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Gabby Douglas, Jeremy Lin, and the God of Parking Spots

Gabby Douglas, Jeremy Lin, and the God of Parking Spots August 6, 2012

My friend David French posts at French Revolution about journalistic snark directed toward Gabby Douglas and her professions of faith in the midst of her dazzling Olympic gold-medal-winning performance in the all-around at the London Games.  Mary Elizabeth Williams at Salon wrote:

As a Christian myself (albeit one of those really freaky papist kinds), I’ve often wondered what it is about Christians like Douglas that unnerves me so. The closest I’ve been able to figure it is that Douglas and her ilk seem to espouse a faith based on what is commonly referred to as “The God of Parking Spaces.” It’s the deity that grants wishes to those who ask nicely. Douglas is a girl who has described God as the figure who’s “waking me up every morning and keeping me safe in the gym every day.” She told People Thursday, “I was on the bus and it was raining and I thought, ‘It’s going to be a great day.’ My mom used to tell me when I was little, ‘When it rains, it’s God’s manifestation, a big day’s waiting to happen.’ I texted my mom, ‘It’s raining. You know what that means.’” It means that Russian girl is going down, I guess.

If Williams finds Douglas “unnerving,” it says more about Williams than it does about Douglas.  Some people are always looking for an opportunity to demean what looks like a simple or traditional version of Christian faith.  Douglas, she alleges (on the basis, it’s worth noting, of very little evidence), casts her faith in a false deity, “The God of Parking Spaces,” the idol to whom you pray when you’re in a rush and you need that perfect parking space at the airport.  Since Gabby attributes her victory to divine blessing, it must follow, Williams assumes, that she would attribute failure to an absence of blessing.

Gabrielle Douglas

Since the Olympics are in London this year, let me just say that this is bollocks.  There were a few who sneered in the same way at Jeremy Lin — about whom I wrote a book — since he sometimes attributed wins and hit shots to God.  The assumption is that these people (young, non-white evangelical Protestants) Christians view God as a cosmic Pez-dispenser.  Push the buttons just right and out pops whatever you desire.  If you do not get what you desire, then you must not have pushed the right button.  There is often (though I can’t say about Williams’ case) a demeaning of sports here as well, that comes from those with very few, or negative, experiences in sports.  Why in the world — they ask, salving their wounded egos, and assuring themselves that what they do is so much more important — would God care about sports?  And if God gave them the victory, does that mean God took it away from their competitors?  Surely Jeremy Lin and Gabby Douglas are too simple-minded to think through their faith.

But no.  That is not the answer.  This is not a simple faith, but one version of the Christian tradition that has developed over the course of centuries.  In this view of the world, all things are divinely superintended.  It’s not merely that God gives Gabby Douglas the victory; it’s that God gives Gabby Douglas life, the breath in her lungs, the lungs to breathe it with, the talent in her body and soul, the strength in her spirit, the family that supports and inspires her, the opportunity to compete on the highest level, and then (when God gives it) the victory.  When God gives you the parking spot, it’s for his purposes, and not because you prayed in just the right way.  And when God does not give you the parking spot, that too is for his purposes.

Williams goes on to write:

I don’t think the force that I, for want of a better word, call God rains down sufferings or blessings based on individual piety. I believe in a grace that gives me the strength to muscle through the sufferings, and the gratitude to appreciate the blessings. That’s why the subtle implication, when an athlete or an artist says that God was with them on a winning day, seems so strange, and why, I imagine, it rings so hollow for others. And though I am in awe of a young girl whose talent is damn near miraculous, I likewise don’t believe in a God who made it rain for her to win.

Williams identifies as Catholic (and no, we Protestants do not find that “freaky”), but her God sounds vaguely Deistic.  The thing is, Gabby Douglas never said that God “rains down sufferings or blessings based on individual piety.”  In fact, she’d probably tell you that — as the Old Testament tells us quite clearly — God makes his rain fall upon the righteous and the wicked alike.  She’d probably also be the first person to testify that she did nothing to deserve the blessing God just gave her.  That’s why it’s called grace.  It’s not a gift if you earned it.  Gabby probably believes in a God who gives her strength and gratitude, but who is also profoundly involved in the world, and in her own life, in mysterious and impossibly intimate ways.  She believes in a personal God, a God who joins us in the trenches, a God who is always giving himself to us, a God who catches our tears in a bottle, and a God who cares about sports because he cares about the people performing them.

Gabby saw a sign of God’s presence in the rain.  I see a sign of God’s presence in the cross, in the icon on my wall, in the sculpture on my bookshelf, and in the scars across my arms.  I see signs of God’s presence everywhere.  It may make Williams feel superior to put down Gabby Douglas’ faith, but it actually makes her small.  And it makes her God small as well.  The God who is infinitely involved in all things, who is unchanging precisely because he is always and eternally complete and active love, is a great and majestic God.  He is the God of Parking Spaces, but only because he is also the God of All Things.

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