The Beauty of Bodies: Russell Wilson’s Inelegant Theology and the Joy of Incarnation

The Beauty of Bodies: Russell Wilson’s Inelegant Theology and the Joy of Incarnation January 19, 2015
Flickr/Creative Commons Copyright by Philip Robertson
Flickr/Creative Commons Copyright by Philip Robertson

It’s true. God doesn’t have anything to do with winning a football game.

On Sunday, Russell Wilson, quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks, became the latest professional athlete to draw the ire of progressive Christians for expressing gratitude to God for winning a football game.

Look, I get that to imply God had something to do with a sporting victory implies that God favors winners, cares about the final score of American football, and many other dicey theological propositions is deeply problematic and naive.

And I once was the first to lampoon such facile theologies of famous athletes.

But I’m not going to fault people anymore for expressing — however inelegantly — gratitude during moments of personal elation. I don’t have the energy to hammer someone for their feelings of gratitude anymore. I’m content to let people be thankful when they feel thankful.

In high school and college, I was a fairly successful hurdler. I did well in high school track and later in my small college’s conference. I won some races and some awards. I frequently prayed prior to my races. I frequently found strength in those prayers before pushing my body to its limits. And I frequently thanked God when a race finished, a long meet was over or a season ended.

I didn’t really think that God chose me to win or caused me to cross the finish line before other people. But I did think that God was with me whenever I ran. I felt God’s presence when I pushed my body to its physical limits. I might explain it differently today, of course, but it was how I experienced running and athletics at the time.

Now, I never had cameras trained on me to express my gratefulness to God, but still, for years afterwards, this posture of gratitude became a great theological embarrassment to me, as if God cared about my running hurdles. It seemed juvenile and plain inaccurate. I mean, early Christians were the victims of mass sporting events and coliseums, right? Was God really in the business of rigging sporting events in order to get some camera time like some narcissistic gambler?

But I lately I’ve been reconsidering some of this with a little more nuance. When is it not okay to express gratitude to God when good things happen? Should we lead such guilt-ridden and joyless lives that we do not allow ourselves to enjoy our feelings of a job well-done or our feelings of gratitude in the moment?

Honestly I hope the God who became incarnated in a body takes pleasure in seeing bodies do beautiful and graceful things. Because now, as someone whose body no longer performs as it once did, I find great joy in watching the elegance of a disciplined body perform incredible things — whether that’s a ballet dancer’s strength and grace, a hurdler’s speed and form, a wheelchair racer speeding around the track, a double amputee climbing a mountain, or a quarterback and team not giving up and mounting an incredible comeback.

In fact, I hope God takes joy in all bodies of all kinds, regardless of our abilities.

Because our bodies are important, beautiful, and how we experience and connect with God.

So maybe God didn’t orchestrate the Seahawks’ comeback. But I certainly hope our God of incarnation found some measure of joy in the beauty of bodies in motion.

See, I think God really does find joy in the beauty of human activity, whether it’s the extraordinary or the mundane; the prophetic, or the poetic, or the prosaic.

Whether that’s the bodies of athletes on the field of play, or the bodies of protestors in the streets marching for justice, the bodies of parents taking small children to school, the bodies of senior women taking meals to grieving families, the bodies of school volunteers showing up week after week to read stories and offer hugs to children.

The stories of our bodies are beautiful.

And I thank God for them.

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  • Jess

    My FB friends and I were just having this same discussion post-dramatic Seahawks victory. A buddy of mine said this:

    He has to know he’s a paid character in a huge myth/narrative and he’s got to know that his theologizing about his blessedness is spoken AND heard through that interpretive lens. That context is full of symbols like confetti and drunk fans and millions of dollars being thrown at him and busty women in very short skirts cheering for him and basically everybody elevating him to idol-status. Within that context, inserting the line “God has blessed me” into the script (and making money off of that line, furthering his and the NFL brand with that line) seems downright heretical… “puke-worthy.” It reminds me of the swanky BMW plate frame “I’m not spoiled, just blessed.” No your not blessed, man, any more (maybe less) than the single mom trying to make ends meet. But you’re certainly spoiled. I feel like a better response would be one which doesn’t perpetuate and hyperbolize and theologize about the NFL narrative, but one which instead deconstructs and challenges the importance of the whole NFL project/story. Like, “I’m just a dude, everybody just calm down, we got lucky when that catch was made, I got lucky when I was born with this arm. But Lord, I need salvation right now from all this bull sh*t that surrounds me in NFL culture.”

    • Leslie


    • MatthewD

      There is certainly a deeper issue in the NFL/Celebrity culture. I like your buddy’s comments. There are other issues we could focus on in the NFL and integrity is up there, for sure. I appreciate David’s post and the larger picture of our bodies and how they are used. I’ve been struggling with the pro sports culture and all the problems that arise out of it. This post and conversation help me to think – thank you!

  • Jonathan Stone

    It’s asking a lot of a non-theologian, on the heals of an emotional, probably career defining, moment to espouse a cogent theology that is careful to please the percentage of viewers who may care. Wouldn’t it be equally christian to show a little grace for Russell and simply acknowledge that he is attempting to show humility and reverence, albeit in-artfully?

    • Jess

      He needs a pastor’s counsel. A man/woman to come along side him and say, “look bro, I need to talk to you about your talking.” It’s not just once, he’s habituated this discourse and it’s turned him into a cardboard cut-out of Christian jargon. I like the guy. I love his humility, his poise (sans quarters 1-3), and his generosity with his time off the field. I just think there is plenty of room to constructively critique given the stage and context. Or, take more counsel from Marshawn Lynch… I can get behind his media presence.

      • Alan Christensen

        Maybe he’s just taking to heart I Thess. 5:18–“In every thing give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.”

  • Alan Christensen

    Full disclosure, I’m a Seahawks fan. I think there are several things someone in Wilson’s position could legitimately thank God for: the physical gifts he’s been blessed with, the friendships and teamwork among the Seahawks, the opportunity to bring the community together. I understand he goes to Children’s Hospital every week. And apparently to this team “LOB” stands not only for Legion Of Boom but also Love Our Brothers, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

    • beanie

      I completely agree! He could be thanking God for the courage not to quit when it looked impossible, for the mental strength to keep going, for the stamina to put in the hours of work necessary to make that game possible, for his teammates, I could go on and on. He doesn’t necessarily have to be thanking God for the win or implying that there was some sort of Angels in the Endzone moment. I’m sure God loves Packers players just the same.

      • RPlavo .

        “The sun shines on the just and unjust, the rain falls on the good and bad”

  • LilyDawn

    If I thank God for my food am I thinking less of the hungry? If I’m thankful for the people who lift me up and help through this am I being inconsiderate of the lonely?
    Do you know the root word of offense(in scripture) is a snare, a trap? If we are always looking for offense we are falling into a trap. Some people need to take that huge plank out of their eyes because you keep whopping innocent bystanders upside the head every time you turn yours looking for something else to be offended at! Do you personally know this man? His life, character, shared a heartfelt conversation? No? Then sit down. Stop tearing one another apart.

  • Brandon Roberts

    I love the Hawks and wilson and all he was doing was thanking god for the win literally nothing wrong. And plus this guy volunteers every Tuesday at the childerns hospital and does a lot for his community

  • Kyle

    Acts 4:27-31 explains it. The killing of Jesus was predestined by the hand of God. All things are predetermined by God or else God can’t be in control of all things. Sunday God wanted the Seahawks to win. We will see in the Super Bowl who He has predestined to win.

  • Monala