Categories
Christianity culture

Kobe, Worship, and Us

It didn’t take long in the aftermath of Kobe Bryant’s death, and the outpouring of eulogies and sorrow that quickly followed, for me to hear what has become a popular refrain among conservative evangelical Christians. “Can you believe this amount of sadness for an athlete? This just goes to show what an idolatrous culture we live in. People worship Kobe. They should be worshiping God!”

Yes, it’s all true. The level of society-wide grief for the death of an athlete does point in some degree to how sports is its own quasi-religion. We’ve seen already how the floodgates of disordered love can obscure a person’s full, fallen humanity, and result in hagiography that may or may not punish those this person sinned against. And yes, what you’re seeing is indeed a form of worship. There is only One who’s worthy of it, and we ought never be embarrassed to say so.

Yes. But…

Listening to some evangelicals respond this way makes me wonder whether we fully appreciate our cultural moment, and whether we understand what’s really happening in a public spectacle such as Kobe’s death. As overwhelming as the media coverage and hashtags were, I came away not primarily irked at American idolatry of sports heroes but instead conscious of something I think is important. Our era of Western life is an era in which not just worship of the true God is scarce, but the idea of worship is implicitly and explicitly ridiculed. The mechanisms of life in our modern, mobile, digitized, secular age work against the very elements of worship, including admiration. Just as Lewis wrote that nature did not teach him that God was glorious but instead gave the word “glory” meaning for him, admiration—of created things, including fallen people—trains human beings to be able to respond in worship to what is actually worthy of it.

Admiration, the emotional response hardwired into the soul when it encounters something that moves it, is undermined often nowadays. Consider the transformation the smartphone has brought to the art gallery, as visitors stand in the presence of true greatness, snap a quick pic or selfie, and then quickly move on to the next exceptional piece. Anyone who has visited a national landmark in the last 10 years can attest to how modern people now “consume” awe-inspiring landscapes or architecture via their phones, rather than sit in silent admiration of them.

Admiration is the seed of worship because it teaches a responsive attention. To admire a sheer, deluging waterfall is to stand in its presence and know that not only is it beautiful, but that its beauty is good for me. Is the modern culture we see before us one that helps us to admire in this way? Or is it one that rapidly evaluates how well a particular beauty can help us get Likes, or make us “cultured,” or affirms our own self-esteem?

It’s often said that Americans worship celebrities. That’s undoubtedly true. But as cancel culture now demonstrates, even the most dazzling stars now fit in the palms of our hands or laptop screens. Admiration for actors, artists, performers, and even politicians is subject to how well they remain in the public favor, how well they say the right things at the right times and never run afoul of the “rules.” Besides, human admiration fades parallel to memory. Records are broken. Beautiful people get old. This too is the conditional admiration, the worship that ultimately depends on how much the worshipers can get out of the ceremony.

That’s why I found the cultural lament for Kobe Bryant somewhat hopeful. Where some evangelicals see idolatry, I see a flickering ember of something that looks like true admiration, the responsive attention to greatness that must exist in every heart that would feel this toward its Maker. That even people who never wore his jersey or cheered his team would feel sadness and a sense of “there’s-something-wrong-with-this-world” at his death is a sign that our technology and our politics have not fully extinguished our souls’ ability to stand in the presence of something and say, “This is good.” I suppose my thinking is that even love that is misdirected is better than love that is never directed anywhere at all. A room with a poor view still reminds us that there’s such a thing as outside; a hall of mirrors cannot do that.

It’s been reported that the morning of the crash, Bryant and his daughter Gianna went to Mass. I very much hope that’s the case, and I very much hope that they were at Mass for this very reason: to sit in the presence of who is truly worthy of worship, to receive his beauty and grace and truth, and to say, “Yes, this is good, and good for me.” We should all pray that the morning of our deaths would find us like that—and our lives, too.

Categories
culture journalism

A Cancel Culture Nightmare

While the vast majority of social media was lamenting the shocking death of Kobe Bryant, something very different was happening to Washington Post reported Felicia Sonmez. I’m writing about it only because how it illustrates the radical effect that online culture has on our perception of everything, even an untimely death of an athlete.

A couple hours after Bryant and his daughter Gianna were confirmed dead in a helicopter crash in California, Sonmez posted an article, not written by her, about the 2003 sexual assault allegations against Bryant. This appears to be the first thing Sonmez posted on Twitter related to Bryant’s death (an important point that I’ll explain in a moment). Within minutes of having posted the link to the article—titled “Kobe Bryant’s Disturbing Rape Case: the DNA Evidence, the Accuser’s Story, and the Half-Confession”—Sonmez was besieged with hundreds of angry replies, criticizing her for bringing the allegations up while everyone was reeling from the news. The replies kept coming and escalated in tone and viciousness, and Sonmez was quickly at the bottom of a social media pile-on. Clearly taken aback by the reaction, Sonmez doubled down, explaining why it was legitimate to talk about the rape accusation, and shaming her online critics by sharing a screenshot of her email inbox, which was filled with some pretty vile sentiments.

The next morning news broke that the Post had suspended Sonmez. Reputedly the suspension is due to her posting a screenshot of her inbox, which revealed the full names of some of her critics. I’ve got no idea if that’s really why she was suspended. It seems more likely to me that the Post did what a lot of employers have done in the social media age: Panic in response to a mob.

But here’s what I’ve taken from all this. This episode is one of the most thorough and illuminating examples I’ve ever seen of just how dysfunctional discourse is when it’s conditioned by technology like Twitter. Every single player in this story looks bad.

First, there’s Sonmez. Of course Sonmez has every right to link to a piece about Bryant’s rape allegations. And those allegations are important and remain important even in the aftermath of tragedy. But Sonmez knew exactly what she was doing by posting the article when she did. Everyone who knows the culture of social media at all knows why someone who had been absolutely silent about a celebrity’s stunning death to that point would post an article like that: in order to reshape the narrative. In the world of Twitter, not even news of someone’s death exists as an objective, actual thing. In the world of Twitter, something only matters to the degree that it participates in the story you want to tell. You know that this is a conditioning effect of social media by imagining someone marching to the middle of a vigil for Kobe Bryant, standing on a soapbox, and yelling about his rape allegations. Such an action would be considered unspeakably crude and unfeeling, not to mention stunningly foolish. Yet this kind of thing is common on social media (not to mention applauded). That’s how disorienting the digital timeline is.

Second, there’s the mob that came after her. Sonmez was unquestionably the target of horrific attacks. These sorts of shame storms tend to only get worse as time goes on and the angry crowd pivots from expressing outrage to trying to accomplish something with it (a firing, a doxxing, etc). How ironic is it that the vox populi of the internet sends death threats and slurs in defense of a celebrity’s reputation? But that’s the moral logic of the online jungle. It’s the same for conservatives and liberals alike, men and women alike, articulate and otherwise. There’s a gravitational pull to online nastiness that seems to cut through every kind of inhibition we have. It’s not enough to disagree. We must destroy. This sure sounds like the recipe for some kind of civilization collapse.

Finally, there’s the Washington Post. The decision to suspend Sonmez is ridiculous. Sonmez was insensitive and unwise, but at the end of the day the only transgression the Post really cared about was her being the target of an outrage campaign. Her suspension, like many other online-reactive disciplinary actions before it, does two lamentable things. First, and most importantly, it sends encouragement and affirmation to online bullies, especially ones that know how to effectively troll. Second, it now gives Sonmez a credible victim narrative and distorts the extent to which her ordeal was merely a twist of fate for someone who in a moment of volatile emotions tried to cancel and ended up getting canceled herself. Nothing excuses the harassment that Sonmez experienced. Nonetheless, there’s a valuable parable in the spectacle of a journalist miscalculating her ability to reshape a public narrative. But that lesson is lost in the aftermath of another bad decision to threaten someone’s livelihood over an unwise social media moment.

This is the state of journalism and of public discourse in 2020. This is the state of our culture’s ability to grieve the loss of life. God help us.