Penn State & False Idols

“Every one of us is, even from his mother’s womb, a master craftsman of idols.” – John Calvin

It seems like this Penn State story just won’t die. Every week there is a new angle to take, or another press conference to cover. First, we had the Sandusky verdict. Then we had the release of the Freeh report. Then the statue was taken down. Now, the sanctions were issued by the NCAA . At some point in this process, I am sure many Penn State fans were hoping for some sort of vindication for the longstanding face of the football program, Coach Joe Paterno. But at every turn, those fans are disappointed. The Freeh report concluded,

The most saddening finding by the Special Investigative Counsel is the total and consistent disregard by the most senior leaders at Penn State for the safety and welfare of Sandusky’s child victims….

Not good. What it says is that the most powerful people in at the University, and apparently that region of Pennsylvania — University president Graham Spanier, Athletic Director Tim Curley, and coach Joe Paterno — did absolutely nothing to protect the dozen or so victims from a child sex predator. They exhibited an incredible lack of empathy by failing to inquire about the safety of the victims, and even allowing Jerry Sandusky to have continued access to official university facilities right up until his arrest.

If this had happened at any other University, the statue would’ve been torn down like it was the statue of Saddam Hussein in the center of Baghdad. But the residents of the — now, fairly ironically-titled — town of Happy Valley, PA have protested tooth and nail every repercussion of these incidents.

This leads to the question, what is it about Joe Paterno and the football program at Penn State that makes covering up 12 years of sexual abuse okay?

I think the answer to this lies in what many have called the “cult-like worship” of Saint JoePa. For so long, Joe Paterno stood as this irrefutable figure, a pillar of exemplary class and work ethic. He was held up and idolized for hundreds of thousands of Penn State students, alum, and fans. For many, the statue of Joe Paterno outside of the football stadium still stood for this reputation for always doing the right thing. The only problem is, for most people outside of the reach of the Happy Valley kool-aid, that’s not what that statue represents anymore.

And that’s the thing with false idols — they always disappoint.

Early on in the Hebrew Bible — Leviticus for those following along — it says that we are not to turn to idols or make cast images for ourselves. And what’s a statue if it isn’t a cast image? Even though we can think of Leviticus as washed up and having no place in society — which some if it is — this part still hits the nail on its head. For the people of Penn State, the JoePa statue gave meaning and identity to the school and its students.

This is why people in the early days of the Israelites made idols. They couldn’t find God so they created statues and idols to be God’s place. But when we try to pinpoint God’s placement, it often doesn’t work well for us.

But we buy into this all the time, don’t we? We chase things that we feel will give us meaning — the newest technology, a nicer car, a bigger house — but they never do. That’s because it’s a sign of success, but it’s hollow. There’s nothing backing it except pride and desire for approval. There’s no faith. There’s no compassion. There’s no justice. There’s no love.

There’s just the hollow feeling that false Gods leave on their way down.

Cheers,
Eric

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