Basketball Jesus

May 14, 2008 |George Halitzka

We catch a fellow Christian doing something we don't think is right. What might our response be?

I was munching on a chicken sandwich when Jennifer introduced me to Basketball Jesus.

Jennifer was an editor at our local "alternative weekly" (alt-weekly) newspaper. Your city probably has one — it's the free paper you pick up at coffee shops; it usually covers local arts and entertainment. Often, they also write about politics from a liberal slant. And it's not unusual for them to accept immoral ads, for everything up to and including escort services.

So when I said, "I want to write for you," Jennifer was taken aback. I mean, I'd sent her writing samples from Christian magazines.

"Have you read our paper?" she asked pointedly, as we sat down for lunch.

Yeah, and that's why I wanted to write for them. If Christians are going to impact culture, we can't spend all our time on Boundless articles.See Mark 2:13-17 for Jesus' take on the subject.

But Jennifer wasn't convinced. She eyed me cautiously.

"Let me tell you about a photo we ran a few months ago," she said. "We found a picture of Jesus and photoshopped it into an image of a basketball court. So on our cover, it looked like Jesus was slam-dunking. The headline read, 'The real god in our city.'"

Well, they weren't really bashing Jesus, I thought. They just meant sports can be a form of idolatry. I'm OK with that.

Jennifer continued. "The week we ran that image, some Christians called our office and told us we were all going to hell. Then a Believer who delivers our papers said he can't do it anymore, because it would go against his faith.

"So," she asked again, "are you sure you want to write for us?"

"I'm sure," I smiled. She couldn't scare me away. I pitched Jennifer some article ideas, and right now, I'm working on a series where I visit different churches and write about their worship. I pray God will use it to nudge people towards him.As always, the stories are true, but names and details have been changed to protect the guilty.

But let's be honest with each other. You, gentle reader, may be thinking I'm a heathen reprobate. After all, I write for a (1) liberal publication that (2) runs ads for escort services and (3) puts Jesus irreverently on the cover!

As for me, when Jennifer talked about the guy who stopped delivering their papers, I thought, "It's prudes like him that give Christians a bad name! How does he expect to impact the culture for Christ?"

It's funny how obedience looks so different to people following the same Jesus. Just ask the Corinthians.

The Meat Market

Have you ever met folks who think R-rated movies are a tool of the devil? Or setting foot inside a bar is sinful, and voting Democrat means supporting baby-killers? If you ever question the views of those "Super-Saints," they'll cheerfully tell you how unspiritual you are.

Maybe on the flip side, you've encountered Believers who vote straight Democrat (because Big Oil has Republicans in their back pocket). They enjoy slasher movies and have nothing against a good chugging contest. When you wonder about their shady lifestyle, they scoff at your "legalism."

For 2000 years, Christians have argued over stuff that isn't covered in the Bible — only the topics have changed. In ancient Corinth, the disagreement was over meat.

Imagine that it's a beautiful Saturday morning in 57 A.D. You're headed for the Corinthian meat market with a craving for barbeque ribs. But as you begin to drool, a thought suddenly strikes you:

You have no idea if this pork was sacrificed on the altar of Aphrodite.

Uh-oh. You know a lot of meat in town was slaughtered as part of idol worship. You're new to this "Christian" thing, and you're afraid Jesus might punish you if you use your grocery money to support other gods. So you ask the butcher about it.

"Can you tell me if these pork ribs came from Aphrodite's temple?"

"They sure did," says the guy in the bloody apron.

Dangit — and you could almost taste that barbeque sauce. "Well, how about the beef?"

"Probably so — I'm not sure," he says.

"The chicken — is that safe?"

"It didn't come from Aphrodite. One of the other shrines, I think...."

If you don't relax your standards, it looks like you're about to become a vegan. But you want to be a good Christian, so reluctantly, you walk across the street and buy peanut butter.

Just down the block, however, you spot one of the elders from your church. Dave's arms are loaded down with meat! Pork chops, beef steaks, a whole turkey — everything you just avoided! He tells the shopkeeper that he doesn't like Aphrodite, but he sure enjoys her ham.

As you walk home with your peanut butter, you pray that God will strike Dave with lightning.

The next morning, Dave appears at church, looking annoyingly well-fed. But then he stands up and says that Paul, the apostle-guy everybody talks about, has just written a letter to your church! Wouldn't you know it — Paul mentions pork chops.

The apostle lived in Corinth for a while, so he knows most of the meat in town was offered to an idol first. He also realizes the local gods are complete fakes, so the sacrificial status of your filet mignon doesn't concern him.

But he doesn't want people to assume that if Christians (like Dave) are eating idol-meat, it's OK to worship Aphrodite. Paul asserts that on issues where God hasn't given a direct command — meat vs. peanut butter; Harry Potter vs. Veggie Tales — let your conscience be your guide.

"On debatable issues, don't criticize people who make a different choice than you," says Paul. "God's the one who judges us all."See Romans 14:2-4.

Look Out for Kevin

So let's return to the present — specifically, to my heathen occupation of writing for alt-weeklies. Unless you can show me a verse that says "Thou shalt not submit to alternative newspapers," I'll keep doing my bit to redeem culture.

Our friend who wouldn't deliver the Basketball Jesus issue sees life differently. Until he reads, "Thou shalt continue thy deliveries, even when thy Savior slam-dunks on the cover," he'll stick up for God's holiness.

The interesting thing is, we may both be right.If you want to investigate all of Paul's writings on idol-meat, look up 1 Corinthians 8:1-13, 10:14-33; and Romans 14:1-23.

But what happens when a weak Christian — maybe somebody who's struggling with lust — sees my articles in that paper?

"If George-the-Christian writes for this rag," he may think, "that must mean the racy ads in the back are OK! Maybe I'll try one of the phone sex services...."

I hope nobody's that dense. But it's always a risk.

A couple years back, I was speaking at the winter retreat for my church's singles group. On Saturday after a teaching session, Jake and Heather, two nonbelievers who'd been invited by a friend, went into the hotel bar and ordered drinks.

That's no big deal, I thought. They aren't getting drunk. Besides, you can't expect non-Christians to act like they know Jesus.

Half an hour later I walked by the bar again. Now Jane and Amy, two Believers from our group, were sitting in there too. They both had a margarita.

This might be a good testimony to the non-Christians, I thought. After all, Jesus drank wine sometimes. Jane and Amy are mature believers; they know better than to get tipsy.

An hour later, I noticed that about 15 people were sharing a table in the bar. I walked inside to see what was happening. I was concerned, but thought, this could still be OK ... until I spotted Kevin, one of the Christians in our group.

Kevin had a shot glass in front of him. From the looks of it, he'd already had too many refills. His friend Kelly was trying to coax him to leave the bar; he refused and ordered another one. The people around him were staring, because he was well on the way to getting sloshed.

On a church retreat. With two nonbelievers sitting three seats away.

Kelly finally talked him into going back to his room. I was furious; couldn't believe what he'd done. I stalked down the hallway, already planning my "confronting-the-sinner" speech, to be delivered as soon as Kevin slept it off.

Then I realized something. People in our group knew Kevin was having a rough life at the time. Some of us even knew alcohol was a temptation for him. But we went into the bar anyway.

"Hey, what about freedom in Christ?" you say. "Kevin was the only one sinning!"

Not quite. Paul says that the rest of us were, too.

"I'm free to chow on pork chops dedicated to Aphrodite," he says. "But if my dinner makes a weaker brother-in-Christ fall into idol worship, I am sinning against Jesus."My paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 8:9-13.

Oops.

Now, let me make one thing clear. Paul is not talking about — as one of my Bible college professors put it — a "professionally-weaker brother."

Let's say a Christian friend with a conviction against dancing says, "How dare you do the Hokey-Pokey! You're making me stumble into sin!"

Get real! You aren't causing her any problems; she'll never set foot on the dance floor. She just wants to impose her opinion on you.

But if you grab a drink when Kevin's around — and once he starts ordering shots, you don't put your beer down long enough to guide him out of the bar — it's a different story.

Our whole group let Kevin fall into sin on that winter retreat. What's more, we dived in along with him.

What About God?

Do you ever wish Paul had been more specific with his advice? I mean, couldn't he cover some topics besides idol-meat — in a lot more depth?

"Thou shalt not watch R-rated films, unless they feature only naughty words, with no violence or nudity."

"Thou mayest write for alt-weeklies, but only on Fridays with a full moon."

Unfortunately, Paul believed that if we understood how much Jesus loved us, we'd want to glorify him above all.See 1 Corinthians 10:31-33. So when making choices among shades of gray, we ought to do OK.

Uh-huh. Let's be honest: following rules would be much easier.

"The Grand Inquisitor" is a fable set during the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Author Fyodor Dostoyevsky takes the liberty of having Christ himself appear in the medieval city of Seville. Jesus comes to the funeral of a young girl, takes her hand, and raises her from the dead!

Unfortunately, his miracle attracts the attention of the Grand Inquisitor — the man overseeing the reign of terror. He is the one who executes "heretics" in the name of God. The Inquisitor arrests Jesus on the spot, and confronts him with his offense: overestimating human nature.

"Your so-called 'grace' is horribly unfair," the Inquisitor says. "Oh, it works for a few; for the rare saints blessed with uncommon faith and courage. But the masses cannot comprehend so great a salvation. Sheep who hardly know the meaning of love will not shoulder the burden of Choice.

"And so the Church has taken it upon ourselves to set things right. The people desire Law over Freedom. They plead for an easier path to righteousness. So we supply commandments and formulas; punishments for the slightest deviation; clear direction where you have left them to struggle.

"They are content, because not one man in a thousand comprehends your love. Not one in a million lets his gratitude for your sacrifice penetrate his soul. Fear — yes, fear drives them to obey. Fear of punishment from the dread Inquisitor.

"But you expect people to choose glorifying God over pleasing themselves," the Inquisitor scoffs. "You desire them to act in love. It is an empty hope."As anyone who's familiar with "The Grand Inquisitor" (a chapter in The Brothers Karamazov) will notice, I'm not quoting directly from the book. Rather, I've condensed and paraphrased the Inquisitor's words.

Throughout this entire speech, Jesus is silent, as he was speechless before his accusers in Jerusalem. The Inquisitor says that he plans to burn Jesus at the stake with the other "heretics" who question the legalism of the church.

But then, Jesus rises to his feet. In a profound act of love, he kisses the bitter old Inquisitor on his wrinkled cheek.

The man is completely unprepared. He who proclaims the futility of grace has just received it. And somewhere in the hidden abscess of his heart, in some part untouched by all his bitter years, Jesus reaches his soul. So when the Inquisitor experiences grace, he can't help but express it in return.

He opens the prison cell wide. "Go," he says. And Jesus walks to freedom.

As Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor knew so well, living by rules is easy. Living by grace is hard. Demonstrating concern for others in our community is much more difficult than obeying a moral code.

But perhaps when we see the love of God in all its fullness, making God-honoring choices will become possible. Perhaps grace can bring us the freedom to serve Jesus fearlessly, and live without bondage.

If the Grand Inquisitor could be motivated by love, maybe we can be, too.

Copyright 2008 George Halitzka. All rights reserved.

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