In The Search for Aaron Rodgers, ESPN’s Mina Kimes delivered a vulnerable and revealing interview with Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. Among other interesting topics—his relationship with Olivia Munn, conflict with his brother and family, the Colin Kaepernick situation, a former Cal teammate who came out as gay—the essay gives insight into Rodgers’ struggle with meaning and purpose after winning Super Bowl XLV.
“It’s natural to question some of the things that society defines as success,” he said. “When you achieve that and there’s not this rung—you know, another rung to climb up in this ladder—it’s natural to be like, ‘OK, now what?’”
Rodgers says his own quest to discover the answer to this question involved looking inward, delving into his own spiritual heritage as a starting point.
As he revealed to Kimes, he grew up attending a non-denominational church with his parents, both of whom were “devout Christians.” But over time, there were “aspects of dogma that left him unsatisfied.” He struggled with age-old apologetic questions, legitimate theological problems that have left many seekers reeling for answers.
Then he met Rob Bell—“best known for his progressive views on Christianity”—after a 2008 chapel service and, according Kimes, he “grew increasingly convinced that the beliefs he had internalized growing up were wrong, that spirituality could be far more inclusive and less literal than he had been taught.”
Now, he says,
“I think questions like that in your mind lead to really beautiful periods where you start to grow as a person. I think organized religion can have a mind-debilitating effect, because there is an exclusivity that can shut you out from being open to the world, to people, and energy, and love and acceptance. That wasn’t really the way that I was, maybe the first 25 or 26 years of my life. I was, you know, more black-and-white. This is what I believe in. And then at some point...you realize, I don’t really know the answers to these questions.”
Right direction, wrong path?
Upon first reading Kimes’ story, I was immediately encouraged with the direction Rodgers chose for his quest. The emptiness he felt after the Super Bowl is spiritual in nature and therefore demands a spiritual solution.
Yet, while pointing in the right direction is the critical first move, choosing the right path in that direction is just as crucial. Many “spiritual” roads exist, but not all of them will deliver on their promise to substantively satisfy any more than the Super Bowl does. The words Rodgers and Kimes use to describe his journey can be interpreted as representing two very different paths—one of which remains problematic and unable ultimately to fill the void he describes.
Aaron Rodgers as a representative, cautionary case study
Perhaps Rodgers grew up in a stiflingly legalistic church. Maybe his parents’ lived their beliefs in an oppressive, inappropriately authoritarian way that deserves both backlash and reformation. Certainly if what he was taught and the manner in which it was taught were “mind-debilitating” and reflected an overly dogmatic exclusivity that turns people away from the cross rather than drawing them in, then he should run as fast as he can away from it. That’s not the gospel.
But “organized religion” certainly isn’t the issue. Even Rob Bell and others like him have by now simply replaced an old-school understanding of the phrase with their own version of organized religion. Rather, how the gospel gets taught and lived within that organization matters far more—if there is any actual gospel involved at all.
Whenever I hear the language used in this article, 2 Timothy 4:3,4 warns in the background: “For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.” That admonition comes to my attention anytime the word “progressive” gets introduced to describe someone’s spiritual journey.
Ironically, I happened to be multi-tasking as I read Kimes’ piece, watching Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) in The Poseidon Adventure (1972) deliver a sermonette to the voyagers on the ill-fated fictional cruise liner. Reverend Scott’s words grabbed me relative to Kimes’ article:
“God is pretty busy. He has a plan for humanity that stretches beyond our comprehension. So we can't expect Him to concern Himself with the individual. The individual is important only to the extent of providing a creative link between the past and the future in his children, or in his grandchildren or his contributions to humanity. Therefore, don't pray to God to solve your problems. Pray to that part of God within you. Have the guts to fight for yourself. God wants brave souls. He wants winners, not quitters. lf you can't win, at least try to win. God loves triers. So, what resolution should we make for the New Year? Resolve to let God know that you have the guts to do it alone! Resolve to fight for yourselves and for others and for those you love. That part of God within you will be fighting with you—all the way.”
Religious sounding schlock of the worst sort.
Yet a devotional incredibly appealing in the ears of most listeners. Rather than originating from a passage of scripture, a message like this resonates more with Poor Richard, who suggested that “God helps those who help themselves” in Ben Franklin’s almanac. But, given that most Americans today think this phrase comes from the Bible, it’s worth noting how relevant and dangerous Scott’s movie-screen message continues to be.
Voyagers on the imaginary SS Poseidon loved it. Listeners in actual churches and on TV all across America today love it still. It’s progressive. It scoffs at traditional understandings of organized religion. It’s inclusive. It talks about God while focusing on man. We love it.
But it’s dangerous trash, the kind that may earn a person the dreadfully conclusive “Depart from me, I never knew you” in the hour of truth.
While listening to Reverend Scott, specific words and phrases offered up by Rodgers—and Kimes herself—caught my attention, leaving me concerned not simply for Rodgers’ path, but for anyone potentially seduced by un-orthodox understandings of Christianity. The concern starts with Kimes using the word “progressive” to describe the teaching Rodgers received that began his change.
Good progressive vs. bad progressive
“Progressive” used as an adjective to describe Christian leaders and their teachings often mean conflicting things.
Progressive can mean “bringing corrective adjustments to teachings which have been misapplied or ignored throughout Christian history.” It’s quite properly progressive, for example, to acknowledge and correct the deviant use of the Bible to justify American slavery, to stand against the subjugation and abuse of women under oppressive patriarchies, to not make debated theological positions—like young earth creationism or various understandings of end-times scenarios—become prerequisites for inclusion in the Faith.
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But progressive also functions as code for leaving behind all historically orthodox teachings that make people in our current cultural moment feel uncomfortable.
Manifestations of progressive teaching have far too often been more aligned with H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic summary of liberalism, which offers “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.”
It becomes dangerous when “progressive” produces the kind of toothless and empty malformation of Christian belief described by Niebuhr because this kind of faith not only confuses people seeking answers with an un-biblical version of Jesus, but also has no real chance of satisfying for long.
Then people conclude that either Jesus or the Christian faith let them down, when in reality it was merely a shell of the historic faith that wound up being dissatisfying—and understandably so.
“Aspects of dogma” are absolutely critical to the Christian faith, but too often the issues Rodgers lists get used as a gateway to move away from the central truths historically held by Christians across centuries, exchanging the substance of the Cross for a shadow of the actual faith. When that happens, we should be concerned.
Jesus—the “inclusively exclusive” One
In the context of the Christian worldview, “exclusivity” doesn’t have to close a person off from “being open to the world, to people, and energy, and love and acceptance.” Rather, what makes us unattractively exclusive is a failure to understand the gospel, a failure to understand that the person most in need of salvation today is first me, then you.
It’s a failure to appreciate that the exclusive claims that Christ made about himself should, once embraced, allow a person to move freely—dare we say, inclusively?—into the world among others needing grace.
Nor is it the exclusive claims of Christ that create the “mind-debilitating effect” Rodgers references. Rather, it’s spending more time pointing out and fretting over the sins of others instead of practicing the gift of personal repentance in light of our own. It’s pretending to have dogmatically clear answers to questions that God Himself has purposely left cloaked in the mystery of ambiguity. It’s creating theological systems that—while important—can subtly take the place of Christ in our hearts.
“Exclusive” becomes dangerous when we start to think of ourselves as so holy and set apart that a new Pharisaism starts to determine which sins should be focused on and which sinners left out, no longer offering a free gift of grace to everyone who comes. Indeed, legalism is just a perversion of Christian exclusivity.
At the other extreme, “inclusive” becomes dangerous when we become so relevant that the difficult teachings of Jesus that necessarily exclude certain attitudes and behaviors and beliefs get ignored, explained away, or misinterpreted to suit our fancy.
Jesus is inclusively exclusive; that is, His offer of salvation is extended to all, but only those who actually receive it will be included in the end. “But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, to them he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). That’s a very inclusive claim of exclusivity.
It’s not our job—though it’s definitely worth struggling with—to figure out how God pulls that off while remaining just in light of our own unanswered apologetic questions. His justice is not like our justice, so we need to be careful before throwing out what he does make clear simply because we can’t handle what seems unclear.
The answer to a person’s legitimate quest for meaning isn’t found in a watered down version of historic Christian beliefs in an effort to be inclusive. Better to leave those perversions behind and pursue pure hedonism than to distort the life, death, and resurrection of Christ and make him a good moral teacher or ultimate example of enlightened humanity simply because Christians have misunderstood or misapplied historic doctrines of the faith across time or our own immediate, dissatisfied experience.
Nor is it found in an legalistic conservatism—often inappropriately mixed with right-wing, secular Conservatism—bound to a select list of what constitutes “righteousness” while conveniently ignoring cultural and social issues that don’t show up on our personal political agenda.
The perversion of exclusivity forgets how to interact with sinful people from all walks of fallenness. While Jesus is quite exclusive in his own teaching relative to other worldviews, His followers should be incredibly inclusive relative to other sinful human beings.
The goal: learning to live with grace and truth
The Apostle John described Jesus as coming “full of grace and truth (John 1:14),” two words whose juxtaposition leaves people extremely unsettled. We seem more comfortable living at the extremes of one word or the other, and mixing the two always produces a contrast difficult to embrace.
Sometimes we take grace and push it to a corroded outer edge, one that essentially removes all boundaries, all systemic considerations of scripture, all requirements and qualifications and expectations for inclusion in the life of Faith.
Or we embrace a form of truth that smothers the life out of people, drawing ever tighter lines and blackening the edges to an extent not encouraged in the Bible, creating a modern Pharisaism dripping in legalistic righteousness. Neither produces life. They both remove the mysterious substance of “life in Christ” and replace it with either a not-so-thinly-veiled Humanistic Universalism at one end or a stifling, hate-producing Westboro Baptist Church experience at the other.
A Super Bowl will not produce life. Neither will Olympic medals or world championships of any kind. A person won’t be satisfied with a certain amount of money or the right relationship or unending human praise or any of the other idols that promise life.
But distortions of grace and truth will never produce life either. And that should be our concern for Rodgers and anyone else on a spiritual quest—that a failed worldly idol merely gets traded in for a more religious one.
What we can learn from Aaron Rodgers’ quest
Rodgers concluded in his interview with Kimes, “I’ve been to the bottom and I’ve been to the top, and peace will come from somewhere else.”
Indeed. Not from a particular denomination or sport ministry organization or trending pastor/author/teacher. That “somewhere else” is, and always has been, Jesus Christ—full of grace and truth—who lived a perfect life, was crucified for our sins, died a criminal’s death, and rose again to become the answer to the centuries old question that gets asked again and again: “Isn’t there more to life than this?”
As Kimes’ subtitle reads, “Winning isn’t everything. After Super Bowl XLV, Green Bay’s hero QB has been on a journey to find out what is.”
Hopefully, in God’s grace, Rodgers—along with the rest of us—will be reintroduced over and over again to the Answer in a fresh yet orthodox way, every day for the rest of our lives.