This one comes to us from new Mbird contributor Jack Sharman:
Pastors and motivational speakers often link sports-vocabulary with works-righteousness, both intentionally and accidentally. And you can hardly blame them. Public displays of religious affection — or affectation — are grist for the mill of cultural, legal and sports commentators. Witness the tight end who makes the sign of the cross after a touchdown in a good ESPN time-slot, his hands safely in Nike receiver-gloves. Or, worse, reflect on a hapless Tim Tebow with King James eye-black.
Tebow now wanders in the desert of the NFL, but one need not be an SEC standout to experience the problems that arise from equating athletic achievement with belief. (“SEC” as in “Southeastern Conference,” not “Securities and Exchange Commission,” although that “SEC” raises even more issues of success, power, law and death than the toe-meets-leather variety).
In particular, the drive to be physically fit merits a moment’s consideration through two lenses: the “CrossFit” fitness program and the work of Christian hip-hop artist Tadishii.
“CrossFit” is . . . what, exactly? Program? Lifestyle? System? See the owners’ description here.
At a minimum, it’s a daily, all-purpose, cross-training workout that pushes its adherents to extremes. (The CrossFit mascot is nicknamed “Pukie”). Here is a recent post from a fan:
“I’ve been an active CrossFitter for the last two years and can’t begin to tell you what a huge part of my life it is. I’m a cop in San Diego and had a traumatic experience where I had to carry a dying partner out of a canyon. CrossFit helped me greatly that evening.”
On his second solo album, Identity Crisis, Christian hip-hop artist Tadishii offers “Make War,” a track of thumping military vigor (think “Onward Christian Soldiers” turned inward and referencing boxer Riddick Bowe). The voiceover introduction is from pastor John Piper:
I hear so many Christians, murmuring about their imperfections,
And their failures, and their addiction, and their shortcomings.
And I see so little war! Murmur, murmur, murmur.
Why am I this way? Make war!
Tadishii and his guest Flame then pound out an anthem (if such a late 1970s word may be permitted) to fighting sin:
I think we emphasis sin so much
That it makes us paralyzed
And glorify struggle so much
That it makes us terrified
And de-emphasize the fact
That we have been sterilized from our own lives and thus
We gotta snap out of it
One need not criticize either CrossFit or the Tadishii/Flame/Pastor Piper team to wonder where this path leads. (I love CrossFit, though my pects would deceive you, and “Make War” is superb weight-room music). CrossFit posits, quite rightly, that you can usually do more than you think you can. Compared to other urban artists, Tadishii’s work points in a sound direction.
But where do CrossFit and Tadeshii leave us? The San Diego police officer is grateful for the physical strength that allowed him to aid his dying partner. But if his partner is dead, hyper-fitness is at a loss. Hyper-fitness offers nothing to the dead and nothing but repetition — literally, more “reps” — to the living. (See the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard and the late novelist Walker Percy about “repetition” and the possibility of Christian existence — but that’s another story). Perhaps this is one disconnect between sports-life (or fitness-life) and gospel-life: the latter offers something to both the living and the dead.
Similarly, “Make War” is a useful workout and weight-room piece because its point is the same one your strength-coach makes: you will only get stronger if you move the weight by yourself. Tadeshii calls upon you to resist sin, the strength coach calls upon you to overcome the resistance of the weight, but they both proceed from the assumption that it is possible for you, by summoning will and sinew, to overcome. Indeed, “Make War” — especially in John Piper’s intro — takes to task those who are wrapped around the axle of imperfections and failures.
The problem is that, as Augustine pointed out a long time ago, not only is it generally the case that we find ourselves wrapped around the axle, we don’t even know why we did the things we did that caused us to get into that situation in the first place. At the gym, the overcoming-model works, at least in the short run, until injury or age or free-agency work their doom. In the human condition, the overcoming-model appears to work, but only by deception, since it offers the dead nothing and the living — well, it offers the living only what we already have, and we’re obviously not satisfied with that. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be hitting the weights — literally or otherwise — at all.