American Idolatry: The King James Version

By M. Cooper Harriss
18 Jul 2010

Some Americans have “a thing” for the Decalogue, displaying it publicly – wherever a court injunction for its removal might be evaded – alongside American flags and presidential portraits.

Early in these ten commandments, we learn that YHWH forbids idolatry: “Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, nor serve them” (Exodus 20.4-5). The foregoing translation comes from the “Authorized” or “King James” version of the Bible.

Recently another “King James” loomed large: LeBron James, the American basketball player announced his intentions to leave his “hometown” Cleveland Cavaliers (James is an Akron, Ohio native) to sign with the Miami Heat in the most scrutinized and hyperbolized free agent signing in American sporting history.

The ordeal that came to be known as “LeBronikah” serves as a broad critical accounting of our days and our distractions, and simultaneously offers an intriguing opportunity for exploring the religious valences of this profane festival of highlights.

James’s nicknames – the biblically evocative “King James” and the Messianic “Chosen One” – carry heavy religious inflections. Nike, who pays James more than he’ll ever make playing basketball to wear and hawk its paraphernalia, advertises that “We are all witnesses” to James’s miracles, though they fall short of encouraging us to tell no one of what we have seen.

More fascinating is the willingness of other actors to play along. Shortly after the announcement, Dan Gilbert, majority owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, posted an incensed open letter on the team’s website, mocking James’s authenticity to the point of demythologization (he places “King,” “witnessed,” and other adulatory language in scare quotes) and offering a soteriological critique of his former employee (“Some people think they should go to heaven but NOT have to die to get there”) before weighing in on the blessing and the curse of the entire situation: But the good news is that this heartless and callous action can only serve as the antidote to the so-called "curse" on Cleveland, Ohio.

The self-declared former "King" will be taking the "curse" with him down south. And until he does "right" by Cleveland and Ohio, James (and the town where he plays) will unfortunately own this dreaded spell and bad karma.

Curses, atonement, scapegoating, and even karma appear in the theological buckshot of Gilbert’s remarks. Such harsh words might prove gratifying were they not also the calculated attempt of a man who has profited immeasurably from James’s popularity and success over the past seven years to capitalize upon public outrage in his team’s favor. His demythologization, arriving in the wake of a free agent’s freely-made decision to depart, not only rings hollow but becomes doubly problematic when one considers that he, James’s “owner” in a system frequently compared to antebellum plantations, was more than willing to reap riches from his metaphysical “baller” for the better part of a decade, and hoped to continue doing so for the foreseeable future.

James became the new scapegoat for Cleveland and Ohio, a suffering region that, the pundits say, has seen better days and sorely needs the hope that James represented. Appropriately, the decision initiated rites of sacrifice as fans burned number 23 James jerseys to purify themselves of the betrayal. The Internet plays an interesting role in this ritualization of grief.

The sports website Deadspin compiled more than a dozen videos from YouTube of fans burning James’s jersey. Gawker, Deadspin’s sister site, noted a growing trend of homemade videos in which fans filmed their (distraught) reactions to James’s decision as the announcement happened, bringing the proverbial sackcloth and ashes to YouTube’s mandate to “broadcast yourself” in almost real time – an interesting twenty-first century revision of traditionally conceived modes of public outcry and communal mourning.

What, finally, does the LeBron James decision say about our present cultural occasion? It reveals idolatry, to be sure, in how we find distraction in less-than-ultimate concerns and delude ourselves into believing that the idol is without fracture; that money, agility, and fame matter more in the grander scheme of justice than compassion, humanity, and love.

But, while true, such diagnoses avoid the more trenchant valences of this occasion. Sightings periodically turns to sporting events because they reflect something profound about peoples’ cultural imaginations. Christian Sheppard’s observations about baseball and American football, and Joseph Price’s reflections upon the Super Bowl, for instance, suggest that the highest levels of athletic competition reveal something transcendent in human striving – virtue, courage, the sanctification of national identity.

Following their examples, then, we are left to measure what this all means: the manufactured outrage over disloyalty, our marketplace of allegiances as fans, idols, and saviours. What do such properties convey about the social order we inhabit, which we reflect in the myths we create, and destroy, together? Nike has this much right: We are all witnesses. Accordingly, may we neither bear such witness falsely nor overlook the insights that these myths reveal.

References:

Dan Gilbert’s open letter may be found here: http://www.nba.com/cavaliers/news/gilbert_letter_100708.html

For more on comparisons of the NBA’s division of labour to American slavery, please see Mark Anthony Neal’s Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic (London and New York: Routledge, 2002).

http://deadspin.com/5583347/a-lebron+jersey+burning+video-roundup (Please note: Deadspin features satire that some readers may find crass or vulgar.)

http://gawker.com/5582924/here-are-people-overreacting-to-lebron-james-d...

Read Christian Sheppard here: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_...

http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_...

Read Joseph Price here: http://divinity.uchicago.edu/martycenter/publications/sightings/archive_...

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© M. Cooper Harriss, a former junior fellow in the Martin Marty Center and editor of The Religion and Culture Web Forum, is a Ph.D candidate in Religion and Literature at the University of Chicago Divinity School. In August 2010 he becomes Visiting Assistant Professor of Race and Religion in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech, Virginia, USA.

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