Ben Zobrist and the Inflation of Christian Celebrity

Ben Zobrist and the Inflation of Christian Celebrity November 5, 2016
Ben Zobrist, 2017
Wikimedia Commons/public domain

So here I was, grimly resigned to the fact that I should probably write something or other about the election but really wishing I could write about something else instead. Something timely that wasn’t soul-crushingly depressing, about which I could muster the time and energy to say something moderately original and intelligent.

Enter Ben Zobrist and the Chicago Cubs. I don’t care if you’re the nerdiest of nerds to walk the earth. I don’t care if you wander around with 15 pens in your pocket, or if you think the SuperBowl is a moderately important tennis tournament. If you were breathing air and had red American blood in your veins early last Thursday morning, you were in front of some screen, somewhere, just to see if they would really do it this time. Yes, you. You know who you are.

I’ll leave the gloriously sentimental victory songs to Chicago sports journalism’s finest. Meanwhile, I took great interest in another story that emerged this weekend about Ben Zobrist, the Cubs’ freshly minted MVP. While this was known before, many people are just now discovering that Zobrist is a devout evangelical Christian. (And just for those of you who do not have red American blood in your veins and therefore are oblivious as to what Zobrist’s contributions were this series, he scored multiple key runs, including a clutch RB in Game 7’s nail-biting 10th inning that paved the way for Cubs defense to shut it down.)

Now, I know what some of you may have thought when you first saw the headline: “Oh great, another celebrity who said something positive about Jesus once and is now being hyped as a CHRISTIAAAAAAAN celebrity because everyone happens to be talking about him right now.” I can understand why that thought might have crossed your mind. It crossed my mind as well, I confess, cynical kill-joy that I am. But I’m glad I didn’t stop at the headline, because it appears that I drastically underestimated Mr. Ben Zobrist.

By contrast with muddled, fragmentary quotes from other dubiously baptized celebrity names like Hugh Jackman, Shia LeBeouf, and Matthew McConaughey, Zobrist’s faith is clear, articulate and deeply rooted. The son of a Baptist preacher, Zobrist was raised to follow in his dad’s steps but picked up the baseball itch in highschool, winning a full-ride scholarship to Olivet Nazarene U. Since then, while he and his wife have been honest about their spiritual ups and downs (co-authoring a book together called Double Play), Zobrist has remained a committed Christian and a heavily involved local church member. A couple of weeks ago, The Gospel Coalition ran this piece (which is naturally getting many more shares now), interviewing Zobrist’s pastor. The man who should know best can confirm: Zobrist’s is not a kiddie pool faith. It’s the real deal.

One of the most interesting aspects of the piece was the pastor’s discussion of how he provided some needed course-correction in the middle of a dry spell in Zobrist’s career. As any baseball fan knows, baseball and superstition go hand in glove (as it were). Certain strains of prosperity-tinged Christianity can play into that kind of superstition. A Christian ball-player expecting God to “bless” his dedication with tangible victories might find himself frustrated and disappointed. This was precisely the struggle Zobrist faced for a season. Here the pastor says, with refreshing bluntness, that the solution was sitting down with Zobrist and “throwing away all his crappy Christian books.” He gives no titles, but anyone passingly familiar with typical Christian bookstore stock could probably fill in the gaps. Zobrist emerged from this sharpening period with a stronger, more biblical, more durable faith than ever. Now both he and his wife speak about not taking success for granted, but rather living each day to the glory of God and the service of their local church.

Many celebrities talk about being raised in the church before drifting away and embracing… whatever vaguely religious platitudes they affirm now. They’re not sure themselves, but hey, God still gives them warm fuzzies! Also, they, like, pray a lot, and stuff. Oh yeah, and “faith is important” to them. This is hardly inspiring stuff, but apparently, it’s enough to get them spotlighted ad nauseam by Christian click-bait sites like BeliefNet. And it’s enough for certain of my Christian friends to share such mediocrities with breathless excitement on FaceBook.

At that point, one always debates whether it’s worth it or not to wade in and pop the bubble. But generally, I feel compelled to do so, and stories like Zobrist’s remind me why. The reason this “Christian celebrity inflation” bugs me so much goes back to the old Gilbert and Sullivan line: “If everybody’s somebody, then no one’s anybody.” If Christian culture has set the bar this low for what it takes to be claimed as “one of us,” it renders us unable fully to appreciate somebody like Ben Zobrist. The reality is that true, full-blooded Christians are exceptionally rare in the world of entertainment. So when one comes along, we shouldn’t just add him to a list. We should hold up a Tim Tebow or a Ben Zobrist as the one in a million guys that they are, even if admitting that they are one in a million means Christianity is less well represented among the “cool crowd” than some Christians would like to believe.

But that’s okay. It just makes the remnant that much cooler.

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