The Theology of Stevie Johnson
I PRAISE YOU 24/7!!!!!! AND THIS HOW YOU DO ME!!!!! YOU EXPECT ME TO LEARN FROM THIS??? HOW???!!! ILL NEVER FORGET THIS!! EVER!!! THX THO…
Wide receiver Stevie Johnson, of the Buffalo Bills sports team, to God, after Johnson dropped a potential game-winning touchdown pass. He said this some time ago on Twitter, which is especially interesting. I don’t know if God follows Stevie Johnson on Twitter. Presumably, God — being omniscient — would know of the tweet and its content regardless of whether or not He was following Johnson, even if Johnson’s twitter feed was locked.
What do you suppose that means, then, if God did decide to follow someone on Twitter? Just a sort of divine affirmation, I suppose. God’s way of saying, “I hear the cries of all people, but I just wanted to make sure you, Stevie Johnson, knew that I have a particular interest.”
The fact of God’s omniscience makes a tweet like this seem a little redundant, really. If God is everywhere, and knows everything, why would tweeting your disappointment in the Supreme Being’s lack of commitment to a Bills victory be in any way superior to just saying it out loud? Or thinking it?
It seems reasonable that a man, in a fit of agonized helplessness — for instance, if he’d just spent the last of his savings fixing the transmission in his car so that he could keep his lousy job at the chicken factory and not lose the insurance that he needs to pay for his daughter’s kidney operation, only to see that car get destroyed in a rainstorm when an old oak tree falls on it — might shout out angrily at God. ”Damn you, God!” he might say. But it seems to strain belief that such a man would then go back in the house, fire up the Twitter, and tell his 3,000 followers about it.
Unless, of course, in some way all statements about God are social affirmations. Is it possible that for Stevie Johnson, speaking about God is not necessarily prayer — or, rather, not entirely prayer — but is in small or large part a way of identifying with or connecting to the similarly-religious-minded folk that make up his fanbase? This certainly makes a good deal of sense, since it’s often the case that the same sort of people who make it a habit of invoking God regarding all of their daily activities — whether football-related or not — do so in a publicly vociferous way.
If Johnson is of the sort of folk who are always going on about the many opportunities that God has set out for them, and how grateful they are for the success that God has granted them, then it stands to reason that when Johnson had a problem with God, he’d want everyone to know about it. It’s one of the benefits of religion, I suppose, that in addition to the personal spiritual aspect, it strongly encourages a social aspect.
This seems like a contrast to Matthew 6:6 (“When you pray, go into your room, close the door”), but perhaps there were historical contextual reasons for why Matthew thought people should keep their faith private.
In any case, this does lead to the obvious and most glaring potential problem with Johnson’s theology. Namely: the implication that, because Johnson has praised God “24/7″ (I suspect this is an exaggeration), God has some responsibility to make sure that Johnson catches all of his potential game-winning touchdown passes.
I want to be clear on this, too, because it’s not like the ball was coming into Johnson’s hands and a sudden and inexplicable gust of wind sent it off course, or a lightning bolt came from a clear sky and destroyed it, or a giant eagle swooped down and snatched it away — any one of which we might tentatively label as a miraculous intervention. No, Johnson dropped it — meaning that he doesn’t just expect God to NOT screw up his chances of winning a football game, but that he actually expects God to intervene on his behalf.
One of the challenges, I suspect, of a religion that promotes a personal relationship with God is that God must have an equally personal relationship with your most bitter enemy. Football, after all, is a zero-sum game — if God can’t make winners out of everyone, it stands to reason that it must be God’s love that’s made Stevie Johnson a loser.
Martin Luther once famously claimed that reason was the enemy of faith, justifying it along these lines: that no reasonable man could understand how God could have a divine hatred of man’s sin — a hatred necessarily infinite in depth — and simultaneously have an infinite capacity to forgive that sin. Reasonable men simply couldn’t fathom the idea that bad people didn’t need to be punished, that God could simply forgive without demanding anything in return.
In a way, Stevie Johnson seems to espouse the theology of the reasonable man: the one that says, if I give something, I should get something. Prayer for God is not a spontaneous expression of unconditional love for the creator, but a quid pro quo, an economic exchange of praise for football success. This seems like a pretty common, and a pretty problematic feature of a lot of modern Christianity, and I can absolutely see why. It’s pretty hard to stand behind the traditional institutional positions of “You should praise God because you’re grateful, you schmuck” (possibly best embodied by Edwards’ famous sermon, the crux of which, if I may paraphrase is something like, “You should just be happy God hasn’t just annihilated the world and cast you into an eternity of stinking fire).
It’s hard to stand behind that position, when on the other hand there is an abundance of churches who say flat out that the adoration of God is going to yield material success. Do for God — give him praise and worship — and he will do for you. Of course, it’s easy for a wealthy and successful football player to hold on to an idea like that — God, after all, mostly has done for him. And, fortunately for Johnson’s church, people like Johnson ARE very vocal about the part that God plays in their success, thus reinforcing the idea that God and success are directly related.
Of course, the Bible is littered with stories about men who loved God but didn’t get very much for it; Job is the most well-known, but it’s not like the kings of Israel generally fared much better, and they were a divinely-appointed household. The bitter fact that successful football players don’t like to accept is that other people work hard and love God, too. It must be frightening to think about how much your career depends on lucky chance — for a wide receiver, you’re what? One car accident, one bad patch of ice, a trip, a fall, an overzealous fan with a gun — so close to losing your career forever. And for what? Not because you failed, because you screwed up, because you weren’t good enough, but just bad luck.
It must be infinitely more comforting to imagine that God is looking out for you, in such circumstances, and simultaneously infinitely more frightening to be reminded that He isn’t.
I imagine that this is the motivation behind banishing reason entirely, especially if reason is sometimes conflated with pride; the idea of “submission” — as in, “submission to the will of God” — is a central feature of Islam, and why? Ironically, because it is the only reasonable position: one cannot bargain or barter with Gods (the Greeks understood this also, which is why holding sacrifices hostage was only ever the subject of comedies). The world is a dangerous and unlucky place, and to demand from it, rather than to give to it, is to court tragedy.
Equally, when we consider Thomas Merton and his interest in Buddhist prayer techniques — which often shun the idea that you can pray to GET something — or The Cloud of Unknowing, we start to see that the object of devout prayer is not transactionary, but meant specifically to avoid those thought process that might make it a transaction. It’s human nature, after all, to presume reciprocity; to offer to give is to immediately imagine receiving, and therefore the object of prayer is to teach the mind to give freely and to suppress the feeling that requires compensation for that giving.
The futility of reprimanding God for failing to intercede on your behalf during a football game is probably apparent, even to Johnson, which is why he immediately shifts to a consolation transaction. If his prayers couldn’t earn him victory, at least they can earn him a valuable lesson, right? This seems like a further mistake in apprehending the nature of the divinely-ordered universe: maybe there’s a lesson in everything, but sometimes that lesson just isn’t for you. Or, perhaps like Job, sometimes that lesson is, “Where were you when I made the hippopotamus?”
The idea that there’s a lesson to be learned from this failure is still ultimately one that relies on the idea that the supplicant deserves SOMETHING for all that work, and it’s reinforced by Johnson’s point that he’ll never forget this. Obviously, he can’t be talking about real learning here, because the POINT of real lessons is that you never forget them. If you forgot the event that caused you to learn something, then you wouldn’t have learned it.
“Learning a lesson at God’s hands”, in Johnson’s theology, CAN’T be a tool for self-improvement. It is, instead, an ameliorative; the phrase “I’ll learn from this” isn’t literally true, it’s a balm meant to permit him to forget the humiliation of his failure. That’s precisely what’s so troubling about this particular failure, too: it is SO intense and SO humiliating, that the traditional comfort of “God wants me to learn something from this” is insufficient to respond to his feelings on the subject. He cannot understand how he can “learn from this,” by which he means he cannot understand how he can stop feeling bad about this, and so he has at once translated this into a failure on God’s behalf to construct a scenario in which the lesson is completely plain.
Ultimately, I think the “THANKS THO” part of the tweet is kind of half-hearted. I’m imposing my own ideas on this, I know, but I just don’t feel like he means it. When you’ve spent your whole life thanking God for everything, you probably just do it automatically even when you criticise Him. As though it’s impossible to speak directly to God, whether via Twitter or any other means, without appending at least a courtesy “Thank you for creating the entire universe and everything in it, all of which permits me to not just have a life — which would be a miracle in itself — but to have an exceptionally successful life.”
Or else, should we suppose that Johnson is hedging his bets? It seems fairly obvious that he wants to express his anger at God’s willingness to throw an entire football game just to teach Stevie Johnson a lesson the point of which is fairly unclear — but perhaps he wants to make sure that he hasn’t poisoned the deity’s mind for future requests.