When I was growing up in England there was a soccer legend who I loved to watch play the game. I was and still am a fan of Tottenham Hotspur. Back then, my beloved ‘Spurs’, as they are usually referred to, were painful to watch, not because they couldn’t play the game well but because they would always end up disappointing you in the end. A few good games, and then a string of hapless defeats. Plenty of skill in the side but never any real consistency as a team. It was a pattern of unfulfilled hope. We, the fans loved them; they the team never seemed to be able to live up to our reality-denying adoration.
And then came along Paul Gascoigne, an extraordinarily talented and it would turn out troubled young man. Gascoigne had the kind of talent at the time that both the Spurs and England national team had dreamed of finding – he could pass to anywhere on the field with consummate skill and accuracy. He could see the game faster than others and so anticipate what other players could only catch up to. And he could go past players with speed and skill and go on to score spectacular and at times outrageously spectacular goals. Needless to say, I loved him.
English poet Philip Larkin wrote in ‘The Whitsun Weddings’, ‘Here leaves unnoticed thicken, Hidden weeds flower, neglected waters quicken…Here is unfenced existence: facing the sun, untalkative, out of reach‘. Amid the exuberance surrounding Gascoigne’s prodigious talent celebrated in the media and among fans alike too little was noticed about the man behind the hype, the man who was setting English soccer on fire and at the same time was increasingly living an ‘unfenced existence’ whose troubles particularly with alcohol would eventually render him ‘out of reach’ for those who would try to bring him back from the abyss. The tragic outcome of Gascoigne’s life since those glory days of his youth has been witnessed to in the shadow of a man whose gaunt face, aged well beyond its years, makes its appearance on B-listed celebrity magazines once in a while. The ‘hidden weeds’ of his life have torn apart a family and brought Gascoigne himself to the edge of death.
It is loss enough that a human being whose physical abilities were so beyond the vast majority of his peers would be condemned to a life now lived out in a shell of the body he once had, yet the real tragedy of Gascoigne’s story is that nobody seemed to say anything, or at least in time enough for things to have worked out differently. People had forgotten to ask questions when questions were what was most called for.
I thought of this collective failure as it pertained to Gascoigne’s life when I watched Payton Manning being interviewed last night as the winning quarterback of the 50th Super Bowl. Manning is also a player of extraordinary skill and in his case achievement and on being interviewed after the game he said the kind of things we expect sports stars to say – he was going to get his priorities in order: he was going to hug his wife and kiss his kids, and then think about the future. And then, not once but twice in two separate interviews, he said to the millions of adults and kids still watching the post-game spectacle that he was going to drink a lot of beer, Budweiser to be exact, who must be delighted that the next generation of drinkers will be heading their way.
What struck me last night about that double incident of product placement/thoughtless failure to role model right at the moment when role modeling was needed most, was how the person holding the microphone in each case offered no response to the seeming incongruity of the winning quarterback’s statement. A similar failure to ask a question has been witnessed repeatedly in the presidential debates and media statements of the last several months. Over the past few weeks the same candidate has stated that if elected President he would introduce ‘something worse than water-boarding’ and not too long before that reportedly said that he could go into Time Square, shoot someone, and it still wouldn’t affect his voting numbers. By now there is nothing remarkable about the fact that people running for high office in this country say outrageous and even disturbing things in an effort to ride a spike in the opinion polls. What remains remarkable to me is how extensive our failure is to ask questions of them, a failure highlighted by the fact that when a Fox News journalist did call to question one particular presidential candidate’s comments on women, the fact that she asked such questions rather than the fact that he had made such comments became the news story.
It has been argued that one of the essential roles that communities of faith play in society is to be communities of the question, gatherings and networks of relationships which cultivate the tenacity and courage to critique power. Speaking truth to power has been a trope laid at the feet of the Christian commitment to be salt of the earth since Jesus stood before Pilate and questioned the representative of the world’s most powerful man, ‘what is truth?’ These are times when our ability to influence one another through media and digital networks is greater than in any other time in human history. We are assailed daily by more information and opinion than we have the ability to decipher or deconstruct. The ability to ask questions of that unrelenting stream of communication is essential if we are to remain people who will know what it is to discern, who will know how to make constructive meaning of what it is that we see about us in this world.
Many argue today that the church is increasingly marginal to the core of civic life in America and that we are entering at pace a post-religious age. That may be so, yet for a society where seemingly all publicity is good publicity, communities that will cultivate a questioning spirit and an attentiveness to the truth-claims we make before and on behalf of one another are needed more than ever, not only as religious assemblies but as socially embedded insurgents for the cause of decency, dialogue and the common good.