“That was God disguised as Michael Jordan.”
Larry Bird uttered those famous words after watching a young Jordan torch his team for 63 points in the 1986 playoffs. The quote has become part of Jordan lore, words that testify to his greatness. But when it was featured in The Last Dance, ESPN’s blockbuster documentary series on Jordan and the Chicago Bulls, it hit me in a way Bird never intended. It caused me to reflect on the different ways I’ve looked at Jordan over the span of my Christian life, and to reassess how I look at him now.
My evolving views on Jordan aren’t unique. They represent patterns of evangelical cultural engagement that apply just as much to sports as to other realms. And they get at questions that aren’t new to our era. How are we to be “in the world but not of it”? What does it mean to celebrate the goodness of God’s creation in a fallen world? Why are we drawn to celebrities—and what do we really admire about them?
Maybe you wrestle with these questions through musicians, actors, directors, or authors. But for me, it’s through Michael Jordan.
Sacred versus Secular
I started as a Jordan fan, trying to emulate his moves in my backyard. I couldn’t do it well, but I sure could consume MJ-approved products, especially Wheaties. After filling my cereal bowl I’d take a bite, stand up, and jump. “I think I’m jumping higher!” I’d insist.
Naturally, I also had a poster of Jordan on my bedroom wall.
But my fandom came with brakes. Like many other evangelicals, I was taught to be suspicious of the world, to be attuned to the invisible battles in everyday life: between spirit and flesh, sacred and secular.
Jordan definitely fit into the worldly category.
I was taught to be suspicious of the world, to be attuned to the invisible battles in everyday life: between spirit and flesh, sacred and secular.
And so, a couple weeks after his poster went up on my wall, it came down. My parents didn’t force me to do it. But they talked with me about the spiritual forces it might represent and how those forces might be contrary to the Christian spirit. It’s unlikely they’d heard Larry Bird’s famous quip. But if they had, it probably would’ve confirmed the spiritual dangers of Jordan’s allure, the way his fans flippantly revered him in a way that only God deserves.
As I grew older and my involvement in sports expanded, the tension represented by the poster never fully diminished. But I learned new strategies to work around it. Perhaps the most important strategy was to see sports as an instrument that could serve God’s purpose. Sure, sports might be part of the secular world, but they capture the attention of millions. What a platform for evangelism! Christians could participate in such “worldly” realms—so long as they used their participation for “spiritual” ends.
Armed with this understanding, I learned to look for the Christian uses of sport. Jordan may have had six championships, but outspoken Christian athletes like David Robinson were making an eternal impact by using their fame to share the gospel.
This instrumentalist use of sport carried me through my days playing basketball in college. But it never fully resolved the tension. The nagging sense that playing and watching sports was a second-class Christian activity remained.
Goodness of Creation
As I entered graduate school and started reading what theologians had to say about sports and culture, I found a new way forward. I didn’t need to instrumentalize sports to justify my love for them, because everything in the world—including sports—is part of God’s good creation. I could simply take in and celebrate sports as one of God’s gifts.
I consumed books like Michael Novak’s 1976 classic, The Joy of Sports. Novak writes of the “hunger for perfection” in sports, which represents “the driving core of the human spirit.” Jordan might not thank Jesus after his victories, but he nonetheless pointed to the Creator in the way he displayed his God-given abilities.
I didn’t need to instrumentalize sports to justify my love for them, because everything in the world—including sports—was part of God’s good creation.
This understanding of sports helped me see and appreciate Jordan’s greatness anew—and without the sense of guilt. I no longer saw the world as divided into sacred and secular, with sports part of the latter. All of life belonged to God—every square inch. Just as a lover of music might be drawn to God by listening to Mozart, a lover of sports might reflect on the beauty of creation through an acrobatic display on the basketball court.
“God disguised as Michael Jordan” was no longer a quote with flashing danger signs for Christians. It didn’t reflect an attempt to usurp God’s place of ultimacy. Instead, it hinted at a God-given human impulse to pursue excellence and reach beyond ourselves.
By the time I came to adopt this view of sports, Jordan had long since retired. But The Last Dance brought him back into my life. As I watched, I saw plenty that affirmed what I’ve come to believe about sports and culture. I saw beauty, grace, determination—all creational goods that can be celebrated. I experienced, too, the relational joy of sharing the documentary with fellow basketball fans.
But watching The Last Dance also brought to mind my childhood experiences with Jordan: the poster, the Wheaties, the emulation. And it pulled back the curtain on the Jordan I didn’t see back then: the vindictive, grudge-nursing bully. I couldn’t help but wonder if there were some truths to my earlier suspicions that I’ve lost in my supposedly more sophisticated understanding.
The problem isn’t so much that I might make Jordan into God. The problem instead is the subtle ways that little-g “gods” come disguised as Jordan. It’s the cultural values and priorities that Jordan embodies and represents. When I celebrate Jordan, am I more drawn to the gods of success and fame and winning, or to God the Creator?
Of course I tell myself it’s the latter. But it’s far more difficult to know, at the heart level, what’s truly going on when I admire Jordan—or when any of us admires musicians, actresses, or authors.
When I celebrate Jordan, am I more drawn to the gods of success and fame and winning, or to God the Creator?
So, what can we do? Take down our posters and separate our cultural products into “secular” and “sacred” categories once again?
One question I’ve started to ask is this: where do I routinely see and celebrate signs of God’s good creation? If I do this even with the ordinary and lowly—the things our culture doesn’t worship—then celebrating Jordan’s brilliance might simply express a life formed to see the world as God intends. But if I tend to discover glimpses of God’s goodness primarily in symbols of success—in the Michael Jordans of the world—then there’s a good chance I’m celebrating some other gods. There’s an even better chance I’m not as immune as I may think to cultural messaging. The childhood me who thought eating Wheaties would make me jump like Mike is not so different from the grown-up me who yearns to identify myself and my faith with Jordan’s greatness.
These days I probably wouldn’t take down the Jordan poster. But I’m trying to recover a bit of my childhood zeal for “testing the spirits.” It’s not the tension of the “sacred versus secular” divide, but it’s a tension nevertheless: of living in a good-but-fallen creation, where God’s kingdom is here but its final consummation is not yet, where the idols of our age might come disguised as the cultural figures we so admire.