Friday, February 17, 2012

Being a Christian and Linsane

Yao and Lin in Taiwan

Last Thursday I did not know Jeremy Lin. Since then I can’t have enough of him. I watched the Knicks games online, check out, searched YouTube for his replays, and read the extensive coverage of this Chinese American phenom in the Chinese newspaper World News and news websites.

Even his grandmother in Taiwan was interviewed for the New York Times. President Barack Obama, an avid basketball fan, talked about Linsanity with his staff. The Big Apple becomes Lin-city—all in just ten day!
Why this craziness? The cover of Sports Illustrated says it all. The cover photo is Jeremy Lin guarded by five Lakers players, with Kobe Bryant coming behind him. Lin scored a career-high 38 points and outdueling Bryant. The caption on the cover reads, “Against all odds: The sudden and spectacular ascent of Jeremy Lin.”

Watching Lin is fun. He is like a spinning top. His last-second 3-pointer beating Raptors was mesmerizing. He smiles after his spectacular shots and pumps his fists. We smile with him and enjoy the ride.

Onto his 6’ 3” and 200-pound body, many scripts have been projected, since we can look at his unexpected rise from so many angles at the intersections of race, gender, nation, sports, and faith.

The fact that he is the first American of Taiwanese or Chinese descent to excel at the NBA is no small matter.

China won 51 gold medals at the 2008 Summer Olympics. The men won shooting, weightlifting, diving, gymnastics, table tennis, badminton, canoeing, and swimming. They excelled in events that the bodies don’t even touch each other’s.

Nation and manhood are often intertwined in popular imagination. Chinese men have been called “the sick men of East Asia” for a long time. China’s national soccer team has become a laughing stock and a disgrace. Can Chinese men compete in physical games in which bodies collide and crush into each other?

Before Lin, we had Yao. But Yao Ming is exceptional. He is 7’ 6”. He was groomed nationally to be a basketball star.

Lin is Linderella. No one gave him a chance, even though he captained his Palo Alto High School team to a state title and led his Harvard team to the best records in the team’s history.

Now, everyone wants to claim a piece of Linsane. Asian Americans and Canadians wore T-shirts with his name to the games and rooted for him instead of for the home teams. Some Asian American women in New York went to sport bars to watch Lincredible even though they seldom watch basketball. His family underscores his Taiwanese background since both his parents came from Taiwan. But China claims him too since his maternal grandmother grew up in Zhejiang.

David Brooks in today’s New York Times looks at competitiveness in sports not through the national narrative, but through the lens of religion. Lin was brought up in a Christian home and became a Christian when he was a freshman in high school. He founded and led a Bible study group when he was at Harvard.

Brooks writes, “The moral ethos of sports is in tension with the moral ethos of faith, whether Jewish, Christian or Muslim.” He says that modern sports emphasize assertion, competitiveness, and the display of prowess. Religion teaches humility, self-abnegation, and serving as an instrument for a larger cause.

So Brooks has not heard about a muscular Christianity that has been promoted in some circles. Jesus was depicted as a muscular, tattooed biker and boxer, ready to take on the world. This muscular Christianity has been bolstered by books such as No More Christian Nice Guy and The Church Impotent—Feminization of Christianity. This brand of Christianity is gaining grounds not only in American South but also in England to give Christian men a macho model.

If Brooks has simply googled Bible and sports, he would find that there are many Bible verses that tell us about how to become good athletes, touching on competition, preparation, winning, losing, and sportsmanship. “Do you know that in a race that the runners all compete, but only one receives a prize? Run in such a way that you may win it” (I Cor. 9:24). “Fight the good fight of faith” (I Tim 6:12). “And in the case of an athlete, no one is crowned without competing according to the rules” (II Tim 2:5).

Brooks has also misunderstood sports. Humility, unselfishness, and caring for the team rather than focusing on the self are essential winning qualities for team sports. Shaquille O’Neal had to humbly admit that his free throw shooting was one of his major weaknesses and improved on it over his career. Michael Jordan became great not simply because of his great athleticism and talent. He reached a mythical status when in his mature years, he knew how to be a team leader and made everybody around him play better.

In a 2010 interview in which Lin talked about his faith, he said, “For me to put more of an emphasis on my attitude and the way that I play, rather than my stats or whether we win a championship. I learned more about a godly work ethic and a godly attitude, in terms of being humble, putting others above yourself, being respectful to refs and opponents.” Such an attitude will serve him well and Linsanity will continue to spark and linspire.