Living in Ohio, the words: "tattoo," "scandal," "lies" and "integrity" have been a daily part of my conversation for the past few months. Ohio is a state that lives, breathes and eats Buckeye football. As can be expected, the events surrounding Jim Tressel will affect our state psyche for years to come. Tressel's lies about player's tattoos and his cover up have rattled Buckeye nation in deeper ways than Lebron James leaving Cleveland for Miami ever could.
As a campus minister, who spent most of my time at Ohio State while serving as the University Interfaith president for a year, I have intimate and deep connections at the university. I have had a lot of conversations with friends, colleagues and students about the events of the past few months. The words shock, surprise and disappointment have now joined our football vocabulary.
Truth be told, none of us thought we would ever be here. We thought Tressel was incorruptible, a paragon of moral virtues who never bowed to the pressure of winning a football game at the expense of moral fortitude. The last few months have slapped us in the face with our misplaced faith in the man.
This is especially true among the Christians in the Buckeye state. Tressel started bible studies, wrote books about character values, and preached integrity in all things. He spoke at Christian rallies, talked about the importance of his faith, and how much it influenced his life.
Tressel had become the darling of the Christian world in our state. He became the personification of that curious American creature that is part sports hero and part religious icon.
The Tressel Icon has now become tarnished beyond repair. Christians are left stunned because another one of our idols has fallen flat on his human face. These feelings come out through either unreasonably defending Tressel's actions or throwing him to the wolves to be eaten alive for his lack of integrity.
I'll confess, I have gone back and forth between the two extremes.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that Tressel is just a guy, a man, a human being. He is not the idol I created because he is subject to every temptation, pressure and sin of every normal human being. In fact, Tressel lines up with nearly all of the so called "heroes of the faith" as presented in the Bible.
The idolization of Tressel and his downfall tells us a gruesome story about American Christianity. There is an old parable, (That Tressel quotes in one of his books) that what we do in private is a true measure of our character. I have always thought this parable is fairly useless as it is commonly used. It's a morality test that every one of us would fail.
I think a better test of our character and what we value comes when we examine our heroes and idols. Who we spend the most time talking about and holding up standards for our lives tells us much more about who we are as people.
Christians (and others) held up Tressel as an idol or moral superior. In doing so it shows who we really are and what we value. Too often I, and other Christians, have used the moral superiority argument with atheists and other religions. We are saddened when our idols go toppling to the ground because their feet are made of clay.
The Tressel debacle shows us how much American Christians are in love with fame because we think it gives us some sort of credibility. We think if someone famous bows their name to Christ, it automatically gives Jesus badly needed street cred. If Snooki ever came to Christ, we would rush her out on talk shows, write books and speak at Christian events that focus on the evils of a party life style.
We strangle Christian celebrities for their credibility instead of caring for them as people. Why? We do it because we are scared and doubtful and because being famous is more important. We fight against that fear by sacrificing famous people to the gods of fame and credibility.
It's a sick and twisted view of how we are in American Christianity. It shows us that we value fame, credibility and even more, moral values more than we value Christ. We value our image more than we value the lives of people. Instead of taking St. Paul's words to heart about lifting up Christ, we lift up golden calves as our gods and goddesses. And then, when the idol is crushed, we rush up to kick it, bash it and spit on it because it didn't fulfill us. We never stop to think it was us who created the idol in the first place.
I hate what Tressel did. I hate that he lied. But even more, I hate that I put him in a position to break my heart so much. He should never have been there in the first place. Tressel is just a guy, a good football coach who messed up for a variety of reasons. He should never have been my idol and it's not fair to blame him for my own sin, the sin of making an idol in my life.
I really hope the Tressel situation will really make us as Christians examine our whole point of view on our icons by asking the questions: Are they icons for the right reasons? Are they icons because they are poor in spirit, meek, peacemakers who admit their sins, weaknesses, Are they servants, lovers of God and humans, or good neighbors?
Or are they icons because they are famous, supposedly moral, powerful, and influential?
The nature of the Gospel tells us who should be in our icon gallery, those who are like Christ. Those who know they are sinners, admit it, and brag to the world about their failures. When we get to that point, Tressel and the long list of Christian celebrities will no longer haunt us. We will know they are fellow patients under the same Physician with no special powers to fight temptation. We will know they are having one of their "bad days" that all of us have and that they need extra care. We will drop our stones and embrace the naked prostitute, because she is us, in need of grace and the love of Christ. We will no longer blame the celebrities for our own failings. We will no longer be shamed in the public eye because Christ will be our focus, not moral values, fame or celebrity.