For a number of years now, I’ve been a subscriber to “USA Today” … that newspaper which, went it first came onto the scene, was characterized as a ‘paper for those who can’t understand television news’. I first got hooked on this paper for its very nice crossword puzzle … challenging enough to keep me thinking … one which if I really work at it, I can complete almost every day. That led to actually reading the news therein, and I found it to be interesting. It’s not the definitive New York Times by any stretch … but it does actually try to portray the news from a neutral view, which is refreshing.
I look forward to Mondays because the Op Ed page is dedicated to an article on current religious thought. This past Monday, writer Michael Medved took his opportunity to write a piece on what he called the “War on religious gestures.” In particular he cited the mild uproar that exists around quarterback Tim Tebow’s penchant for making various religious gestures after scoring for his team. Medved argues that it’s a general and unoffensive habit that simply recognizes the fact that the talent and drive to become a great football star comes from God and he is humble enough to admit it publicly. To tell you the truth, I’m not terribly offended by these actions. And they are not new … as a kid, I remember my Catholic friends making the sign of the Cross every time they jumped into the public swimming pool in Wilkes Barre. And at the level some of them swam, it was perhaps a good idea to invoke the protection of the Almighty before jumping into the water!
OK. So far, so good. But then, to show that people from time in memorial have made these public gestures of faith, he cites the fact that most of the works of J.S. Bach have the autograph S.D.G. somewhere in the score. This is absolutely true. The letters stand for “Soli Deo Gloria” … to God alone the Glory. Somehow the connection here does not go where Mr. Medved would like to think it does. On the surface, it might seem so, since we’re comparing one of the greatest sports figures of our time to one of the greatest composers of all time. But that’s not the whole story.
When considering Johann Sebastian, Mr. Medved forgets that Bach was a little known, small town musician all his life. If there were a few thousand people in all the world who knew of his work … that would be a lot. Only one set of six Chorale preludes for organ (the “Schubler” Chorales) were ever published commercially in Bach’s lifetime. The master himself, had his “Klavierubung” published by subscription. Fewer than a hundred were purchased and none contained the SDG inscription. The world would have to wait another hundred years before Mendelssohn discovered the great St. Matthew Passion, performed it in London and placed Bach in the pantheon of the greatest composers of all time. In fact, Bach worked most of his life in the church, and when he did not, he worked for nobility, usually as their Kapellmeister … master of the Chapel music, and incidentally, the conductor and composer for the court. Bach’s life was lived in deeply humble service to his God and his church. The SDG inscription was never seen beyond those who actually performed the music, and most often it was only on the score which Bach himself used … not on the orchestra parts or in a service leaflet or program. It was a deeply personal dedication … like the man in the Bible who when he wished to pray, went into the closet. And so, it was done in a completely different spirit than the public displays of faith currently popular among athletes.
As I said at the beginning … I don’t really have a lot of objection to anyone showing their faith publicly. I think a lot of us from the ‘mainline church’ might do well to loosen up a bit and be willing to speak of our faith publicly. In large part it is the reason ‘conservative mega-churches’ grow and we don’t … because we’re not willing to go out and tell folks what we have in our church that they need in their lives! But in the end, to compare a sports figure’s public expression of faith to the life of the immortal Bach … a man of faith, true piety and deep humility … is not worthy and demeans the life of one of the great churchmen of all time. The athletes of whom we speak are still young … their stories largely unwritten. Let’s see what they do when at age 35 or so they retire with all those millions of dollars they have earned (playing a game they would have played for free if they weren’t in the NFL) and see what kind of stewards they are with the talents they have been entrusted. Will they ultimately make the world a better place … or will they simply use up their resources selfishly. Bach’s resources were a well of talent and energy that he transformed into music, which, more than 300 years later is still inspiring humanity and witnessing to his faith. Will our rich sports idols do as well for mankind. I sincerely hope so … but I’m not holding my breath!
Go team, GO!