Aaron Rodgers first came to my consciousness when I was not a fan of American Football. As a university student, I was only vaguely aware of the exploits of his predecessor in Brett Favre, and admired from afar the sort of freewheeling persona Favre exuded. It was only when Favre waffled and in the best sense of that Thomasian theme, refused to go gently, that I began to pay attention to the story within the story– that of a relative innocent, thrust into an unwinnable circumstance, tasked with replacing a local legend. And it was as I delved deeper into the history of that team that I became a fan of the franchise that had chosen the both of them. I reveled in their slow-and-steady approach in sticking with and developing players they chose in the draft. I delighted in their small-town appeal that thumbed its nose in the direction of greedy owners and their corporations. And I still look with satisfaction upon the centuries-long waiting list for seasons tickets and the way community volunteers eagerly leap, shovels in mitted hands, to clear the bleachers before a snowy home game.
But captain of it all was Rodgers, the one who showed us all. In the second year of my official fandom, the Green Bay Packers won the Super Bowl. This was due, in large part, to the heroic endeavours of Rodgers at quarterback, the game’s most difficult position. In the years since that victory, many favourite players have come and gone, but Rodgers was the still point in that churn. His magical arm talent and mastery of all elements of the offensive game put in me the expectation that at least once per game, he would do something extraordinary, something that no other human could do. Others had won more championships, thrown for more yards or touchdowns, or could run faster. But Rodgers seemed to outfox them all with the kind of art and craft that seemed could only be begotten from a subtle and discerning mind. With a flick of his wrist, he would send an oblong ball bulleting 70 yards down field. His hovering footwork defied traditional throwing mechanics. And as he aged, he didn’t run as much as he used to, but instead learned to manipulate his linemen to buy himself more time to throw. Were it not, I have sighed many times, for deficient defenses that have kept the team from appearing in the Super Bowl again, perhaps we would have long ago lauded Rodgers as the greatest quarterback of all time.
Yet it was not only his sporting prowess that captivated me. It was his apparent sense of humour, his cerebrality, his lightness of being. He was reported to be a voracious reader. He was reported to be a “regular guy” outside of football. He was reported to be both in that moneyed world of professional athletes but not of that world. And that was a crucial distinction that made me glad, week after week, to support him and his team.
As one who is vaccinated and of a community of people who believe in vaccinations, the recent news that Aaron Rodgers had lied (sorry, “intentionally misled”) about his “immunization” was, in a word, painful. Perhaps you think me shallow to experience pain over the failure of an idol, but there is always grief in the offering when those we admire disappoint us by doffing their carefully manicured persona and to reveal their vanity and ignorance. Many of us experience it when our parents disappoint us, or when our friends fail us, or when our political leaders stumble into disgrace. The only foolish part of my feeling pain was that there is much less at stake in a disfiguring sporting event than there is in our nurturance, our loves, or those we choose to have authority over us.
I was raised to think that the Bible was full of heroes. As a current Sunday School teacher, it bothers me that in many cases we do our children a disservice by continuing to represent all Biblical figures as perfect, when in fact there was only one who was presented as such. If nothing else, the Bible tends to show a patient God working through flawed people to save the world from the worst of human impulses. As one who happens to have a formal theological education, I’m pleased to be able to give a more nuanced perspective to my children, as confusing as it may be. But what of those that only want and receive simplistic and moralistic teaching? I imagine the letdown when you find out otherwise to be nothing less than crushing, the kind of spiritual experience that makes one want to just leave it all behind. It was difficult to survive the deconstruction of my childhood faith over the course of my seminary studies. Were it not for one or two professors who modeled (not just taught) intellectual and spiritual humility, I don’t know if I ever would find myself here, a churchgoer and admitted Christian even into my middle age.
The same thing happened to me again when Rodgers revealed his ignorance. Though I knew he was only a professional athlete and that I shouldn’t put so much stock into his carefully managed public persona, it didn’t seem that there was much smoke to speak of with respect to his life. And that lack of smoke made me think there wasn’t much fire, if any at all. I trusted what I saw, heard, and read. He was a freethinker, true, but one that inevitably landed on the side of the clearheaded left-leaning angels– like me.
The truth is that I had, as in all cases of idolatry, made him in my own image.
There is a part of all of us that wants purity in the people we seek to admire. See, for example, racist conceptions of Jesus as the perfect Aryan, an image that comes from colonized minds that exalt white people as ideal human beings. And some may choose to snicker at me and my trust in an image as the leavings of a fool, and then make me choose either the cynicism of a hero-less world, or drag me through a pious mire for trusting anyone but my favourite image of Jesus. But there is still grief in the offering when the story you had hoped was true is found to be false. After all, that’s the use of a mythology: to build up a public narrative around a hero in order to protect ourselves from being disappointed in them. The pain of holding a deconstructed mythology is that we are suddenly left with much less information about the trustworthiness of our heroes. Instead, we are left with tension with truths: Rodgers is a wonderful quarterback, but a terrible scientist. He may be devoted to his team, but only enough to endure concussions and broken bones, not enough to receive a vaccine that could potentially save their lives beyond the few years they have of football glory. He may still be cerebral, but he may also be deceived. Holding truths like these is one of the more taxing parts of adulthood. Yet holding truths like these about ourselves as both sinners and saints is what releases us to become more ourselves. This is the grace of our middle years: to be tempted to long for simpler existences that are composed of “either/or”, but perhaps, if we can overcome that awful gravity, to accept that these tensions are alive in us, and that this too is more beloved than we had thought.