues are much less important than others.
What does it profit a man if he wins the Super Bowl, but loses his soul?
Perhaps the tipping point between a brute and a gentleman is the answer he gives to this question. The failures of our sport’s heroes is a continental divide of our soul when how we choose to respond will determine our character. Some will allow their admiration for the skill and on-field heroics of the quarterback to justify any off-field behavior. A few will follow Plato’s path and realize that goodness is the only real virtue.
He will disdain the sportsman who is not also a gentleman.
So much the high pagans like Plato can teach us, but the Bible, the ultimate handbook for souls, is not finished with our education yet. This is not enough. We may venerate character, but even our moral heroes are flawed. There is no good man. David has his Bathsheba, Washington his slaves, and King his plagiarism.
We cannot justify those deeds and so what is a man to do. We honor them for the great good they have done, but we cannot worship them. They are not worthy of a free man’s worship.
How we long to love someone, anyone, without fear of being let down, but how often we are let down.
The Bible points us beyond any good man to the ultimate and absolute virtue of God. There in the burning holiness of uncompromising virtue there is blessed perfection. We can allow our love to be unrestrained without any fear of disappointment. God can be adored and is never anything less than adorable.
If the disappointment we have in our heroes gets us to this vision, then it is worth it.
Of course, we are so accustomed to be disappointed in our heroes that we still hesitate. We fear we are kidding ourselves, that a Beloved that needs nothing from us and only wishes our good is too good to be true, but He is so good that He is Truth.
The cosmos turns out to be a happy place.