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Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (2 of 2)

Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are wonderful novels displaying the human condition in all its beauty and complexity. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky fundamentally describe humanity in different ways, one positive and another negative. This blog series is an attempt at uncovering what the authors were trying to communicate in regards to what is wrong with humanity and what will make it right. Last week we looked at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and this week we are looking at Dostoevsky’s outlook on humanity in Crime and Punishment.

A Murderer 

Crime and Punishment and Anna Karenina differ in many ways. Dostoevsky is focusing in on a poor urban area of St. Petersburg as opposed to the aristocratic quarters of Moscow or the countryside. This setting brings with it a darker look at the effects poverty can have on a society and the psychological stresses it puts on individuals. Crime and Punishment is a murder mystery, but the murderer is not the mystery, the psychological motive of the murderer is the mystery. Although there is a cat and mouse chase between the criminal Raskolnikov and the detective Porfiry, the reader is trying to figure out why Raskolnikov killed his neighborhood pawnbroker and her younger sister. Raskolnikov is an intelligent student who is currently taking a break from the University. Most of his time is spent in his poor apartment, the size of a closet, thinking through what he is about to do and then after the act, why he has done it. Raskolnikov has this theory that there are two types of people, the ordinary and the extraordinary. The ordinary are those who follow the customs and laws of the present in a citizen like fashion. The extraordinary are the few in history that lead the masses out of an old way of doing things into a new way. If the extraordinary way involves people dying, so be it, the future state of humanity will be better for it. Raskolnikov used Napoleon as an example of one who is extraordinary, forgetting armies in Egypt and taking thousands of lives in the name of human progress. Raskolnikov sees himself as a Napoleon type, an extraordinary human. His target is a pawnbroker who rips off poor people to the advancement of her wealth. He hopes to take the cash and goods from this pawnbroker and give them to the poor. Raskolnikov kills the pawn broker and is forced to kill her younger sister as well because she showed up at the wrong time. Its as if the younger sister is just a casualty of war, the cost of doing justice to the neighborhood. Joseph Frank comments on Raskolnikov while he is in this state of mind: “It is not only that his ideas run counter to the instinctive promptings of his moral-emotive sensibility; these ideas momentarily transform him into someone for whom moral conscience ceases to operate as part of his personality” (Frank, 489).

As the novel unfolds, clearly Raskolnikov did not murder the pawnbroker as a twisted way to execute social justice. He killed her because of his ego. Frank goes on to explain, “…he killed not for the altruistic-humanitarian motives he believed he was acting upon but solely because of a purely selfish need to test his own strength” (485). Raskolnikov comes to this awareness and is horrified by it. The reader is thrown through an emotional seesaw by seeing the dichotomy of Raskolnikov’s character. On the one hand he gives away money to the poorest of the poor so they can live and on the other hand, he takes the life of the rich in his neighborhood so his ego can live. There is this back and forth of what seems to be selflessness and selfishness, but even the small flickers of selflessness are shown to be a sham by Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky shows us a man who is beyond repair, even his best actions are as filthy rags compared to genuine goodness. But, there is Sonya!

A Harlot 

Sonya is the daughter of a drunk unemployed man with a large family. The children are starving and her father is not a good provider. There seems to be no immediate work for Sonya outside of prostitution and by sacrificing herself, her father continues to drink and her family is fed. Sonya is a complete outsider and one of her only friends was the pawnbroker’s daughter. She is sad over the lost of her friend and humiliated by her desperate situation. Raskolnikov comes to know her father and ends up being there at their home when Sonya’s father dies of an accident related to his drunkenness. Raskolnikov is aware of Sonya’s occupation and later comes to her because he feels like he cannot confide in anyone else. There they are in Sonya’s room, harlot and murderer, and Raskolnikov wants to know how she has the power to continually give sacrificially of herself so others can flourish? A Christian, Sonya shares her faith through the personalized reading of Lazarus’ revivification in the gospel account. This affected Raskolnikov and would eventually help lead him to repentance. Through a series of events, Raskolnikov finds himself back at the room of Sonya and she challenges Raskolnikov to repent and to embrace suffering. He has no other options outside taking his life and being a fugitive, neither are reasonable in light of what he has done and what Sonya has offered him. He has transgressed the law and is not above it, and yet someone close to him who owes him contrary to what he receives sticks with him through it all. He is an ordinary man and will only find resurrection through the unmerited love and affection of another. It is this type of grace Raskolnikov experiences from Sonya. She should have avenged her friend’s death and yet she entered Raskolnikov’s suffering, even by following him all the way to Siberia where he was imprisoned and eventually converted. Writing on this, Ernest Gordan wrote:

“By her faith the power of Grace that brought Lazarus from the corruption of the grave is repeated in the experience of Raskolnikov. He has the assurance that by this Grace he will be forgiven at the Last Judgment. He is thus liberated from the bondage of sin, guilt, and fear (Ernest Gordon, xiii).

Dostoevsky’s Outlook on Humanity 

Dostoevsky’s outlook on humanity is negative, there is nothing in humanity that will enable humans to fix themselves of the curse of sin. Tolstoy’s view of humanity, which was: Humans are able to correct their morality to the degree they align to proper belief structures contrasts Dostoevsky’s view of humanity: The inability to correct human morality outside a human’s experience of monumental grace. What makes Sonya’s grace monumental, is how she differs from Raskolnikov. Frank explains their difference well:

On the one side, there is the ethic of Christian agape, the total, immediate, and unconditional sacrifice of self that is the law of Sonya’s being (and Dostoevsky’s own highest value); on the other, there is Raskolnikov’s rational Utilitarian ethic, which justifies the sacrifice of others for the sake of the greater social good (Frank, 501-502).

What the reader finds in Sonya is a woman who continually thinks outside of herself to meet the needs of others. This was Dostoevsky’s highest value of humanity, and it only came through the experience of monumental grace. Sonya could only offer it to Raskolnikov because she had experienced it in a personal way through Christ. Christ did not abandon her in her suffering, he called her to repentance and then went with her in her suffering all the way to her furthest inner prison. It is this Grace that enabled Sonya to love Raskolnikov as she had been loved, not based on what was deserved, but loving contra-conditionally. Karl Notzel wrote in a German edition of The Gospel in Dostoevsky: Selections from His Works  “In his last great masterpieces Dostoyevsky shows the wounded soul the way to healing, which is to be unavenging. Such a person is thereby immediately immune to attack –– to the helpless amazement of all” (Notzel,192). Sonya is amazing to the reader, and it is her amazement that enables Roskolnikov to repent and embrace suffering for evil deeds. The amount of suffering was no longer crushing in light of the experience of grace, Dostoevsky writes:

But she was so happy that she almost became frightened of her happiness. Seven years, only seven years! At the beginning of their happiness there were moments when they were both ready to look at those seven years as if they were seven days (Dostoevsky, 550-551).

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky

In conclusion, Tolstoy has a positive outlook on humanity in the sense that whatever moral ills humans have, it is not beyond the individual to make itself well. This differs dramatically from Dostoevsky negative outlook on humanity. He views humanity as totally unable to heal itself, there must be an outside force applying pressure. The type of pressure that leaves genuine and lasting change is grace. Grace is defined as receiving contrary to what one deserves. The fundamental difference between the authors is articulated well by Mathews-Green when she writes, “Life is not sugar-coated in Tolstoy’s works; terrible things take place. But it can be argued that he lacks the profound understanding of evil that makes Dostoevsky’s work so powerful” (Mathews-Green, p. 580). Both Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are powerful, they both offer a way of living that will be more beneficial than if they were not read at all. Yet, I think a hybrid of the two views of humanity would be appropriate for living. To be humble enough to know that true and lasting change will not happen in life apart from experiencing monumental acts of grace; and then to be sober enough to realize that happiness will not come in the realization of inordinate desires, but in a soul that is oriented on God and not on self.

Works Cited in Both Post

Dostoevsky, Fyodor. Crime and Punishment. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.

Frank, Joseph. Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010.

Notzel, Karl; Muggeridge, Malcolm; Paker, J.I. Paker. Gordon, James. The Gospel in Dostoyevsky: Selections from His Works. Rifton: The Plough Publishing House, 2011.

Reynolds, John Mark. The Great Books Reader: Excerpts And Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization. Bloomington: Bethany House, 2011.

Mathews-Green, Frederica “On Anna Karenina”  (From The Great Books Reader)

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. New York: Penguin Group, 2000.

Yancey, Philip. “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount.” Christianity Today: July 17, 1975.

Tolstoy & Dostoevsky: On Genuine and Lasting Change (1 of 2)

How will you face tomorrow? What will atone for all the wrong you have ever done? These are the questions of two major characters in Western Literature, Levin and Raskolnikov. Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment are wonderful novels displaying the human condition in all its beauty and complexity. Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky fundamentally describe humanity in different ways, one positive and another negative. My next two blog posts are attempts at uncovering what the authors were trying to communicate in regards to what is wrong with humanity and what will make it right. Today we will look at Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina and next week we will compare and contrast Tolstoy’s outlook on humanity with Dostoevsky’s outlook in Crime and Punishment.

In Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy has written one of the best novels of all time; a story of grave individual conflict and societal consequences. Tolstoy’s artistry to depict the human condition and the world in which it lives is not outdone by many. There is a reason why this story continues to grab the imaginations of it’s readers. The settings keep the reader’s interest with force as it travels back and forth from the urban centers of nineteenth century Russia to the aristocratic farmlands. The plot of calamity and resolution is acted out by some of the most memorable characters of Russian literature. Yet, it is not only what Tolstoy brings to the table in regards to masterful descriptions and identifiable characters; it is Tolstoy’s genius of realism that threads all of the parts together to amount to a piece of literature that will continue to mold and shape minds and hearts for centuries to come.

Familial infidelity, unmet expectations, religious skepticism and the chase of inordinate desires light up the pages of Anna Karenina. Tolstoy writes of two families, one that dies and another that lives. Anna kills her marriage to Alexei Karenin by running away with a younger man, Alexei Vronsky. Levin, a countryman, wins the heart of his future wife Kitty, although through much adversity produced by Kitty’s earlier love for Vronsky (Anna’s later adulterous lover). Through these marriages Tolstoy gives us a vision of human experience, that of plight and resolution. Much can and ought to be said about all of these characters, but Levin will be the focus of seeing Tolstoy’s thoughts on humanity.

Levin: Suicide, Skepticism and Reorientation

Levin owns an estate in the country away from what he would call the Babylonian nature of Moscow. His character is conservitive and morally upright, yet he is free enough to chase love until it crushes him. In the beginning of the novel, Levin is devastated by Kitty’s refusal of his proposal because she was enchanted by Vronsky. Later after Vronsky breaks Kitty’s heart with his infatuation for Anna, Levin eventually marries Kitty. However, he is eventually ruined again by unmet expectations for family life and a crippling skepticism that leaves him in suicidal despair because he cannot find answers to the most important questions of faith and the divine. Tolstoy describes this despair when he writes: “. . . Levin was several times so close to suicide that he hid a rope lest he hang himself with it, and was afraid to go about with a rifle lest he shoot himself . . . he lived not knowing and not seeing any possibility of knowing what he was and why he was living in the world” (Tolstoy, 789 & 791). Here is a man who is teetering on the cliff of his existence.  He has a young family he has always dreamed of having and yet there is a darkness over his life that feels like it will never lift. How is Levin changed? How is he restored? What is the solution to the obvious plight of man through Tolstoy’s eyes?

Levin does not give in to his inclinations to commit suicide, he finds the power within himself to continue living even when life is filled with thoughts of death. Then a different type of thought comes to his mind, an epiphany of life changing power: “. . . one should not live for one’s needs – that is, one should not live for what we understand, for what we’re drawn to, for what we want – but for something incomprehensible, for God, whom no one can either comprehend or define” (795). Levin was caught in a web of doubts because he inordinately wanted to have a comprehensive comprehension of who he was in relation to God. Yet, Levin finds relief and restoration through embracing his finitude in comparison to God’s infinite nature. Tolstoy’s vision of humanity’s restoration is that of reorientation to God, but where does the power to do so come from? Levin goes on to answer this question:

“I haven’t discovered anything. I’ve only found out what I know. I’ve understood that power which not only gave me life in the past but is giving me life now. I am freed from deception, I have found the master . . . but my life now, my whole life, regardless of all that may happen to me, every minute of it, is not only not meaningless, as it was before, but has the unquestionable meaning of the good which it is in my power to put into it” (796 & 817).

The circumstances of Levin’s suffering led him to the thought of needing to refocus his desires on God and not on self. Tolstoy’s vision of humanity is seen in Levin’s restoration of life and sanity; Levin is the one who held the power to exercise his faith and the reordering of his being away from himself towards his Creator. The Kingdom of God was within Levin and he was successful in unearthing and appropriating this power.

Can We Really Fix Ourselves?

Tolstoy’s outlook on humanity is definitely positive in the sense that although the world is a broken place, filled with broken people, it is not beyond repairing itself. John Mark Reynolds picks up on Tolstoy’s perception of humanity in a book he edited, titled The Great Books Reader, by writing:

“He shows us most of the errors we’re likely to commit in our personal lives, and he spares us nothing. However, he does not seem to believe in any original corruption . . . any sin that cannot be blamed on upbringing or bad personal choices. Can we really fix ourselves? Can we really see what needs to be seen and do what needs to be done? Tolstoy suggests we can, even though the road will be long and arduous” (Reynolds, 588).

Reynolds is quick to mention Tolstoy does not shy away from using his gift for realism in describing humanity’s personal errors, but at the same time questions Tolstoy’s ability to put forth a realistic solution to the depths of error humanity creates. When many people read Tolstoy, they accept his descriptions of plight solution in the same way his descriptions of plight are accepted. Why is this? Frederica Mathewes-Green writes in her article, “On Anna Karenina” within The Great Books Reader: Lionel “Trilling believes Tolstoy’s expectation – that there is some good in every ordinary person – feels to us like reality because it is the reality we want” (Mathewes-Green, 580). Trilling is talking about the good in which Tolstoy suggests Levin is able to tap into for the reorientation of his whole being as a way of resolution and restoration. If humanity can fix themselves, if the power for genuine and lasting change is within, then why did God need to come from heaven to earth in Jesus Christ to do a necessary work for humanity’s behalf? A biographer of Tolstoy expressed that he had a:

“fundamental theological inability to understand the Incarnation. His religion was ultimately a thing of law rather than of grace, a scheme for human betterment rather than a vision of God penetrating a fallen world” (A.N. Wilson, quoted in Yancey’s “Be Ye Perfect, More or Less: Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and the impossible Sermon on the Mount”).

Although Tolstoy might not dive deep enough into the Christian gospel as a means for restoration, he is right in his assessment of the dehumanizing effects of a heart that is not oriented on God. Tolstoy is not the only Russian author who is able to capture the realities of human experience. Dostoevsky, who thought Anna Karenina was a perfect piece of art, goes even deeper into the realm of human depravity and comes out with miraculous new creations of the self in Crime and Punishment. More on Dostoevsky next week!

Cyber Monday Hangover: Why Do They Always Get Me?

What Can We Learn from Cyber Monday? 

“Why do they always get me?” Have you ever thought these words after you had time to contemplate a purchase made on the internet? If not, chances are it will not be long until you do; that is, unless the topics from this post are understood and applied. Coming off of a Cyber Monday hangover, you might need to think through seven influential persuasive principals that might have been used against you. These principles are contrast, reciprocity, consistency, social proof, authority, liking and scarcity.  Robert B. Cialdini, an experienced psychologist and a crafty persuader came up with these principles in a popular resource on social influence. These principals will explore how many consumers are persuaded on the internet and how to look out for persuasive messages online.  To help us see how these principles work out a daily basis, we will look at how amazon.com incorporates all the influential persuasive principals. (amazon.com is just a case study). Let’s look at what contrast means and how it is applied online.

Contrast

What comes to mind when you read the word, contrast? I am sure you remember literature assignments where you were assigned to compare and contrast two stories or characters. In a similar way, contrast is used in internet persuasion. For example, once you are about to pay for a book at amazon.com, you will be offered a slight discount on a certain book you previously viewed and decided not to buy. In “contrast” to the total of let’s say, $150.00, the $9.00 book discounted to $7.50 seems like a good deal. Not only does it seem like a good deal, but in contrast to your total, it seems manageable to add the discounted book to the order by simply clicking the mouse. This is how contrast works, now let’s move to the persuasive principle of reciprocity.

Reciprocity

Have you ever walked through the food court and almost decided not to pay for lunch because of how many samples you ate? Well, believe it or not, the motive behind handing out small portions of tasty delights is not to feed the hungry, but to draw in potential business. Internet persuaders use reciprocation by providing a service or giving a product to a potential customer with the aim of getting their business in return. Amazon.com offers a unique feature for each book that allows the customer to view the front cover, table of contents, back cover and even the first chapter for free. By doing this, amazon.com introduces the product in a way that makes the customer feel safe, yet at the same time there is potential for interest to awaken in the customer due to the sneak peek. Yet, how does amazon.com move from reciprocity to closing the deal with many customers?

Consistency

Before seeing how amazon.com closes the deal, let’s dance around the topic of consistency. What enters your mind when you see someone acting in an inconsistent way? You probably are repulsed by their hypocrisy or on a lighter note, laugh at their character. Either way, no one wants to be around inconsistent people and they definitely do not want to be perceived as inconsistent. Amazon.com has picked up on this reality and is capitalizing on it as well. Amazon.com invites their customers to add books to what they call a cart, this is simply where the books selected are totaled up. However, there is always a chance to decline a purchase. Yet, when many customers add a book to their cart, they can’t decline the purchase because they want to remain consistent. Consistency is seen as a noble characteristic, but to one being persuaded, it can cause them to commit to buying a product they shouldn’t buy. What other influences come from the surrounding culture?

Social Proof

Can you remember how you were finally coerced into buying your first expensive drink from Star Bucks? I can, it happened when I noticed they were popping up all over town and seemed as if all my friends where meeting there regularly to catch up. It was not long until, I said to myself “if they all love Star Bucks, I can at least give it a shot.” Then it happened, I was hooked (Tall Pike with 4 packets of Splenda and 1/4” of half & half. Yeah, thats whats up!), but what persuaded me? Many things, but mainly it was the persuasive principle of social proof. “They are all doing it,” is the anthem of social proof and can persuade many by the masses. Amazon.com is no different, they have cultivated a culture of consumers who stay devoted and they indirectly sell for the persuader by telling their friends how much they saved, which in turn creates the dynamic of social proof. What about those who claim not to be influenced by their peers or at least see them as less credible?

Authority

The influential persuasive principal of authority easily answers this rebuttal. Have you ever looked up to an employer, professor or mentor in such a way that it seemed like whatever they said was “gospel truth?” Those in authority over us have a power of influence that is stronger than most.  A couple years ago, Amazon.com was trying to push their electronic reader Kindle and in the online add, it showed how newspapers could be downloaded to the device. The principle of authority was evident in seeing over 30% of the newspapers shown had President Obama on the front cover. Amazon.com was connecting Obama to the Kindle in an ancillary way, yet the connection was made nonetheless. All of us succumb to these principles, but our culture is heavily influenced by authority. At times some will be led in ways that are not criticized by those influenced because of the credentials of those influencing. As obvious as this technique is, there are going to be many who ask, “What if I am not a fan of President Obama?” This question points forward to the next section of online persuasion principles, liking.

Liking

What happens when you are in a group discussion with people you enjoy to be around, and it seems like they have all shared a particular experience you are unaware of? As they bounce their thoughts and opinions back and forth, you are left there thinking, “Should I google this right now?” The reason you thought this way was because you like the people you were around. Their subject gained instant credibility without you knowing it, so much so, you already committed to looking it up ASAP. On a more personal level, most of us trust our friends and can be persuaded in many facets by simply liking them. Amazon.com has seen a way to include the principle of liking into their persuasion strategy. They have done this by creating a place in the Amazon customer account that gives the customer a chance to create a public profile similar to Facebook where they can post reviews and other interests. Now you can see what your friends are saying about the books they’ve read. If your interested, a click of the mouse is all it takes to add the book to your cart. What happens if the book reviewed is only on sale for the day you read their review?

Scarcity 

It’s hard not to feel the tension and excitement that comes from walking into a store that is selling a famous toy or game system on the day it is supposed to come out and sell out. People are known to camp outside stores the night before to make sure they have a shot at purchasing whatever hot commodities are marketed. Yet, what is all the fuss about? Why go to such extremes for a game system or a toy (Pepper Spray)? The persuasion principle of scarcity shows us we can be wooed to the idea that we will be one of only a few who own a certain product that will shortly be discontinued for collectors sake or sold out during a special sale. Yet , the greatest scarcity tactic I have seen is not necessarily the ending of a product as much as the ending of a sale.  Amazon.com has a place on its website called Today’s Deals, and in this section they list numerous deals which only last for one day. To hype it up a bit, amazon.com will list one of the first few items as “sold out” to entice the viewer to hurry up and buy.  Have you fallen prey to a similar tactic?

What Now? 

What is it about learning these principles that makes us feel like we have been manipulated or tricked into buying products against our will? The reason we feel this way is because we never realized all the logos, fancy popup boxes, emails and free product testing were aiming at taking our money. As cold as it sounds, this is how marketing works. This is why caution needs to be applied to every click while we surf the web. The internet is full of marketing campaigns where we are the targets, not the benefactors; where we are the ones hunted, not served. Will you be more aware to online marketing techniques? How will you educate those around you to the reality that they are targets for persuasion?

NewSelf – Relaunch Nov 28th!

Its been a long time since the last post here on New Self.  The reasons for not posting for such a long time can be summed up by between Richard and myself we got bogged down with life and family and trying to keep up content became more of a chore than a pleasure and blessing.  So all the motivation dissipated.  All the while putting ideas, exhortations, encouragement, etc continued to be something I wanted to be putting up on a blog to hopefully help myself others draw closer to Christ.

A few weeks ago I started thinking about how I could start this thing back up and keep content coming but also not get overwhelmed or burn out to quickly.  Thus the idea of getting five guys together and spread the load.  The concept is simple.  Five guys each have one day to post each week.

New Self now has three additional posters beside Richard and myself.  They are a great group of guys I appreciate very much and personally look forward to what they have to post.  Check them out on the Bloggers page at the top of the screen or this link.  I am extremely excited as well as they are to get this going.  With five different guys posting it should bring a nice variety of styles and perspective.

So stay tuned for Nov 28th and to Him be the glory.

Manute Bol’s Radical Christianity

Original article in Wall Street Journal Online

[howbol]

By JON A. SHIELDS

As any churchgoer who tuned in to watch the recent NBA finals contest between the Lakers and Celtics already knows, the term redemption is probably now heard more often in NBA sports broadcasts than in homilies. A Google search under “redemption” and “NBA” generates approximately 2 million hits—more hits than “redemption” and “Christianity.” The term can also be found in more than 2,600 stories on ESPN.com.

What does redemption mean in the world of professional basketball and sports more broadly? It involves making up for—or, yes, “atoning”—for a poor performance. When the Lakers beat Boston, for instance, Bill Plaschke of the Los Angeles Times called the victory “redemption for the Celtics’ 2008 Finals beating.”

More often, though, sports journalists use the term to praise the individual performances of NBA superstars. Thus, the Associated Press reported that Kobe Bryant “found redemption” after he won a title in 2009 without the aid of his nemesis and former teammate Shaquille O’Neal.

Manute Bol, who died last week at the age of 47, is one player who never achieved redemption in the eyes of sports journalists. His life embodied an older, Christian conception of redemption that has been badly obscured by its current usage.

Bol, a Christian Sudanese immigrant, believed his life was a gift from God to be used in the service of others. As he put it to Sports Illustrated in 2004: “God guided me to America and gave me a good job. But he also gave me a heart so I would look back.”

He was not blessed, however, with great athletic gifts. As a center for the Washington Bullets, Bol was more spectacle than superstar. At 7 feet, 7 inches tall and 225 pounds, he was both the tallest and thinnest player in the league. He averaged a mere 2.6 points per game over the course of his career, though he was a successful shot blocker given that he towered over most NBA players.

Bol reportedly gave most of his fortune, estimated at $6 million, to aid Sudanese refugees. As one twitter feed aptly put it: “Most NBA cats go broke on cars, jewelry & groupies. Manute Bol went broke building hospitals.”

When his fortune dried up, Bol raised more money for charity by doing what most athletes would find humiliating: He turned himself into a humorous spectacle. Bol was hired, for example, as a horse jockey, hockey player and celebrity boxer. Some Americans simply found amusement in the absurdity of him on a horse or skates. And who could deny the comic potential of Bol boxing William “the Refrigerator” Perry, the 335-pound former defensive linemen of the Chicago Bears?

Bol agreed to be a clown. But he was not willing to be mocked for his own personal gain as so many reality-television stars are. Bol let himself be ridiculed on behalf of suffering strangers in the Sudan; he was a fool for Christ.

During his final years, Bol suffered more than mere mockery in the service of others. While he was doing relief work in the Sudan, he contracted a painful skin disease that ultimately contributed to his death.

Bol’s life and death throws into sharp relief the trivialized manner in which sports journalists employ the concept of redemption. In the world of sports media players are redeemed when they overcome some prior “humiliation” by playing well. Redemption then is deeply connected to personal gain and celebrity. It leads to fatter contracts, shoe endorsements, and adoring women.

Yet as Bol reminds us, the Christian understanding of redemption has always involved lowering and humbling oneself. It leads to suffering and even death.

It is of little surprise, then, that the sort of radical Christianity exemplified by Bol is rarely understood by sports journalists. For all its interest in the intimate details of players’ lives, the media has long been tone deaf to the way devout Christianity profoundly shapes some of them.

Obituary titles for Bol, for example, described him as a humanitarian rather than a Christian. The remarkable charity and personal character of other NBA players, including David Robinson, A. C. Green and Dwight Howard, are almost never explicitly connected to their own intense Christian faith. They are simply good guys.

Christian basketball players hope that their “little lights” shine in a league marked by rapacious consumption and marital infidelity. They could shine even brighter if sports journalists acknowledged that such players seek atonement and redemption in a far more profound way than mere athletic success.

Jon A. Shields is assistant professor of government at Claremont McKenna College.

Reformed Theology? There’s an App for That

Announcing the Ligonier App for iPhone & iPod Touch
by Karisa Schlehr

The new (and free) Ligonier App keeps you connected to the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul.

With the Ligonier App, you will be able to:

  • Listen to or watch the Renewing Your Mind daily broadcast and archive.
  • Read a daily Bible devotional.
  • Enjoy thousands of free messages, articles and devotionals in the Learn section.
  • View learning resources grouped by Topic, Teacher, Scripture or Type. You’ll find great teaching from leading pastors and theologians such as Alistair Begg, Sinclair Ferguson, John MacArthur, Albert Mohler, John Piper, Ravi Zacharias and many more.
  • Stay up-to-date with more articles, devotionals, and Ligonier Ministries news and events from our blog.

Plus, share anything you find with your friends on Facebook, Twitter or email.

Download the free Ligonier App in the iTunes App Store.

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