Mamba Out – The Gospel Of The Hero/Villain
We need to embrace the hero and villain in us all
The two words officially and dramatically ended Kobe Bryant’s career as a player. After a somewhat draining six month retirement tour, people around the world watched the end through different interpretive lenses depending on which aspect of his story they chose to emphasize.
WILL THE REAL KOBE BRYANT PLEASE STAND UP?
A made for Hollywood 20 year journey of mythological extremes, Kobe’s well-publicized biography includes the highest of basketball highs—MVP awards, five championships, 18 All-Star Games, hours of highlight reel footage—alongside the lowest of human lows—a scandalous accusation of rape, unapologetic selfishness on the court, being called “uncoachable” by Phil Jackson, intensely public disdain for and from teammates.
In his case, the drama has already been written about, argued over, and analyzed for years. How an individual player ultimately gets categorized comes down to what fans and media choose to see and emphasize based on the relatively limited information made available to them.
The real Kobe has already stood up in front of us for 20 years, and in his case as in all public figures, it’s complicated.
Nothing new really.
What I find far more interesting is his marketing of the tension between the extremes.
HELP REDEEM THE CULTURE OF YOUTH SPORTS.
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MARKETING OUR FALLENNESS
With the arrival this season of his “Hero/Villain” gear and accessories, Bryant’s marketing people shrewdly leveraged the perception of their client, and in the process both capitalized on and unwittingly highlighted a central gospel truth: If you look close enough, every life is a tangled web of honor and disgrace.
In real life, the beautiful and the grotesque commingle together in a way that isn’t always pretty, certainly isn’t even, and usually isn’t accepted.
Regardless of his motives, when in a recent interview Kobe said, “No hero is perfect, and no villain is completely void of heroic intentions. We all live as both,” he dropped a truth on us that’s obvious yet incredibly difficult to receive.
We like our heroes to be heroes and have nothing but noble hero characteristics. We like our villains to stand out for their villainy, nothing more. We can find this surface template in comic books, but in real life character lines become blurry immediately upon inspection.
Discussing the complications of making his critically acclaimed expose on Jackie Robinson, documentary filmmaker Ken Burns summarized this reality by saying, “We live in a simplistic media culture that presumes our heroes need to be perfect and is constantly disappointed when they aren’t. The Greeks who invented the notion of heroism knew that a hero had very obvious strengths but also very obvious and perhaps equal weaknesses. It’s the negotiation between those strengths and weaknesses that defines heroism.”
We don’t like heroes who have to negotiate between strengths and weaknesses. By most of our definitions of “hero,” they really shouldn’t have any weaknesses—at least not of the socially condemnable kind.
Unfortunately, the high expectations of living in quasi-perfection aren’t reserved for heroes.
LIVING WITH THE GOOD/BAD TENSION
Christian psychologist and counselor Henry Cloud writes and speaks extensively on what he calls “the good/bad split.”
He observes that as humans, “Our natural tendency is to try and resolve the problem of good and evil by keeping the good and bad separated. We want, by nature, to experience the good me, the good other, and the good world as ‘all good.’ To do this, we see the bad me, the bad other, and the bad world as ‘all bad.’ This creates a split in our experience of ourselves, others, and the world around us—a split that is not based on reality and cannot stand the test of time and real life.”
It creates a split because when we force an unreal expectation onto reality and don’t get the results we anticipated, we don’t usually question our unreal expectation—we question reality.
And then we start to go a little crazy trying to navigate why life isn’t working: Why do I feel guilty all the time even though I’m forgiven? Why do I feel unworthy even though I’m loved? Why do I always feel like something is missing even though I’m complete in Christ?
"How much freedom might be waiting for us if we could absorb the truth of real grace into our heart and mind?"
A MAJOR PROBLEM FOR ATHLETES
Failure to navigate the good/bad split is one significant factor at the core of why athletes struggle so intensely with performance issues.
We’ve been taught in the context of competition that failure is an intolerable weakness that will be judged harshly and without regard for the complexity of being human.
Sports culture necessarily despises the good/bad split. Athletic “goodness” is celebrated, athletic “badness” is condemned. Performance rules the day, and whatever good you did yesterday gets quickly forgotten if not followed up today.
Sports—at least in their current American configuration—promote a zero-sum formula from youth leagues up: you either perform and succeed or be replaced. Not much room for being in process or for outcome duality.
The sport subculture can play by whatever rules it wants, and if we’re going to be athletes in it we are necessarily subjected to its rules, but carrying this same mentality over into our day to day lives off the field has disastrous effects on our spiritual, emotional, and sometimes even physical well-being.
THE GOSPEL, ONCE AGAIN
The answer to the good/bad split is the gospel, realized and applied.
In short, “perform or else” presents the antithesis of divinely infused grace, of a tolerance for the truth of being a fallen creature in a fallen world who is constantly negotiating their birth given “bad” against their born-again “good.”
Why do we expect perfection from ourselves? Why are we disappointed and somewhat shocked to look in our souls and find dirty stuff, soiled thoughts, foolish behaviors, regrettable actions?
Instead of being surprised, what if we capitalized more on confession and repentance, using the awareness of our failures as an opportunity to draw near to the One who loves us completely in spite of them? Who became our Savior because of them?
How much freedom might be waiting for us if we could absorb the truth of real grace into our heart and mind?
God saves broken people not so they can become perfect and relieve the “good/bad” tension in this life, but so they can put His beauty on display through their ongoing and hopefully evolving imperfections until we leave this body behind.
Good seeping through the bad, mashed together, a seed whose healthy sprouts are only barely beginning to push through the fallow ground of our redeemed humanity.
The gospel promises that Good will win out in the end, will completely obliterate the Bad that still wages war in us. It gives us hope that one day we’ll finally set the mic down at center court of our lives and say “It’s finished—I’m out.”
Ironically, as Kobe receives numerous trinkets on his way out the retirement door while facing all the judgment of public opinion that naturally follows iconic public figures, the opportunity to reflect on the good/bad complication against the backdrop of his exit may actually be a great gift to us all, a chance to get a little freer from the grip of a faulty view of life under the sun.