Grief, The Gospel, And The God Of Happy Valley (Repost With Update)

Joe Paterno. Public domain image.

UPDATE: The following post was originally posted on my last (now deleted) blog, coramdeolife.blogspot.com. It was originally posted on November 11th of 2011 in response to facts that had come to light upon the release of the Sandusky grand jury presentment. Since that time, Sandusky has been convicted of 45 criminal counts, Joe Paterno has passed away, his statue has been removed, administrative officials allegedly involved in the cover-up have been fired, and the NCAA has laid down some of the most stringent punitive measures in it’s history against Penn State. Additionally, it has just come to light that there are new investigations being led by the Postal Inspection Service and the U.S. Attorney Office regarding an alleged child-porn distribution ring involving Sandusky and others. Insofar as the post indicates that my wife and I were considering church planting in State College, God’s movement in our lives in the following months led to us to investigate a calling to the city of Philadelphia and we are pursuing the opportunity to plant there at the current time. 

Sadly, many loyal fans still seem angry at the media and those involved in the investigation (i.e. independent investigator Lewis Freeh and others) for the demise of their football program, the tarnished reputation of their beloved coach, and the negative public perception currently plaguing the university. For these reasons and because of the renewed interest in the scandal sure to come about due to newly publicized investigations, I thought it suitable to republish this article. At the root of things, nothing since its writing has really changed. People worship persons. People worship themselves. People worship things around them. They don’t often worship God. Here’s to helping us all do just that:

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The Penn State sex-scandal is an absolute atrocity, on multiple levels. There are few things that can prepare the the human heart for the revelation of the kinds of things that were depicted in the grand jury presentment of the Sandusky case and that have been disclosed over the past week. The national conscience has been aroused and all eyes have now focused squarely on State College, Pennsylvania. The world is watching closely, and frankly, it doesn’t like what it sees.

Many of my friends from the South may not know this, but, though I have lived in the South for some time, I was actually raised in State College. My dad was a professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Penn State for thirteen years before my family moved to Tennessee when I was a senior in high school. Through school, I had class with the daughter of Graham Spanier (the now-terminated university president). Nearly all of my high school friends went to Penn State. It was commonly accepted that if you went to State College Area High School, you went to Penn State. It was just a given. I was on that track too, but my family moved before that came to fruition because my dad got a job at the University of Tennessee where I ended up finishing my bachelor’s degree. I walked the halls of Penn State many times as a kid. More than once I have sat in the University Creamery and eaten a bowl of Peachy Paterno ice cream. When I was 14, I got my first part-time job at McLanahan’s drug store right off of campus. Oh, and lest I forget, it was in State College that I fell in love with Grilled Stickies from Ye Olde College Diner (if you don’t know about Grilled Stickies, look them up and thank me later).

I have many fond memories of the town. In some sense, even after a decade of living below the Mason-Dixon, I feel like part of my heart is still there. I have felt that way since our family moved. This whole scandal has had a particular emotional impact on me that has been hard to explain and that has, at times, surprised even me.

I’m not the only one for whom raw emotion is making it difficult to remain objective in the face of moral truth, however. Many people simply don’t understand the significance of what is going on right now in State College. Some don’t understand the significance because they don’t live there and some don’t understand because they do. Let me explain.

Outsiders don’t (or perhaps can’t) understand the local significance of what has happened this week. There really isn’t any way for people who have not been exposed to the culture in State College to have a firm grasp on what is actually going on in the hearts and minds of the residents and fans there. Sure, you can read the news articles that talk about the local residents “coping with the devastating news,” but that is scarcely an adequate description. It is truly hard to over-estimate the impact that the university has on the culture of that town. It’s pervasive. This week’s events have laid a huge blow not only to a football program, not only to a university, but to an entire community.

The names Paterno and Sandusky were an integral part of the local vocabulary. People there define their place in local society by way of their relationship with PSU. “Townies,” as we called ourselves growing up, were those who were actually from State College, and not merely transient, educational nomads from the surrounding locales, seeking greener intellectual pastures. State High’s football team was nicknamed the “Little Lions.” Roughly 80% of the economy of State College is tied up in education, and yet the poverty rate of the town hovers at around 50% due to the overwhelming student population. All the area schools live in the shadow of the university – right down to the middle schools and elementary schools. Businesses there live and die by student money. The university is the heart of the town and football is (or, at least, was) the blood.

Each year when a portion of the students leave and make the trek back to their places of permanent residence, the town is left feeling dead and empty.

That dead, empty feeling is actually a pretty good metaphor for how I feel when I read of all of the heinousness that has gone on in the past decade behind closed doors at the university. My childhood home-place is dead and empty. It was all a farce – a great, deathly facade covering over something incredibly sinister. If my friends who remain there are any indication, that dead, empty feeling is a good description of how the current residents of the town feel, too. They feel as if the life of the town is gone. Someone has come in the night and destroyed their home. Their emotions are the remaining heap of rubble where a great blue-and-white castle once stood.

By this point, some of you are thinking that this is just a sob story from a die-hard Penn Stater trying to make people feel sorry for poor JoePa after he has done so much good for the community in his 40+ year tenure (and he has – demonstrably so). Hardly. I make note of all of this to attempt to put into words the heartbreak felt by that culture this week, and even by myself in some sense. Lest you think I am being too soft on the university, let me set the record straight. I read the full 23 pages of the presentment the day that this scandal was exposed. My first thought after reading it was, “Heads need to roll. And fast. Not in a while. Right now.” And in my mind, it was clear whose heads needed to be on the proverbial chopping block. Sandusky. Curly. Schultz. The unnamed graduate assistant (later identified as now-Assistant Coach McQueary). Spanier. Paterno. All of them needed to go. Sandusky needed to be prosecuted for his actions. The others needed to go for their inaction. If you are reading this post you are most likely already familiar with the details of the case, so I won’t belabor the point. Suffice it to say that I was angry and my respect for these men didn’t quench that anger. Not by a long shot.

Football is a game. The welfare of innocent children is not.

Period.

By current count, as many as 17 children allegedly bear the emotional scars of sexual abuse at the hands of Sandusky. Their lives are forever changed because of sins of those at Penn State University whose charge it was to protect them. And let us be clear: these sins were committed by multiple parties – sins both of commission and omission – not only by Sandusky. No one called the police. Not one of them. To gloss over these injustices in the name of blind allegiance to an athletic team and its leader is a moral failure in itself. And not a small one, either.

Last night, a candlelight vigil was held for the victims with over 10,000 in attendance. This is a Penn State that fans can be proud of. Sadly, given the media’s coverage of this scandal, my fear is that it will be too little, too late. Previously, I argued that some couldn’t understand the significance of recent events in State College because they don’t live there, others because they do. With regard to the latter group, my fear is that many of the individuals closest to the university have had no grasp of the significance because they have been so blinded by their own fierce loyalty to the Penn State brand and those who fly its colors. What is the world to think of you, Staters, when it turns on the cable news channels and sees students camping out in Paterno’s yard for an impromptu pep-rally? What is the world to think when it sees students taking to the streets in a riotous rage, smashing windows, flipping news vans, and tearing down light poles at the news of his termination? In the face of the facts surrounding this case, such actions show nothing less than a complete and utter lack of proper moral orientation. ESPN’s Stuart Scott recently said during a radio interview that in the years to come, those students who took to the streets in protest to Paterno’s removal will look back on their actions and find that they share in a portion of the shame and guilt surrounding this tragedy that shouldn’t have been theirs to bear. He is absolutely right. When individuals hastily come to the defense of a man in spite of the fact that the man himself didn’t come to the defense of others, they show themselves to be a part of the problem. And so, in a strange way, the metaphor of the town’s dead, empty atmosphere is also good description of what I feel when I see these kinds of reactions over the ousting of a football coach who, by his own admission, should have done more. Only now, instead of asking where the students are, I ask, “Where is the humanity?”

And then it hits me. It’s in plain view.

What we have witnessed in State College this week is textbook idolatry. It is human nature to be idolatrous and it has been since the fall of man in Genesis 3. Reformation theologian John Calvin once described the human heart as an idol-factory. “Daily experience,” he says, “teaches that flesh is always uneasy until it has obtained some figment like itself in which it may fondly find solace as in an image of God. In almost every age since the beginning of the world, men, in order that they might obey this blind desire, have set up symbols in which they believed God appeared before their bodily eyes” (Institutes, I.XI.8). All people worship something. God, self, intelligence, achievement, money, power, sex, relationships, and the list could go on. The backlash against the firing of Joe Paterno this week is the natural result of the wholesale deification of a coach and a collegiate sports program by an entire culture. Even the secular news media have picked up on this fact. Recent articles by Sports Illustrated, The New York Times, and the like have rightly identified the idolatry going on at Penn State for what it is – and yes, they used the word idolatry. The reason some of the locals, at least, feel dead and empty inside is because their pigskin-wielding god is dead and his absence has left a vacuum. Now that the god of Happy Valley has been dethroned, there is no one left to rule, and so, chaos, disorder, and emotional breakdown ensues.

This is not the first time in human history an idol has fallen with violent results.

Pastor and author Jared Wilson sent out a tweet on November 10th that simply said: “Acts 19:21-32. People riot when you dethrone their idols. #pennstate #paterno” Wilson’s observation couldn’t be more keen. The passage to which he refers is the story of the riot that broke out in Ephesus following Paul’s preaching of the gospel to the region. Many had come to Christ as a result of Paul’s teaching. So many had started to defect from their idolatry, in fact, that those with a vested interest in the economic benefits of the town’s idol production banded together and rioted, seeking to stop Paul and his companions at any and all cost. But it wasn’t just about economics. Verses 27- 32 record Demetrius, a silversmith for the idol producers, describing the loss of greatness – the loss of identity for Team Artemis – that might take place, and also the nature of the riot that followed:

…And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.” When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, “Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!” So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel. But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together. (ESV)

The parallels should be readily apparent.

Worship does not tolerate a vacuum. Everyone worships something. Everyone. You do. I do. We all do. The relevant question to ask is not if we are worshiping, but what.You worship that in which you find your fulfillment. For the Ephesian rioters, their fulfillment was anchored in the economic security and sense of identity that being a servant of Artemis afforded them. For many Penn State fans, I would hazard a guess, their sense of cultural identity associated with the university, the football program and its legendary head coach was where they found more of their fulfillment than many of them dared previously imagine.

I graduate from seminary in December and desire to return the Northeast with my family and a team to plant a church. I have considered returning to plant in State College, even well before this week’s scandal. I haven’t settled on it, but I’m still considering it. It is in a good strategic location within 4 1/2 hours of ten major metros with populations of 100,000 people or more and with a combined total population of somewhere in the neighborhood of 12.5 million people. State College could serve as a hub of sorts to reach those ten cities. There is a constant flux of students coming in and being sent back out to those same metro areas. Imagine the impact that they, partnering with a church in State College, could have if they took the gospel with them or even a team to plant another church in one of these locations. My wife Leigh Ann and I have talked about the possibility on numerous occasions, and most times I feel hesitant because I would, by nature, gravitate to a larger city. Following this week’s events, I asked her how she felt about the prospect of planting in State College, given the circumstances. She simply reminded me that small towns need the gospel too. As I said, we haven’t settled on State College, but it is something we are mulling over.

Still, her words ring true. If the first love of these people was Christ and his teachings – if he was their God – things would look vastly different then the riotous scene which played out on the news this week. Justice would be priority. Mercy, not violence, would be the reaction. Christ would be the Savior instead of the quarterback who fires a Hail Mary pass to secure a come-from-behind win. The greatest accomplishment of the town would be the proclamation of the gospel to the nations, not 409 wins for a football coach. There is nothing inherently wrong with sports. But something is wrong when sports become god and blind us from moral absolutes that are glaringly obvious, even to secular culture.

I have prayed multiple times since my family moved ten years ago for God to send me back one day to take the gospel to the friends I have that so desperately needed it when I lived there. Why? Because I still love them. Because I have come to know a Love whose radiant light exposes all sin which hides in darkness. Because I have come to know and be known by Jesus Christ. Because I want others to stop loving things that won’t love them, and instead find their fulfillment in the Love that will love them and cause them to love others.

When God is on the throne of people’s hearts instead of all of the other idols that vie for their worship – when Jesus is Lord – old things pass away and all things are made new. And right about now, that’s exactly what a grieving college town in central Pennsylvania desperately needs.

This post is, in part, the product of a response I wrote to blog post by Dr. Alvin Reid. You can read his post here.

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