I used to spend summers on my grandparents’ farm, helping out, and as a boy I would go to bed, pull out my primitive crystal radio and in the dark of my upstairs, farmhouse loft would listen. Many times I would listen to Harry Carey broadcasting for the St. Louis Cards. He, with his distinctive voice – he always sounded a little slurry to me – would make the game come alive. I’d listen as my heroes sung through the wires each night. I was a Yankee fan but as a left-handed boy who pitched for his Little League team, I revered Sandy Koufax, pitcher for the Dodgers, even more than I did Yankee Whitey Ford. (Being left-handed was almost a criteria for idolization. A little later in life, when we’d moved to Lawrence, Kansas, one of the boys in my junior high was a cousin of Tom Seaver, another lefty playing for the Mets, and I could hardly stand it I was so jealous. But though “Tom Terrific” was fabulous pitcher, he was not one I revered.)
Such hero-worship by young people for sports stars seems harmless. It’s motivational and, in those days for sure, sports stars were positive role models. Fair play, good sportsmanship, hard work, and humbleness were qualities of character most parents wanted to teach their children and looking up to baseball players, the national sport of the day, was one way to encourage that. I can’t remember when mom tossed my baseball card collection but to me it was the equivalent of robbing the Library of Congress or the Vatican’s archives and just loading it all into the trash bin.
As I grew older, like most boys of my era or any other, baseball and the players I revered receded into the background. Always an important part of my past, baseball became a game I’d loved and still love, never an obsession. I have fond memories and a continuing interest in teams or players I like.
Reverence for role models who lift your own game up can be so wonderful…
…but not all such hero-worship is so healthy.
The same nights I lay in my sweat on top of the covers those humid Kansas nights, crickets chirping outside, perhaps with florescence lighting up my fingers after squeezing a firefly earlier in the night, I also listened to Gardner Ted Armstrong and The World Tomorrow. I was swept up in his prophetic message. His voice was magnetic and I really could imagine the end of the world coming. Night after night he would talk to me and today, decades later, I still remember those nights as ones where the intimacy of that voice coming directly into my ears felt like a personal message to me. I thought I knew something that most of the people didn’t.
I can see how people might worship such a man, carrying such a message. But I didn’t. Our family has a long history of being Methodists and though John Wesley was our founder we don’t worship him as a hero. Our denomination is democratic in many ways. Elected representatives vote on our societal and doctrinal positions. Bishops are elected at our jurisdictional conferences. I come from that kind of lineage and parents and grandparents who, as far as I can tell, never blindly followed a religious leader of any kind. Look for guidance, yes. Look for inspiration, yes. Look for wisdom, yes. Blindly follow – never.
Gardner Ted Armstrong had a strong attraction for a young, impressionable boy spending hours a day by himself on a tractor or lifting bales of hay, but was nothing more than that. (When writing this, I had to go back and watch an old Gardner Ted Armstrong video, which I picked at random. There he was, predicting a new world order, one world government being created behind the scenes. Yes! This was the G.T.A. I remembered.) I still enjoyed listening to him even these decades later.
But if taken too far, hero-worship is a form of reverence that can be dangerous. It is found in cults, movements, followers of charismatic leaders, preachers, writers, and politicians. Oh, and athletes and other celebrities. In these cases, when we revere someone or some cause our brain clicks off and we head blindly down a path that logic would never take us.
We might become what Hoffer called True Believers, those involved in mass movements. Mass movements, Hoffer says, begin with people who condemn the existing order. These people develop a following of people devoted to the cause. These followers want change and are willing to give up their individuality in exchange for membership in the larger group. Sometimes people follow charismatic leaders, like a Jim Jones, who famously instigated the suicide of over 900 members in Guyana, and the murder of a U.S. Congressman.
In these cases, reverence is carried to an unhealthy extreme. Veneration of evil people leads down a path that is not generative, and is not an independent exploration of the mystery that surrounds us.
I revere the night time sky. I revere St. Francis. I revere the Reverend Martin Luther King, jr. I revere whoever developed velcro. And I still would do (almost) anything Sandy Koufax asked me to do if he were still around.
But not all reverence is good.