Christian Athletes, Public Faith, and the Exclusivity of Jesus

Tom Krattenmaker doesn’t mind if Christianesque sports stars start their postgame interviews with general gratitude to a general god.  But he does mind the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob being real, the Bible being true, and Jesus being King.  And he does mind that athletes like Tim Tebow talk like it.

In his recent op-ed piece for USA Today entitled “And I’d Like to Thank God Almighty,” the author of Onward Christian Athletes acknowledges that Christian athletes are often model citizens doing good things in their communities.  And he agrees that people of faith should feel the freedom to express their faith.  Yet he argues that there is a particular wing of “conservative Christianity” that is theologically narrow and subsequently divisive, and he is concerned (enough to write books and articles) that this brand of Jesus-following is promoted by some prominent athletes who believe things like the exclusivity of Jesus for salvation and the reality of hell for those who reject Him.

Krattenmaker highlights this target group throughout the article.  It’s “a brand of conservative Christianity,” “a particular version of conservative Christianity,” “a one-truth evangelical campaign,” “a far-right theology,” and “a Jesus-or-else message.”  Krattenmaker isn’t against just any so-called “Christian.”  In fact, he implicitly agrees with the “65% of American Christians” who “believe that many religions can lead to eternal life” and whose “pluralism is a defining and positive reality of American life.”  These make up “the majority of American Christians” who offer a “more generous conception of salvation.”

Sadly, even though Krattenmaker claims to have “researched and thought about Christianity in sports for the better part of a decade,” he fails colossally to even define a biblical “Christian.”  This is understandable for the average guy with a blog and an opinion, but inexcusable for a credentialed journalist.  The primary source was certainly available to him, since it’s the most widely distributed piece of literature in the history of the printing press.  Maybe he gives a more accurate definition elsewhere, but he certainly doesn’t repeat it here, nor does he demonstrate any likelihood that he possesses such clarity.  This is more than unfortunate, because simply reading the primary source (the Bible) reveals that the Jesus-is-the-only-way message that Krattenmaker caricatures and then deplores is the actual message of Jesus, all over the gospels and from cover to cover in the New Testament.  He is the King, not an option or a view or an opinion, and those who proclaim His exclusivity do so in His name and in His stead.

The wonderful thing about the article is that Krattenmaker ultimately levels his sights at this central issue.  He objects, “If their take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which their creed boldly states — everyone else is wrong.”  But the painful thing about the article is that Krattenmaker simultaneously misses his own claims to rightness.  Right in line with every other quasi-philosopher drinking from the postmodern well, he is blind to his own exclusivity.  He is the classic street-corner postmodernist — arguing against people who think they’re right while refusing to acknowledge that he also thinks he’s right.  Because if Krattenmaker’s take on God and truth and life is the only right one — which his article boldly states — everyone else is wrong.

Yet because he doesn’t recognize his own inherent (silent) claim to exclusivity, he can survive making startling concessions like this:  “Given the misbehavior and self-seeking that plague sports, who could doubt the benefit of bringing moral guidance and a broader perspective to locker rooms and clubhouses?”  On the surface, this sounds normal enough — a nice pat on the head for the token good that a few Christianized voices might bring to a locker room.  But it’s actually a groundless, backward, self-defeating statement in the context of the article.  How can Krattenmaker claim that “misbehavior” is wrong and that “self-seeking” is bad, much less put any definition or authority to the “morality” and “perspective” that he seems to want multiplied among our nation’s athletes?  In other words, if no one is ultimately right or wrong, what’s the basis for Krattenmaker’s bold and exclusive statements about morality?  What authority does he have to make such claims?  Does he actually think he’s right?

The problem here is that Krattenmaker thinks he’s saying, “Everyone should be allowed to believe different things,” when he’s actually saying, “No one is allowed to believe that he’s actually right.”  And if that statement is true, then you can see why the postmodern parade is rated R — because the floats are always eating themselves.

All that being said, it would be shallow to blame this all on postmodernism.  This isn’t ultimately about the wholesale rejection of meta-narratives or the continuing surge of relativism or the established presence of a new intellectual mentality.  This is about exclusivity.  People didn’t like it in Jesus’ day, and they don’t like it in ours.  The royal message of the gospel, lest we forget, says that “Jesus is Lord.”  Not Caesar, not Pontius Pilate, not Herod the Great, not Tim Tebow, and not Tom Krattenmaker.  You don’t have to be postmodern to hate that.  You just have to be a child of Adam.

Wonderfully, the answer to our hatred of Jesus’ exclusivity is Jesus’ exclusivity.  Right before He said, “No one comes to the Father except through Me,” He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6).  Both are statements of exclusivity.  But the door is slung wide open.  He is not the wall, but the way.  So because God is gracious and sent His Son, this is the most gloriously inclusive exclusivity the world has ever seen.  May Tom Krattenmaker come to see its glory in time to come.


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