Remember, LeBron, You Got to Go Through Hell Before You Get to Heaven

Paul Harvey

Mike Altman and others here frequently have called for expanding the boundaries of the sacred for analysis, and since various contributors here have posted on everything from Disney Religion to Green Day's American Idiot to early modern tattoos, I should think this would be a receptive venue for an expansive view of religious ritual.

All the same, there's plenty of room here for traditional theological analysis. I"m going to guest post something soon from Jeremy Bangs, about the theological/social worldview of the Pilgrims, which he believes challenges much existing scholarship in the area.

But before we get there, a priceless document for theological analysis has just come to our attention: Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, in an open letter addressed to "All of Northeast Ohio and Cleveland Cavaliers Fans Wherever You May Be Tonight." (He should have just plagiarized from Conan O'Brien's letter to his fans, which was addressed to "People of the Earth").

In case you've been living in a cave this week, let me bring you up to speed: LeBron James has decided to sign with the Miami Heat, joining new teammates Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. Said act was announced in an hour-long show of pretty boring absurdist theater (actually 2 hours, after the post-show coverage) last night on ESPN. Since NPR and the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, et al covered the story as well, I assume that those of you who could give a rat's behind about all this nonetheless could not escape the news story no matter how much you wanted to.

Of more interest to me is owner Gilbert's response (hilariously posted in Comic sans font, as blog reader Matt Bowman pointed out to me), full of sound and (impotent) fury. The letter might as well have been labeled: "LeBron Shouldn't Tap."

Theologically speaking, many important lines of American religious thought crash together (Nascar style) here. Let me count the ways, or at least a few of them:

1) a critique of a culture of narcissism, with a jab at the "narcissistic, self-promotional build-up" to the televised special. Here, of course, we are into Christopher Lasch land, and I'll just point you to this series of posts by our contributor John Fea for more there. Coming from an NBA owner, naturally this is pot calling kettle black stuff, but I'm less interested here in the evident hypocrisy than in the adoption of a pluralistic world of theological motifs.

2) "The self-declared former 'King' will be taking the 'curse' with him down south. And until he does 'right' by Cleveland, James . . . will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma."

Where to begin?? We have Ham's curse together with allusions to some sort of witchery (presumably Pat Riley is the Wizard). We have a common sense view of fairness and justice, and a defensiveness about Cleveland reminiscent of the biblical verse about what good could ever come out of Nazareth. The end reference to karma is likely just cultural cliche, almost completely shorn now of its religious referent (similar to how the term "redemption" is commonly used -- "wow, he really redeemed himself with that putt on the 18th") -- but more charitably, I will assume owner Gilbert has read Stephen Prothero and Thomas Tweed's extensive primary source volume Asian Religions in America, and thus speaks from a profound knowledge of the extensive influence from the nineteenth century forward of Asian religious concepts on the American psyche.

3) Weirdly juxtaposed alongside the abundant Arminian references to assured salvation and the bitterly expressed communal utopianism (guaranteeing that long-suffering Cleveland fans will enjoy the championship hardware before the false prophet LeBron ever does) is a profound aphorism of Hardshell Baptist theology:

"Some people think they should go to heaven but not have to DIE to get there."

I can hear the Appalachian preacher's end-of-line punctuation point -- "ha" -- at the end there, and the capitalization and thus verbal emphasis on DIE comes straight from many a camp meeting sermon a la Kentucky ca. 1805. But more likely, owner Gilbert got this theology via the way everyone else got it in the 1970s, from the Steve Miller Band's "Big Old Jet Airliner," with the line about having to go through hell before you get to heaven. Dante would have been singing along.

Finally, there is the emphasis from Romans 13, about all things working together for good. As Gilbert explains, "This heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called 'curse' on Cleveland, Ohio." Here, the false prophet has been exposed and driven out of town, and the alleged salvation that the prophet would bring can now be seen as just another sacrifice for Baal. The prophet was a conjuror, casting a spell and bringing the curse with the fetish bag of chalk powder (or whatever that white stuff was) thrown up before every game. Those fans who burned the jerseys understood that purification is the communal expiation to rid the last vestiges of the evil and witchery of the false prophet/conjuror. As the slaves sang, "Old Satan is a liar and a conjurer too, If you don't mind, he'll conjure you."

(Needless to say, the burning also calls to mind some of the most disturbing images of American history; for a much more serious analysis of that issue and the whole aspect of the hyperbolic anger directed at a routine business decision, see Tenured Radical's post "A Meditation on the American Way of Rage").

There's much, much more here, theologically speaking, and I invite comments to add to the mix. Until then, goodbye to the people I trusted. LeBron will get rich(er), for sure, but in the meantime he'll get busted.


Paul, very well done. This is public religious studies at its finest!

Over at the Tenured Radical, she has a great post on the role of anger in all of this and anger in our culture/history generally. Combining yalls two posts makes me think about the religious role of anger. It's a deeply sacred emotion--whether its righteous, malignant, hateful, etc. I'm up to my ears in the colonial section of Ahlstrom and I keep coming back to the role of righteous indignation in the various church and sectarian splits in the colonies. What was the role of anger in Puritan oustings of Baptists, Quakers, and other nefarious Christians?

And now I'm way off of the topic.

Oh, and be sure to start all of your posts with "Mike Altman..."
Paul Harvey said…
Mike: Just saw her post (and added a link so people can find it) -- hope you'll follow up here by making this comment into a post!
Art said…
What Mike said, especially his point about how all future posts should begin (ha). While we're extending boundaries, does this mean that Nike will make LeBron Miami's “chosen one” now?
Art said…
Bad link, try this:
Anonymous said…
This is awesome! Very funny.
Seth Dowland said…
Brilliant, Paul. I say we need more hardshell Baptist theology in sports. Or that we have it already and just don't know it. After all, how else can we make sense of the suffering?

I also think there's something to say (religiously) about Gilbert's play on the word "witness," as in, Lebron's witness to the faithful of northeastern Ohio just lost its magic...

Nothing says business like Comic Sans font.
Matt Sutton said…
Paul: brilliant stuff. One of your best posts ever!
Christopher said…
Awesome, Paul. I've been pricked in the heart and feel to repent over my anger. To whom should I confess?
matt b said…
Dang, Paul, I was going to add to my series of theological analyses of basketball (starting here:, but you've nailed the angle I was thinking - about James as a savior/scapegoat, and the functions by which he produces salvation has been lost - Seth's observation of the word 'witness' here is clearly key, as is the frequent use of James's nicknames: King, Chosen One, etc. There's something there, certainly.
Paul Harvey said…
Matt B.: Go for it. I've barely scratched the surface, there's plenty of analysis to go around here. I'd love to hear your thoughts at length -- would love to post here as well.
matt b said…
You got it. Give me an hour.
deg said…
Sorry, bit of an outsider here on this one. What's a "basketball"?
Paul Harvey said…
Deg: it's a "soccer" ball, only it dribbles and you get to use your hands.
Eric M. said…
Also, since LeBron left George Steinbrenner and Harvey Pekar have died; both Clevelanders. Maybe the curse is still there. I'll leave the theological implications to others, but Drew Cary better watch out.

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