Thursday, January 07, 2010

The gospel according to Brit Hume (Sunday Reflections for January 10, 2010)

Since we live in a secular culture, religion does not have a defined place and it can pop up anywhere. One of its most recent public eruptions involved FOX newsman Brit Hume. He created a hullabaloo last week by providing on-air spiritual advice for Tiger Woods. In Hume’s view, Woods is most in need of the “forgiveness and redemption” which only “the Christian faith” can provide. Or at least it provides it much better, in Hume’s view, than the Buddhism that Woods reportedly practices. A lively discussion of Hume’s comments has broken out among other news people, comedians, bloggers, and religious commentators.

There are so many things that are odd about this story it’s hard to know where to begin. Even in that, it tells us something our culture and our confusion about spirituality and religion. The first thing to remember about Hume’s comments is its context, a news talk show, and the second is the subject, the marital infidelity of a pro-golfer. What are these two things even doing together? For better or for worse, many 24-7 cable channels fill in their schedules with what is little more than water cooler conversation. Supposedly smart people sit around and talk, often about whatever pops into their heads.

Then, of course, there is the popular obsession with celebrities. Just as we gossip about our neighbors or coworkers, we enjoy talking about the outsized lives of entertainers, professional athletes and anyone else who manages to get them self in the national media spotlight (including the “famous for being famous”). A talk show like this one is an example of a common twist on this phenomenon, which is basically celebrities talking about other celebrities.

Seeing only the Hume clip, I don’t know how Woods came up in the conversation in the first place. The rest of the panel did seem a bit stunned by the earnestness of Hume’s comments, however. Hume expressed great admiration for Woods as a golfer and as a “person.” The latter seems strange and rather artificial. Hume never indicated he personally knows Woods or really has any relationship with him. Woods has been notoriously protective of his private life (ending only recently with his very public driveway car crash), projecting a carefully managed but rather two-dimensional image through his product endorsements. Beyond his golf, Woods really hasn’t tried to be much of a role model, except perhaps as a savvy businessman.

So without any real personal relationship with Woods, it would seem Hume really took this as an opportunity for some old-fashioned evangelical witness, talking more to his TV audience than to Woods. And that brings us to Hume’s own story. He is now semi-retired. Among the things he said he wanted to do by working less was spend more time with his family and work on his recently revived faith life. Hume is himself divorced and remarried, so this may partially explain his interest in Woods’ domestic problems.

Hume also lost a son to suicide and this he credits with renewing his interest in religion. He specifically cited this event as leading to his own experience of the forgiveness and redemption which he believes Woods now needs to “recover as a person.” Hume is certainly sincere in describing his own experience of personal transformation. However, he has fallen into a trap most of us are susceptible to, which is to assume that something that was of great value and importance to us should be the same for everyone else.

What does Tiger Woods need right now? I have no idea and I can’t imagine Brit Hume knows either. Evangelicalism often views Christian faith as a life saver, as a way to fix our personal flat tires. This is the experience of Amazing Grace: “I once was lost but now am found; was blind but now I see.” “Jesus saves” the billboards and bumper stickers tell us.

Of course, this is a genuine experience for many and a legitimate and valuable part of the Christian life. Yet not every Christian has such an experience and Christianity is much more than this. So I have a problem with Hume’s simplistic message to Woods: you have a big problem and should become a Christian to fix it. Such thinking over-simplifies Christianity, over-simplifies the person who is Tiger Woods, and over-simplifies life.

Christianity is not primarily, I don’t believe, about “fixing” things. It is a way of life that more often than not shows us how to live with all the stuff that can’t be fixed. Things in our lives “break” all the time and most of them can’t be put back together. Living by faith and grace helps us leave behind what’s broken and move on, rather than endlessly grieving and obsessing. We find the energy and courage to start anew. We internalize the gospel story of life arising from death. We learn to live with hope.

Can Woods save his marriage or family, as Hume is so concerned that he do? Maybe, maybe not. For one thing, it’s not just up to him. And becoming a Christian certainly won’t guarantee that or any other outcome. I don’t know a lot about Buddhism but I do know it has the spiritual resources that can lead to personal renewal and transformation, if they’re used and if that’s what’s needed. But perhaps what Woods needs is marriage counseling or psychotherapy or new meds or a vacation or a slap upside the head or . . . none of the above. We can’t know and we haven’t been asked.

Being entertained by celebrity pratfalls is mostly harmless. Schadenfreude, getting pleasure from others’ misfortunes, probably has been a human trait for a long time. In the media realm, however, perspectives get distorted and we can lose sense of what is genuinely meaningful and important. The salacious stories of celebrity lives rarely are.

In general, I don’t think media attention does religion much good either. The British broadcaster, Malcolm Muggeridge, who became a Christian in his later life, believed media—especially TV—distorts everything it touches. He once described a “fourth temptation” in which the devil offers Jesus a primetime broadcast. Jesus declines that temptation, as well. In most instances, the already unreal nature of celebrity life isn’t clarified by the media but made even more sensational and bizarre. It shouldn’t be surprising then that what the media tells us about the depth and complexity of spiritual life usually isn’t very helpful, either.

Update: Christianity Today published online today an interview with Brit Hume. I found two things of interest. One was his immediate assumption of the persecution mantle, a badge of honor for many evangelicals. He describes his experience as being "mocked for his faith" and yet I have found little that resembles a personal attack on him. The other comes near the end when he's asked if he attends church. Like so many contemporary Christians, the simple answer is "No." He attends "home church" and participates in men's Bible studies. In my experience, such groups also tend toward a more therapeutic, self-help oriented form of Christianity.


Anonymous said...

hmm, didn't Buddha talk about karma?
If that won't stop you, what will?

Is he inviting Tiger to his home church?

David Mc

Diane said...

great commentary! I think that this is a legitimate expression of Brit Hume's faith, and he certainly has the right to "witness", but the justaposition is odd. TV commentator/evangelical witness. Is this supposed to be an opinion piece?

Anonymous said...

Keep posting stuff like this i really like it