More about Ray Lewis and his Psalms 91 t-shirt

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So, GetReligion readers, I am happy to report that the Baltimore Sun team noticed the scripture reference at the heart of one of the biggest moments in the recent history of sports here in Charm City. I am referring to the fact — click here for the previous GetReligion post — that when, after Ravens personnel had ripped the jersey off his back, superstar linebacker Ray Lewis faced national television cameras and ran a victory lap of the stadium while wearing a t-shirt that proclaimed “Psalms 91.”

The Bible reference was featured at the end of prominent story about Lewis’ volunteer work, often faith-based, in the community. More on that in a minute.

The t-shirt drew its own short Sun online story which I didn’t see in the dead-tree-pulp newspaper, unless it merely missed the edition delivered at my house near the Baltimore Beltway.

The key question, of course, was this: Why this particular Psalm?

That raises, for me, an interesting journalistic question. How, precisely, are journalists supposed to know which part of this famous and complex passage of scripture inspired Lewis’ symbolic act if they didn’t dare to ask him that question?

Well — DUH! — you choose the most controversial motive, in this case noting that parts of Psalm 91 fit into the whole image of Lewis living as an angry warrior still haunted by the enemies who doubt his words and acts of repentance for his serious, serious errors in the past.

Thus, Sun online readers read:

… Curious minds wanted to understand what point Lewis was trying to make as he took a victory lap around the stadium wearing this particular shirt.

The psalm is known as the “psalm of protection.” It has a lot to do with vanquishing various enemies with faith and treading upon beasts under one’s feet. Here’s a key passage:

Surely he will save you from the fowler’s snare and from the deadly pestilence.

He will cover you with his feathers, and under his wings you will find refuge;

his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

You will not fear the terror of night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in the darkness, nor the plague that destroys at midday.

A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.

Of course, the biblical reference to treading on lions and serpents led the Sun team to the obvious National Football League connection — the need to tread on Colts, Bengals, Lions, Eagles, etc. It’s the playoffs, you know.

The actual news report — “Fans praise Lewis’ efforts on and off the field” — touched on a number of different projects that have drawn support from Lewis, especially a project to fight the spread of AIDS among African-Americans.

The faith themes in the piece came together at the end, including a quote from the Rev. C.D. Witherspoon, who is known for his work in tough, impoverished streets. At one point, he noted that the fact Lewis has spent a few days in jail does not offend many people on that side of the city.

Some observers find his speeches about redemption cloying and his over-heated rhetoric about leadership silly. Ravens fans eagerly awaited his dance before each home game; others mocked it. …

As Lewis left the field for the last time, he wore a shirt that read simply “Psalms 91.” Like other Bible passages Lewis has referenced, it is a vivid telling of triumph through difficult times. “You will trample the great lion and the serpent,” it reads.

“Ray’s story is ancient, and it is beautiful,” Witherspoon said. “It speaks to Baltimore.”

The reference to “triumph through difficult times” is solid, but, of course, frames Psalm 91 in sports-friendly terms. “Triumph” sounds better in the newspaper, perhaps, than more doctrinal words such as “repentance” and “salvation.”

But let me ask my main question again: How do journalists know what the Psalms 91 t-shirt was saying, for Lewis himself, without asking him?

Does this matter? Well, is he an angry, paranoid warrior or a thankful, repentant believer?

With that in mind, please read past the jump and note the full Psalm 91 text. If in the journalistic driver’s seat, which section of the psalm — speaking to journalists — would you have argued was most relevant as Lewis ran his farewell lap on Sunday?

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A big, vague ghost in the Ray Lewis reporting

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If you are a pro-football fan, or a human being who is alive and breathing in greater Baltimore, then you are probably aware that today’s playoff game between the Ravens and the “Indianapolis Colts” is the final home game for Ray Lewis, perhaps the greatest inside linebacker to ever put on pads (and I say that as an old-school fan of Mike Singletary).

Lewis has played for a stunning 17 years, with 13 trips to the Pro Bowl and his off years — such as this year — have largely been those that were hampered by injuries. The man is a legend on the sideline, acting as a leader and firebrand, as well as on the field.

There are some people who, frankly, hate Lewis’ guts, in large part because of a brush with violence early in his career. Others like to call him “God’s linebacker” because of his very outspoken, if somewhat vague, statements about his faith. There was that “The Gospel According to Ray” cover story at Sports Illustrated, after all.

The huge, A1 Baltimore Sun piece announcing his plans to retire, at the end of the 2013 playoffs, covered the linebacker’s future in pulpits, as well as, according to news reports, cable-TV sports. Here is a major chunk of the summary material about one of the dominant figures in Baltimore life:

Lewis’ biography is one of extremes. A child of a broken home, he became a football prodigy, seemingly destined for the Hall of Fame from early in his career. Then, just as he neared his pinnacle, he faced murder charges that threatened his future. Lewis pleaded guilty to a lesser charge and he became one of the NFL’s most divisive players — derided in opposing cities, deeply respected by his peers, adopted wholeheartedly by Baltimore, the city where he played his whole career and devoted his charitable efforts.

A fiery leader, he riled up teammates and home fans like no one else with his signature entry dance at M&T Bank Stadium. He ended up, finally, as an elder statesman, a sort of wise uncle to the generations who followed him into the nation’s most popular sport.

A subdued Lewis said he came to his decision while spending time with his sons as he rehabilitated his injury in Florida. A man of outspoken faith, he talked of growing up without a father and not wanting his children to be without him any longer. He had to choose between them and holding onto the game.

Lewis has stressed that a major factor in his decision was timing — with one of his sons starting his college football career next year at, just like his father, the University of Miami.

No one questions that Lewis is a first-ballot NFL Hall of Fame selection.

No one doubts the impact of his volunteer work and strong financial support for work with the poor and needy in Baltimore and in his home state of Florida. Lewis has committed hours of face-to-face time, as well as cash. As the story notes, “In 2010, the city rechristened a stretch of North Avenue ‘Ray Lewis Way’.”

Lewis has been the face of the Ravens franchise and, for many, the positive/negative face of Baltimore.

What’s next? This week’s Sun piece concluded:

Lewis appeared utterly calm about his decision as he spoke of God calling him to the next phase of his life.

“The emotions are very controlled, because I never redo one day,” he said. “Every moment I’ve ever had in this building, what this organization has done for me, what this city has done for me, what my fans have done for me, what the mutual respect for different players have done for me around this league, I can never take any of that back. That’s the ultimate when you leave this game. You leave it with one heck of a legacy.”

Actually, the farewell statement featured a whole lot more Godtalk than that. I listened to a tribute on Baltimore talk radio as I headed home from Divine Liturgy this morning and counted six references by Lewis to God and a divine calling on his life.

So what is my journalistic point?

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Yahoo! asks Robert Griffin III a rather obvious question

The big news here in Washington, D.C., (other than the mysteries of the U.S. Supreme Court) is that (a) the knee of quarterback Robert Griffin III is strained, not broken, and (b) that The Washington Post team survived another weekend covering a superstar who keeps talking about the fact that he apparently believes in a God who hears prayers and plays some meaningful role in the lives of real people.

So blame Twitter, of course, along with press conferences in which players get to say whatever is on their minds (and hearts).

Team spokesman Tony Wyllie said later Sunday evening that Griffin underwent an MRI exam and “everything is clear.” Griffin did not tear his anterior cruciate or medial collateral ligaments, Wyllie said. He called the injury a knee sprain and added that Shanahan will provide further details Monday. It remained unclear whether Griffin will be able to play next weekend.

Griffin wrote on Twitter: “Your positive vibes and prayers worked people!!!! To God be the Glory!”

Sports fans here in Beltwayland are certainly in full swoon mode, which the Post team tried to capture last week in a piece that ran with the headline, “Redskins’ Robert Griffin III maintains focus amid increasing frenzy.” This being Washington, it’s hard to write about a figure this charismatic without connecting him to politics, in one way or another.

I mean, check out this near-messianic language:

… (The) Redskins’ rookie quarterback was the subject of a CBS “Sunday Morning” segment that credited him with uniting politically polarized Washington, quoting some high-profile elected officials. On Monday night, Griffin played in his second nationally televised game and led the Redskins over the New York Giants for Washington’s first three-game win streak since 2008. (The victory also marked the Redskins’ sixth of the season, meaning they will at least finish one game better than last year’s 5-11 record.)

Following the game, analysts such as Hall of Fame quarterback Steve Young, fellow Super Bowl-winning passer Trent Dilfer and former Super Bowl-winning coach Jon Gruden raved about Griffin’s play, which ESPN highlighted over the next 48 hours.

On Tuesday night, Griffin attended his first Washington Wizards game. Sitting courtside in owner Ted Leonsis’s seats, he stole the spotlight from the home team’s players, who upset LeBron James and the defending NBA champion Miami Heat. When the long-suffering Wizards pulled off the upset, fans and commentators wondered tongue-in-cheek if it was Griffin’s aura that had caused their good fortune.

“It’s humbling. You never go somewhere expecting people to chant your name,” Griffin said, referring to the response he got at the Verizon Center Tuesday night. “… It just means you’re really doing something for the city.”

How do reporters avoid Godtalk when dealing with a young Christian man who insists on saying things like this?

On Wednesday, a representative from the Pro Football Hall of Fame came to Redskins Park to collect the jersey and cleats that Griffin wore while he set the record Monday.

“Everyone wants to be in the Hall of Fame, so, we’re in there,” Griffin said after uncomfortably enduring the brief transfer ceremony of his memorabilia to the possession of the Hall of Fame official. “But I have a long career, prayerfully, and this is only the first step. It’s an honor to have my jersey and my cleats, although they’re very dirty, in the Hall of Fame.”

Following the “Monday Night Football” broadcast, Gruden gushed over Griffin, saying he his skills, and the plays the Redskins are running for him, have changed the pro game.

Griffin’s response: “I don’t think it’s me by myself, necessarily … God has blessed me with speed, and good decision-making, so [coaches] allow me to go out there and trust me even in crucial situations to throw the ball and run the ball or whatever it is. When a coach buys in and the whole team buys in, you can have what we’re doing.”

What is interesting, however, is the degree to which the Godtalk that is at the heart of Griffin’s life and persona has not been explored in major D.C. media at the level of information and facts. You know, journalism.

Thus, I was happy the other day when one of my former students — the digital comet named Chris Moody — was able to land a few moments to talk with Griffin on behalf of Yahoo! News. While the quarterback was extremely cautious about what he said, Moody asked some specific questions and learned at least one interesting fact that I don’t think has previously made it into print.

Here’s a clip or two from that Q&A interview, which begins, of course, with politics:

Yahoo News: When you cast your ballot for president, what were some of the most pressing issues that were on your mind?

RG3: For me, I always told my fiancée and my family that money would never change the way I viewed politics. For me, it wasn’t a money issue. It was about overall what each candidate presented, but I can’t disclose who I voted for.

YN: Why don’t you like to talk about who you voted for?

RG3: There’s a couple things you don’t talk about in life, and that’s race, religion and politics. I try to make sure I don’t talk about politics at all.

Religion does, however, show up later in the interview, along with the answer to one very specific question. However, Griffin remained very cautious, perhaps knowing that even general comments on specific faith issues — such as biblical authority — could be interpreted as commentary on political specifics:

YN: You grew up in a Christian home and went to a Baptist university. Have you found a home church in the D.C. area?

RG3: I go to a church in this area, but I haven’t necessarily found a home church yet. I’m still in the process of finding that.

YN: Where do you attend?

RG3: I go to Cornerstone [Fellowship Church.]

YN: Has your faith shaped the way you view politics or policy?

RG3: It shapes everybody’s view. To me, you don’t directly relate it, but my faith makes me who I am. When it comes to that, my beliefs are not strict to only what the Bible says. I’m influenced by. … You probably can’t point out exactly what it shapes, but it does shape you.

Looking at a digital search, it would seem likely that the congregation to which RG3 is referring is Cornerstone Fellowship Church in Frederick, MD. Looking at it’s website, and statements of faith, this appears to be a modern evangelical, charismatic/Pentecostal congregation, which would be consistent with the congregations Griffin has attended in the past back in Texas.

In other words, stay tuned. In this town, questions will eventually be asked.


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