The Icon & the Idol

The glossy image of Tiger Woods on the cover of Vanity Fair clashes with grainy photos of a disheveled figure said to be Woods at a Mississippi rehab center. Tiger's story has been told as the fall of an icon, a trope for today's celebrities. Searching the terms Tiger Woods and icon yields almost 5 million results (Michael Jackson as icon gets over 30 million). In a typical comment, ESPN's golf analyst noted widespread "disappointment that one of our true sporting icons would find himself embroiled in such sordid controversy." But the icon narrative is flawed.

In their graceful book by the same title, Elizabeth Zelensky and Lela Gilbert explain that icons are images that Eastern Orthodox Christians contemplate as "windows to heaven." Yet for centuries and to this day, the veneration of icons has been misunderstood and even attacked as idol worship. In fact, icons are a way of transcending the material world and engaging the eternal realm, much like prayer beads or meditation. In other words, an icon is explicitly an aid to worship and not the focus of worship, which would be idolatry. This profound distinction, seemingly lost on our age, is at the heart of the Tiger Woods story.

From this perspective, there is no harm and much good in people regarding Woods as an iconic golfer. To watch him play is to contemplate transcendent athletic virtues of talent, strength, mastery, grace, concentration and will. The same goes for other icons of sport such as Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali. Their athleticism is elevated, and so they elevate those who appreciate and even revere them as athletes.

However, Tiger Woods was no mere icon, but the object of what George Vescey of the New York Times called the public's "sepulchral reverence toward golf deities." Our celebrity culture freights luminaries like Woods with the demand that they be more than exceptional athletes, artists or titans of industry and government. We are not content with human paragons of golf, music, technology or politics. Endowed with the pop culture virtues of athletic stardom, wealth and fame, our first billion-dollar athlete became an idol.

This is why celebrity scandals play out as epics of faith betrayed. First we are shocked and hurt when confronted by the tawdry humanity of Tiger Woods or Michael Jackson or Bill Clinton. Then we get angry and pivot to assigning blame. Some blame Tiger, others his marketing machine or the golfing industry. Mike Wise of the Washington Post accuses a culture of the elite athlete in which "infidelity isn't merely condoned, it's strongly encouraged." Finally, we look for excuses. His disciplined early life gave Tiger no chance to cut loose. He's a sex addict. He was trying to fill an emotional void. Ironically, these rituals further deface the fallen idol.

While marketers and the media bear some responsibility, we appear to be constitutionally susceptible to idolatry. Throughout history and across cultures, humanity has sought to transcend the material and engage the universal. We want to believe in something higher, above us and our world. And history is replete with cautionary tales of the catastrophic consequences of moral idolatry, the deification of material gods by individuals and societies.

What makes us act this way? Viktor Frankl wrote that human suffering behaves like a gas; any amount fills the entire space in the soul and conscious mind. From this perspective, life is a struggle to banish the pain that fills us. In today's decidedly secular culture, we place our faith in material salvations -- careers, relationships, wealth, possessions and social status. When these fail we turn to alcohol, drugs, sex and even violence. Our obsession with celebrity is the tribute we pay to a particularly potent idol - the digital image of a human as god.

The icon-idol conundrum is that our powerful affinity for veneration can be a blessing or a curse. The line between grace and corruption runs through each of us and where we invest our reverence is arguably the most important choice we can make as individuals and as a society. The good news, as Frankl writes, is that human joy also behaves like a gas. Even a bit fills you up in a moment of grace. The great secret of the icon is that we are surrounded in our everyday lives by people and things that can be windows to the sublime. The trick is to use them wisely; as passageways to venerating something worthy of our devotion.