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Cam Newton and Character Formation

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Much has already been made of Cam Newton’s petulant, childish, churlish, classless and unsportsmanlike conduct in the wake of the Denver Broncos Super Bowl victory and his Carolina Panthers loss.  It stands in sharper focus than the usual such behavior from professional athletes because of the contrast to Peyton Manning.  Given that word “usual” in the last sentence this is a story that will likely soon fade, if it has not already.  But that word “usual” actually greatly broadens the discussion and makes these actions, and others like it, more grievous than they appear on the surface.

For someone like Cam Newton to reach the pinnacle of success that he has, and yet still retain in his character that kind of behavior means that throughout his entire life people, from parents to coaches to teachers, valued his athletic prowess to the expense of the formation of his character.  The same can be said for people like Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods.

This cannot be a question of great success in an endeavor demanding a certain single-mindedness because there stands Peyton Manning.  I am sure Manning is not perfect, but he has figured out how to be one of the greatest quarterbacks in football history without being a childish jerk.  In this age Manning does seem the exception rather than the rule, and that is the real problem.  That means that more athletes than not go through entire careers without having anyone worry about their character.

When I was a young man, sports were all about character.  Schools invested in them because they helped form character in a way that classrooms never could.  All that seems to have fallen by the wayside.  Apparently scholastic sports are now just another job training path, and no one worries about character formation at all.

This is, of course, another sign that Christianity is losing its predominant place in our culture.  In a recent entry in his Christianity Today blog, Ed Stetzer argues:

In a place where most people admit they’re not Christian the gospel often has a better chance of being distinctive. Being a Christian is more significant in a hostile or indifferent culture than in friendly surrounds. It can be easier to share the gospel with those who don’t think that they are already right with God. As nominal Christians, or cultural Christians drop the façade of religiosity for the honesty of not following a faith at all, it will become easier to share the Gospel.

He is not the only one to make this argument and I understand it.  I have often been troubled by “the façade of religiosity” as impediment to allowing God to touch us on the deepest levels.  But I have another worry – Can America survive, at least in a recognizable fashion, without the façade?

If we work to distill the Christian gospel, it comes out something like this – Christ died and was resurrected to remove from us this thing called “sin” which is a blockage in our lives to becoming the men and women of deep and abiding character that God intended us to be.  In the end Christianity is about more than salvation, it is about becoming people of a certain kind, people of character and grace.

Yes, there are people that try and skip the salvation part and there are people that pervert it and twist it – but they still do so in pursuit of good character.  Our societal order and our governance are built on a presumption that the society is engaged in a common pursuit of such good character – even if they end up something other than “really, genuinely” Christian in the pursuit.  If that pursuit is no longer common, then the presumptions of our society can no longer be presumed and the order will breakdown rather quickly – we are seeing this before our very eyes.

So if our society is moving away from building good character, one must wonder if it is really moving towards “real, genuine” Christianity?  Are not minor course corrections easier to execute than complete “U”-turns?  We may take solace in the idea that without the “nominally” Christian, the “convicted” Christian shines brighter.  But we have to ask ourselves what the real cost is in that transaction.

Don’t you think football would be better if Peyton Manning were the rule instead of the exception?  Think about this – if Cam Newton remains the normative in football and Peyton Manning the exceptional, what does the future hold?  I’m betting on more Cam Newtons.  Sure the occasional Peyton Manning will look even better than this one – but the Cam Newtons will be winning the war.


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