Saturday, December 12, 2009

Tiger Woods: A Lesson in Idolatry

The media loves a good scandal, so we shouldn’t be surprised that so much attention has been focused on Tiger Woods’ sexual shenanigans. Add to it the ability to interact online, and the fire continues to be fed, from preaching to off-color jokes to those jaded critics of media overload screaming: “Enough already!”

And questions – lots of them. What will happen to Tiger? Will his wife rewrite their prenup, or just plain leave? What does this say about sports, celebrity, media? More importantly: What does this say about us?

Like all celebrities, Tiger Woods was put up on a pedestal. We didn’t just respect his skill as a golfer, we practically revered him. We made him an idol. When that idol let us down, we tore him down. And, as with all forms of idolatry, we brought ourselves down in the process.

Idolatry to me is not merely the worship of a false god, or putting Creation ahead of the Creator. It is more deeply and profoundly the transposition of means and ends; it is becoming so focused and fixated on the means by which we seek to achieve our highest goals, that we forget those ideal ends themselves.

Tiger Woods is an incredible athlete, both for his talent and his discipline. When we lifted him up as a role model, it was with the hope that our young people would also strive to do the same – to find what they love to do, and develop the discipline to aspire to excellence. Too often, however, we simply admired him rather than aspired for ourselves. One has to wonder if this was the case with the women who became entangled in this mess, not to mention those who enabled Tiger’s destructive course of behavior. Was the idea of being close to Tiger, of being able to satisfy his whims, so powerfully addictive that it became more important than the very principles and values which he seemed to embody?

And what of Tiger himself? Did the adulation of fans, the culture of instant gratification which surrounds so many celebrities, cause him to steer off track? I’m not trying to excuse his behavior, but to understand it. How does a man who learned from his father the discipline necessary to become the youngest Masters winner in history, make such a mess of his personal life?

Idolatry is all too easy, not only for the celebrities who can get whatever (or whomever) they want on a whim, but for all of us caught up in the illusions of our consumer culture. It is, to borrow from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a form of cheap grace – an illusion that all we aspire for and desire is easily accessible, “sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares” without considering their true cost.

Tiger Woods had plenty of people around him to encourage, enable and (until now) cover up his indiscretions. Let’s hope he will now surround himself with people who can help him get back on track and heal the damage done to his family. More importantly, let us all strive to find the courage and develop the discipline to deal with the myriad ways in which idolatry has infected our culture and our souls.

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