Linsanity (or, Why We All Claimed Jeremy Lin): Ethnicity, Status, Religion, and the Search for Vindication

graphic by Ishaan Mishra

Remember Jeremy Lin?

This undrafted, unheralded, 6’3″ Asian-American put the sputtering New York Knicks on his rookie shoulders and took the NBA by storm back in February. Gushing headlines about the 23-year-old Harvard grad consumed one of the few industries where being a Harvard grad puts you behind, not ahead. His 38-point, 7-assist explosion (a) against Kobe Bryant’s Lakers (b) on a Friday night (c) in primetime (d) on national television (e) in Madison Square Garden blew the roof off the phenomenon we came to know as “Linsanity.”

Articles sprang up overnight chronicling Lin’s storybook climb from unscholarshiped high school senior to undrafted Ivy League grad to languishing D-League regular to wrongfully-waived benchwarmer (guilty parties: Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets) to instant superstar and cultural icon. His #17 jersey outsold every other NBA player’s except for reigning 2011 MVP and Chicago über-guard Derrick Rose. A Boyce College student even won the New York Times’ Jeremy Lin t-shirt design contest.

But the full-throttle roar of Linsanity had long since descended from the MSG rafters by the time the Knicks were unceremoniously but predictably dispatched from the first round of the playoffs by the uncaring Miami Heat. Opposing teams clamped down on Lin, his turnover rate rocketed, the Knicks sputtered again, and he suffered an unfortunate meniscus tear in March putting him back on the bench for the rest of the season. Mike D’Antoni, the run-and-gun head coach whose free-flowing offensive system allowed Lin to flourish, “resigned” in mid-March. Interim Mike Woodson, an old-school coach who emphasizes defense and runs a slower offense, just signed a long-term contract. Jeremy Lin is now a free agent coming off knee surgery in a mismatched offensive system.

I loved the Jeremy Lin story as much as anyone, and I was thoroughly impressed by his level-headed humility throughout the whole ordeal. He played with the swagger needed in high-level athletics and lived with the humility appropriate to human finitude. I was disappointed when he was injured and the Knicks faded, and I really hope he gets another chance with New York or another team that will utilize his skill-set.

What made me increasingly uncomfortable through his meteoric rise was all the claiming.

During that frenzied February only four months ago, everybody wanted Jeremy Lin. Asians wanted him, underdogs wanted him, Ivy Leaguers wanted him, and Christians wanted him. These represent four major elements of our self-identification: ethnicity, status, education, and religion.

I’m delighted that everyone was cheering Jeremy Lin. He deserved to be cheered. For his performance. For his perseverance. For his humility. For his story.

But claiming Jeremy Lin? That’s a different story.

My colleague Owen Strachan analogized and typologized from Jeremy Lin to the vindication of all kinds of underdogs — from grade-school hopefuls to the Great White Throne. Carl Park springboarded from Jeremy Lin to the intricacies of Asian-American Christianity and the potential for increased inclusion in the wider American church. Prominent sportswriter Rick Reilly slid from Jeremy Lin to what he hopes will be the less-stereotyped future of his Asian-American daughter. Jorge Castillo jumped from Jeremy Lin to the hopes of overlooked Ivy League ballers. Then Michael Luo blended it all together because he shares Lin’s ethnicity, religion, alma mater, sport, and family story.

In hermeneutical terms we call this corporate solidarity. We want a representative, a hero, someone who’s like us but who’s accomplishing something so much greater than us. We need coattails to grab, a bandwagon to jump on, a hero to follow.

I really like Jeremy Lin, and I really liked the Jeremy Lin story. He deserved to be blowing up Madison Square Garden, trending on Twitter, and dominating sites from ESPN to the NY Times (to The Gospel Coalition!). But he didn’t deserve to bear the suffocating weight of the mixed masses’ desperate search for identity and vindication.

In the Christian world, how much of this instant epic was generated by the ever-changing identity of evangelical culture? How much of it stemmed from the Christian unease rising with the clouds of our culture’s increasing intellectual, political, and moral persecution? How much of the Jeremy-Lin-is-one-of-us saga was really about our vindication before the watching world?

It’s wonderful that we loved Jeremy Lin (what wasn’t to love?). But it’s different if we needed him. It’s frightening if we need a baller in the bright lights to prove that Christianity is more acceptable than people think, or if we need a #15 at Mile High Stadium (and now, ironically, The Big Apple) to tell us that we still matter — that we can still fill up the airwaves if the story’s good enough.

Often the church isn’t sure who we are, but if we could just be like that — just be in his corner, be in his pocket, be on his team — things might change for us. Through Tebow we’re persecuted and we persevere. Through Lin we’re cast aside then vindicated. “Look at how they treat us . . . but look at what we can do!”

I’ll be rooting for Jeremy Lin the rest of his career, and I love the character and testimony of Tim Tebow. I’m sure many other Christians (and even many non-Christians) agree. But I’m not sure Lin’s Taiwanese-American-underdog-Harvard-Christian shoulders can bear the weight of our mixed corporate identity. I’m not sure they were meant to.

Yes, Jesus went undrafted by the religious elite of his day. Yes, Jesus came and served and died as the ultimate underdog. Yes, the harbingers of our coming eschatological vindication appear in various types and shadows.

I get it: cultural and ethnic and sociological and theological typologies have their place. This vale of tears is a hall of mirrors. There are pointers everywhere, and we are wise to see them. But if Jesus taught us anything, he taught us to beware the hype. If we want to claim Jesus, we leave our identity and our family and our money and our fame behind, and we claim a blood-spattered cross. We go lower — much lower — than unrecruited, undrafted, and unheralded. We’re lower than 6’3″. We’re 6-foot-under. We lose ourselves in him — and then we find him in us.

The story of Jeremy Lin was indeed a microcosm of the great coming judgment when the last shall be first. “Linsanity” was a vague and temporary metaphor for the final vindication of all God-pleasing underdogs. We can analogize from God choosing the foolish things of the world to shame the wise and Jeremy Lin’s humble rise to instant stardom over the superstars of The Big Apple. The instant popularity of a humble Christian athlete is rightfully encouraging as the community of faith stares into the increasingly sharp teeth of this wicked and adulterous generation.

But Jeremy Lin is not Jesus, the New York Knickerbockers are not the church, and that frenetic early-February week during this year’s truncated NBA season was not exactly the final judgment. Jeremy Lin reminded us, helpfully, of many things. But we need far more than his minority ethnicity, his admirable perseverance, his undrafted status, or even his sincere faith. We need, if the initial reports out of the media frenzy were correct, his Savior. He’s the one who claimed us before we rose to the top, and called us to do the same with him.

Everyone claimed Jeremy Lin because everyone needed Jeremy Lin. Asian-Americans needed an NBA star to replace and outshine retired Yao Ming, and to solidify their status in the great banquet hall of American life. Ivy League ballers needed an NBA Cinderella story from their own ranks to push some scout over the edge in making a stronger draft recommendation to management. Underdogs everywhere needed a fresh reason to wake up early again and keep working hard and persevere through the dark tunnel of unaccomplished dreams. Anyone who’s ever been held back, held down, or held under needed a vindicated frontman who crawled out of the pit of insignificance and climbed the towering heap of public respect. And American Christians needed a humble orthodox hero whom no one could criticize — someone who believes the right things and does the right things and says the right things and doesn’t get ridiculed in the process.

We have to admit: at least some of Christianity’s Linsanity was based on the dangerously misguided hope of being vindicated in the present, the hope of riding the coattails of someone who believes what we do and is also cool, hot, in, and accepted. For the moment, Jeremy Lin appeared to be all of that and more.

But never drive an earthly stake of identity too deep. That stake was driven home 2,000 years ago, and the scar remains for all eternity. The scar tells us who we were and what we deserved. And it’s more jagged than any unrecruited, undrafted, unheralded scar out there.

If we ascend with Jeremy Lin, we must also descend with him. Those who carry our hopes carry our destinies. That’s why trusting Jesus is so freeing. After he descended once for all (taking us with him), his ascent (and ours) was irreversible.

So pray for Tebow and root for Lin. Hope that their stars rise again and continue to shine bright. Thank God that there are Christians in every sphere of influence, from the bright lights of Madison Square Garden to the sweat shops of Indonesia. But make sure the metaphor stays a metaphor, and the analogy stays analogous. In this life, Jeremy Lin can represent the Christian faith, and we should hope that he does so for many years to come. But Jeremy Lin cannot vindicate the Christian faith.

One day, the righteous will be vindicated, and the least of these — the underrated righteous, the underdog saints, the unrecognized servants — will step up to their rightful place in the starting lineups of the new creation. But making Jeremy Lin bear the weight of our collective need for vindication? That was just Linsanity.


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