John Wooden: Man of Christian faith

There’s been so much said and written this week about the former UCLA basketball coach John Wooden, who died late last week, that I didn’t think there was anything for me to add.

I was never a big college basketball guy. And Wooden retired in 1975, right around the time I started following sports.

I knew, of course, that he was held in high esteem. I knew that he had won like a million straight games at UCLA and that he was regarded as a great teacher, a great man.

But for me, Wooden was just one of those public figures who had been around since the beginning of time.

I haven’t seen much mention of Wooden’s faith in the few tributes I read about him.

But today, I came across an interesting essay on ReligionDispatches.org by a fellow named Amir Hussain, a Canadian Muslim who teaches theology at Loyola Marymount University, a Jesuit university in Los Angeles.

Hussain came to admire Wooden because of his influence on Kareen Abdul-Jabbar, a rare Muslim role model during the 1970s. Hussain later moved to California and had contact with Wooden on several occasions.

He writes:

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He never imposed his Christian faith on anyone, only insisting that his players “have a religion and believe in it.” Coach was a pluralist long before many of us had heard of the term. Of his own faith, one of his favorite maxims was “If I were ever prosecuted for my religion, I truly hope there would be enough evidence to convict me.” Many of us have grown tired of the hypocrisy of self-described “Christian athletes” who can glibly quote Bible verses but can’t manage to live by them. Coach, as always, was different. We both agreed that Abraham Lincoln was the greatest American, but he said that the greatest person of his generation was Mother Teresa. Like her, he lived out his Christianity in service to others.

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Poking around for additional reflection about Wooden’s faith, I found a column by religion scribe Terry Mattingly about Wooden’s strong, but quiet Protestant faith.

He notes that Wooden rarely missed the annual Fellowship of Christian Athletes breakfast at the Final Four.

Mattingly writes:

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When working with secular audiences, Wooden used a nondenominational approach to life’s great lessons — which led to his famous “Pyramid of Success” image, built on common virtues such as “skill,” “enthusiasm,” “industriousness,” “patience” and “faith.” Former players also learned to recite his folksy sayings, such as “Be quick, but don’t hurry” and “It is what we learn after we know it all that really counts.”

But Wooden shared other sayings, when the time was right, including this one: “Basketball is not the ultimate. It is of small importance in comparison to the total life we live. There is only one kind of life that truly wins, and that is the one that places faith in the hands of the Savior. Until that is done, we are on an aimless course that runs in circles and goes nowhere.”

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Mattingly also writes on the GetReligion blog (which critiques media coverage of religion) that too much coverage of Wooden’s death neglected to mention his faith.

He writes that an obit in the NYT “did find a way to address — in secular terms that would not offend the newspaper’s audience — the kind of moral influence that Wooden had on his players.”

I now kind of wish I did pay more attention to Wooden when he would make those TV appearances now then. Maybe I’ll get one of his books.

AP file photo

Glenn Beck’s sacred fire for George Washington

Oprah’s book club has made literary stars out of many authors, so why wouldn’t an all-out endorsement from Glenn Beck do the same?

The Fox News personality’s promotion of a book about George Washington’s faith — George Washington’s Sacred Fire — has pushed the 1,200-page tome from 2006 to Number 2 on Amazon’s list.

I haven’t read the book and hadn’t heard of it until a few days ago. But it seems that the book makes the case that the Father of Our Country was a committed Christian and not a deist as he has been described by many historians.

The book was written by Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Theological Seminary, a Protestant seminary in the Reformed tradition that has compuses in Philadelphia and London.

A transcript from Beck’s website includes this: “Our churches stand for nothing, many of them. I’m begging preachers, you are about to lose religious freedom. You must go out — America, I want you to buy this book today. This is George Washington’s Sacred Fire. I got it last week. It’s by Peter A. Lillback. I think it’s been out for, since 2006. Sacred Fire. Go out and buy this book today. Get on Amazon and buy it today. Sacred Fire. You will understand the relationship of God and our founders.”

Liberal voices are ready and willing to argue with Beck’s point of view.

Of course, the faith of the Founding Fathers has been the subject of an historical tug-o-war since, I would imagine, the early days of the country. In recent years, many books have been written contending that the FFs were or were not religious and were or were not Christians.

The only notable Washington biography I’ve read was Joseph Ellis’ His Excellency: George Washington, which I picked up because Ellis’ Founding Brothers was real good.

In his Washington bio, Ellis made the case that GW was not religious and likely not a Christian. I remember that, toward the end of the book, Ellis made a point of noting that Washington did not ask for a minister at his death bed.

Is Ellis or Lillback correct? Beats the heck out of me.

But Beck’s legion of followers will go for Lillback’s version of history, it seems.

Do you have faith in ‘Lost?’

I tried to watch “Lost” once.

It may have been the second or third season. After 10 or 15 minutes, it was pretty clear to me that there was no catching up with the plot.

So I abandoned ship. And I’ve wondered ever since: Are they on some kind of island or not?

I know a lot of people are looking forward to Sunday’s series finale. So I wanted to make note of religion writer Sarah Pulliam Bailey’s story in today’s Wall Street Journal about the “search for meaning” in Lost.

She writes:

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The show’s writers have hooked an invested group of about 11 million viewers, and these devotees want to believe some larger purpose exists in the storytelling, something meaningful that makes six seasons of watching worthwhile. Each week, however, every answer seems to lead to more questions, leaving enthusiasts with grave angst.

Yet this is how all of life unfolds. In the end, we may find only an approximation of the truth. The viewers’ search for meaning in “Lost” exemplifies a microcosm of that experience. If we give the writers a little grace and extend some patience, the suspense leading up to the finale of this television show could teach us something about faith in general.

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Later, Craig Detweiler, director of Pepperdine University’s Center for Entertainment, Media and Culture, tells Bailey: “The power of the show is the air of mystery that it always preserves. In the same way we would never want to put God in a box, I would hate to see ‘Lost’ wrapped up in a tight bow. Maybe the show will leave us with a sense of critical self-reflection about whose side are we on and which parts of our backstory do we need to reconcile.”

I often believe that people work too hard to find religious themes in TV shows, movies and other elements of pop culture. I remember cringing when commentators suggested that Rocky, in the final “Rocky Balboa” movie, was a Christ-like character because he, well, made a comeback.

Is the mystery of “Lost” remotely like the mysteries of faith?

I am not in a position to say.

But I love “Friday Night Lights.”

(AP PHoto/ABC, Mario Perez)

Should faith be part of the sports pages?

It seems that religious issues come up in the world of sports more and more.

On Sunday, we’ll see Tim Tebow put faith before football when he appears in a pro-life commercial during the Super Bowl.

Sarah Pulliam Bailey, online editor for Christianity Today, writes in the Wall Street Journal today about whether sports writers are comfortable taking on issues of faith.

She writes:

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Sports journalism often lends itself to lengthy profile-driven features. Sportswriters have some of the best opportunities to tell human-interest stories, and in some cases that means connecting the religious dots for people. But when you look closer into what it means to be religious, it usually involves divisive opinions on matters like heaven and hell, and, in some cases, abortion.

inside2-deanna-insideMillions of people will watch Mr. Tebow’s mother recount her story on Sunday. But fewer people may know that Brett Favre’s wife, Deanna (that’s her), faced a similar decision when she became pregnant after her second year of college, before the couple were married. Their Catholic faith was a key factor in their decision not to seek an abortion, Catholic News Service reports.

In 2006, Mr. (Kurt) Warner cited his faith as his reason for appearing in a political advertisement opposing a proposal that would have allowed embryonic stem cell research in Missouri.

If journalists are asking the right motivational questions (why did an athlete retire? why does he do prison ministry?) they might find religion in the answers. When appropriate, it’s the reporter’s responsibility to dig out the underlying story and present it to readers.

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Bailey quotes Sports Illustrated football guru Peter King (a favorite of mine), who is hesitant to take some athletes at their word when it comes to their professions of faith:

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Peter King, a senior writer for Sports Illustrated, admits his own skepticism when players bring up their faith after a game. “I’ve seen enough examples of players who claim to be very religious and then they get divorced three times or get in trouble with the law,” Mr. King said earlier this week. “I’m not sure that the public is crying out for us to discover the religious beliefs of the athletes we’re writing about.”

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Photo: Anne Ryan, USA TODAY

Enjoy the Super Bowl…

ADDITION: Jim Daly, CEO of Focus on the Family, the group paying for The Tebow Commercial, said today he will attend the Super Bowl and answer questions about the commercial and the debate it has inspired.

We can only hope that all those sports writers will ask him better questions than they ask the players on Media Day.