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Hero worship

Guest commentary by Paul Hooker

As I write these words, the news is coursing around the internet that Simone Biles, American gymnast extraordinaire and hope for gold medals to stoke the furnace of national pride, has withdrawn from at least some of the remaining competition in the Tokyo Olympiad. Biles’ decision has me thinking about heroes.

In a word, they are a bad idea.

In fact, I’ll go further: Holding up a human being as a hero borders on idolatry.

Please do not write me off as another crotchety complainer about the torpor of millennials. I am not in any way criticizing Biles’ decision to terminate at least some portion of her competition. Quite the opposite: I applaud it.

She has, as many have already noted, acted in a way that tends to her own care in a way no one else could do. She has reached a limit, one that she deems wise not to transgress.

And that is precisely the point. We are limited creatures. In every way, our mortality edges us round and reminds us that there things we cannot do, cannot be, cannot know. At the same time, as Reinhold Niebuhr (and others before him, back to the Christian Neoplatonists) pointed out, we are possessed of a capacity for self-transcendence that permits us to envision and imagine ourselves living beyond our limits: doing, being, knowing more than it is humanly possible to do, be or know. This self-transcendence creates in us a fundamental anxiety, a tension between what we are and what we imagine we might be.

Anxiety demands a response, and Niebuhr pointed to three: hubris, the pretense that we are what we are not; sensuality, the submersion of our anxious selves in a cloud of sensual pleasure enabled by alcohol, narcotics or sexual excess; and faith, the trust that the distance between what we are and what we can imagine being is gathered up and held for us in the goodness and grace of God.

You are asking: What does this lesson in mid-20th-century theology have to do with Simone Biles? In a way that perhaps even she may not understand, Biles has chosen a form of faith to address the anxiety that has descended on her like a cloud at least since the beginning of the Olympiad — and quite possibly much longer. She has decided to acknowledge and accept her limitations. In her recent gymnastic performances, she has confronted her humanity, her mortality and finitude.

But even as she acknowledges and accepts her limits, she deals with an anxious world that is profoundly unready to permit her voluntary descent from her heroic perch. She is beset behind and before by a public, represented by a ravenous media, that demands that she do in each competition everything she has ever done and more. That she bear the standard of the human hope into battle with death and finitude and come out the other side victorious. That she continue to fly higher, farther, faster, and with more impossibly complex contortions of her corpus. That she cover herself in glory so that we, her adoring public, may bask in that glory and thereby obscure for a while the dismal truths of our racism, sexism and anti-intellectualism, our crass capitalism and rampant individualism. In short, we demand that she endure pain in order that we can feel better about ourselves. A twisted sort of atonement, to be sure.

We adore our heroes precisely because they allow us to pretend that we are not limited by our finitude: that we are better, bigger, wiser, more beautiful than we are or can be. We worship them because they distract us from our own messiness and moral infirmity. We are viciously unforgiving of those same heroes when they let us down by failing to live up to expectations or by simply deciding that they no longer wish to bear the hero’s mantle.

Biles has taught us, here in what is arguably her finest hour, that there is finally no such thing as a hero. There are people who have wonderful talents and who can, from time to time, achieve great things. But those same people are flawed and broken — in a word: mortal. Those we hold up as heroes all have dark sides and inner demons that sooner or later come to light. Gymnasts like Simone Biles, for all their high-flying wizardry, sooner or later hop-step out of bounds on the landing, literally if not metaphorically. Throughout history, heroes have proven fallible. Poets like T.S. Eliot and Wallace Stevens, for all their brilliance, are sooner or later exposed to be distantly abusive wretches toward their families and disagreeable brutes toward their business associates. Politicians like Al Franken, for all their wit and political savvy, sooner or later forget that they are not entitled to fondle any woman they fancy. Founding fathers like Thomas Jefferson, for all their timeless eloquence on the page, sooner or later are discovered to have begotten children on the enslaved Sally Hemings of their households. In the end, we are left always mourning with David at the death of Jonathan, “Your glory, O Israel, lies slain upon the heights. How are the mighty fallen!” (2 Samuel 1:19).

This week, Biles has also taught us, even if without consciously knowing she has done so, that elevating any mortal to immortality is an idolatrous act. We made a goddess of Simone Biles, whether she wanted to be or not. But all gods and goddesses crack and crumble, exposing the frail flesh beneath the facade. There is no god but God (and – dare one be honest? – sometimes one wonders about that).

Perhaps it is my advancing age and the sardonic vision that accompanies it, but I have become an iconoclast when it comes to heroes. I have torn down all the statues from their pedestals (as I would encourage everyone else to do as well). I have made a habit of apophasis, saying “yes, but” in response to every affirmation of human greatness. At the same time, I have become much more forgiving of the foibles of the purportedly great, because I recognize in them the same weakness and moral myopia I see in myself. I will not cancel the fallen heroes of my culture, precisely because I refuse to grant them hero status in the first place. They are not icons of steel or stone; they are creatures of flesh and blood. It is time we stopped immortalizing them for the purpose of participating, however vicariously, in their immortality.

A few years ago when we were in the midst of controversy over the removal of Confederate statues from public squares, this poem occurred to me. Perhaps it is still appropriate:

They Were Soldiers (from “Days and Times: Poems from the Liturgy of the Living”)

Some were sons of farmers, some of planters.
Some held slaves. Some could barely hold a job.
Some believed the Cause. Some had no cause to believe
in anything but themselves, and barely that.
As soon as shots were fired in anger
some signed up because they sought adventure.
But some waited in the woods, moving quietly
so as not to draw attention from the Home Guard
lest they be dragged from sleep, cuffed and chained
like the slaves they would too soon fight to keep.
Handed uniform and gun, one and all were told
they were just soldiers, nothing more.

They were bodies.
Some were whole, some were missing parts,
arms or eyes or frostbit toes or fingers.
Some were missing altogether, slipped away
in morning mist to havens in the hills of home
as soon as sergeants called the daily roll.
Those that stayed were loyal not to cause
or country, not to way of life, but to each other.
When hell broke loose they shielded one another
from canister and shell, minié ball and rifled shot.
It was the only thing that mattered. It was love
in the field of blood and bone. And when it was done
they were just bodies, nothing more.

They are statues.
Some are effigies of generals, some of grunts.
Their metal gaze seems measured to some distant vision
dead in fields of war and somehow late revived.
We see it for them, God help us; and watch it grow
as soon as hearts are grieved and minds are lost
in angry tales of sadness only demons tell.
Around their horses’ hooves swirls an evil tide,
rage flowing like Hell’s river at their feet.
Their pedestals are dams for stagnant reservoirs
of darkness where fools bend the knee to drink.
These iron angels sing no glorias. Remove them.
They are just statues. Nothing more.

PAUL HOOKER is associate dean for ministerial formation and advanced studies at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas.