Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Sons of Thunder

on pop theology, philosophy, theology, culture, pop culture, christianityby Ben Howard

The NBA playoffs recently came to a close with the Miami Heat claiming the NBA Championship over the Oklahoma City Thunder.  One of the dominant narratives of the Finals involved the interplay between Oklahoma City’s two dynamic young stars, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.  For those unfamiliar with the two, I’ll provide a quick primer. 

Kevin Durant was a college superstar at Texas and declared for the draft after playing just one year in college.  He was universally declared to be a future superstar and was drafted 2nd overall.  Over the past 5 years Durant has quickly developed into arguably the best pure scorer in basketball and is a perennial MVP candidate.

Russell Westbrook went to college as a project full of untapped athletic potential.  He declared for the draft after his sophomore year of college even though he hadn’t performed up to expectations at UCLA.  He was drafted fifth overall by the Thunder in the hopes that he would translate that athleticism into basketball skills.  Westbrook has developed into a dynamic whirlwind of a player full of acrobatic athletic displays and violent enthusiastic dunks, but is also prone to inconsistency and immaturity.  However, he is still considered one of the best players in the NBA and a major reason for the Thunder’s success.

Why do I bring up these two players and what could they possibly have to do with theology or Christian thought or anything important in any way whatsoever?  As the playoffs moved along, I became more and more convinced that Durant and Westbrook symbolize the two sides of the Christian spectrum with which I am most intimately intertwined.  Durant symbolizes the cool, consistency of the liturgical, historical church.  He represents a known quantity.  He occasionally dazzles, but his value is based in his ability to replicate his performance over and over and over and over again in the face of whatever obstacle happens to stand in his way.  As a result, Durant, like the historical liturgical tradition is seen as more respectable and is spoken of with more regard, especially by those who appreciate the methodical consistency of his approach.

In contrast, Westbrook represents the more recently emerged evangelical tradition.  Like Westbrook, this tradition often teeters right on the edge between brilliant and out of control.  It is fueled by enthusiasm and emotion, which when appropriately tempered can produce an experience verging on the mystical or magical.  When it works, it can bring us to the edge of awe.  However, when it falls flat or when it begins to fly so fast that it jumps the tracks and flies off into the great beyond, it does not merely fall short of awe-inspiring, it seems disastrous and unsalvagable.

In my own personal experience, I and many others like myself, lean heavily toward the Durant/liturgical/historical version of Christianity; we search for consistency with the ability for transcendence.  However, the more I reflect upon the church as a whole the more I think we need the Westbrook/evangelical aspect just as much.  We need the sparkplug, we need the energy and the enthusiasm, the violence and virtuosity.  And the Westbrooks of the world need the Durants too.  They need the calm voice of control and consistency to tame the raw emotion which can all too easily lead to chaos.

One of the core problems for the Thunder was the tendency for Westbrook to assert control and Durant’s failure to assert himself.  This to me is the same problem in the wider church.  Due to ego or insecurity the evangelical tradition often asserts itself to its own detriment and the more liturgical, occasionally elitist tradition fades into the background either to watch the evangelicals fail, or because of their own insecurities.  But when the two can work together, play off each other, support each others weaknesses with the others strength, then we all become witnesses to beauty, transcendence and hope for the fulfillment of a dream.


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