Todays' guest post comes from Matt Bowman, a Ph.D. candidate at Georgetown University who normally blogs at Juvenile Instructor. Matt follows up on my post from Friday focusing on the theological motifs in Dan Gilbert's open letter to Cleveland Cavaliers fans. Where I saw a theological muddle, Matt sees the tradition of the jeremiad.
LeBron James: false prophet
by Matt Bowman
Paul Harvey already has noted the muddled bricolage of religious invocation that is Cleveland Cavaliers’ owner Dan Gilbert’s screed against his now departed star, LeBron James, who left the city he was raised in and the franchise which drafted him to sign with the Miami Heat. As Paul notes, in one sense Gilbert’s frothing lapses into the sort of lumpy but fascinating theological mess that popular culture often makes of religion; this single sentence:
The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.
manages to make hash of at least three and maybe four distinct religious traditions, invoking the karmic wheel of Indian subcontinent, the traditional vodou religions of Africa, a vague reference to the sort of curses which regularly plague folks in the Bible (and African Americans in the United States), and even, as Paul notes, a faint echo of Biblical commentary about Jesus’s rocky relationship with Nazareth.
But at the same time, people invoke these sorts of motifs for a reason, and I want to sketch out what I see as the larger religious processes (of betrayal/reconciliation, sin/redemption, affliction/purgation, and such) that are worked out on the basketball court in a number of religious ways (my earlier posts exploring the theology of basketball are here and here), and lurk here behind Gilbert’s unfortunate choice of Comic Sans. That is, as unlikely as it may seem, there’s coherence here.
What Gilbert’s really doing in this text is jeremiad, though a complicated one. He is calling Cleveland to repentance, for they have followed after a false prophet, sought after salvation which has turned to ashes and sin in their mouths. But while the jeremiad traditionally invoked the promise of former generations, Gilbert instead appeals to the promise of salvation that once hovered within grasp, and in a series of rhetorical inversions shows how it has been shorn of its finery. While James was once ritually adulated with Nike’s “We Are All Witnesses” campaign, which promulgated ads that did no less than promise LeBron as savior, Gilbert now uses the word to describe the agony of fan watching James’s betrayal. This is, as Gilbert puts it, “bitterly disappointing;” because, of course, “witnessing” is the source of salvation. The word itself invokes evangelical Protestant liturgies of conversion, as sinners are brought to their redemption through hearing the Word of God. In the religion of sports, however, the salvation of identification, of embedding one’s self in the transformative narrative of conflict and triumph, comes through the witnessing of the athletes on the court, of which we are witnesses. Quicken Area was therefore a church, and James’s betrayal of his fans on an ESPN spectacle Gilbert angrily labels “narcissistic” and “self-promotional” has transformed their rite of salvation into an infliction of agony for his own gain, rather than the means of grace which it was intended.
But Gilbert’s jeremiad does not end there; rather, following pattern, after presenting the problem it exhorts to redemption. And Gilbert promises, in best pastoral style, that the path to salvation is not lost; rather, the flock must simply find the correct path. In a rare correct use of apostrophes, Gilbert refers to James as the “chosen one;” a title once used in all seriousness, describing the power James was presumed to have to restore true salvific basketball to Cleveland. Now, however, James has been exposed as a false prophet. And this because, in what Paul rightly notes is one of the most fascinating lines in the document:
James peddled cheap grace. By somewhat gleeful implication, Gilbert notes that in his seven year career with Cleveland, LeBron failed to win a championship. This, he maintains, was the inevitable result of James’s false religion, but now, liberated by the blinding and painful light of revelation, Cleveland has been rightly converted, and will set about making its own salvation. As Gilbert argues, “this shameful display of selfishness and betrayal by one of our very own has shifted our "motivation" to previously unknown and previously never experienced levels.”
Ultimately, the purpose of this reverse jeremiad is purgation of sin, an expiation that follows Rene Girard’s analysis of the scape goat of the Hebrew Bible. Gilbert declares, in a rather muddy bit of theological reasoning, that James will bear the “curse” (ie, inability to win, to provide a truly transformative narrative of victory for its fans to find salvation in) with him to Miami, in a way somehow related to his exposure as a false prophet. What this means is that James is the bearer of Cleveland’s sins; he must be ritually cast out from their midst, in order to take with him the contagion that afflicts them. And thus we can understand Gilbert’s insistence that Cleveland is now somehow better off without him. After all, as Gilbert notes, Clevelanders now know that James is the “exact opposite” of “what we would want our children to learn. And ‘who’ we would want them to become.” (sic, on the apostrophes; as I glancingly observed earlier, Gilbert often uses them in baffling fashion.)
It’s therefore perhaps appropriate that Gilbert closes his letter promising that “Tomorrow is a new and much brighter day.” The apostate is cast from the midst; the community’s sins have been eliminated. And the true and only heaven hovers in the distance.