5 min read

Idols or idiots? Why sporting stars cannot bear the weight we place on them

Why it’s wise to know their place, and ours, in the universe.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A professional footballer wearign a red top stands proudly beneath a white and black banner.
Marcus Rashford's Who I Really Am video.
The Players' Tribune.

I wouldn’t know, being a fairly average but enthusiastic player of many sports - but the life of a top footballer must be one of extremes. There are the physical sacrifices to be made in hours in the gym, honing skills in daily training, pushing your body towards fitness, maintaining the tuning of your body so it peaks just at the right time on match day. On the other hand, there is the boredom of afternoons after training with little to do but play FIFA 23 on the X Box, or finding ways to spend the vast amounts of money that comes to the average Premier League footballer. 

But perhaps even more, there is the way the public treats you. You swing between idol or idiot pretty quickly. Take Marcus Rashford. Last season, he could not stop scoring - 30 goals in 56 games for Manchester United & England, including three at the World Cup. Confidence was sky high, he was making the runs and finding the positions that enabled him to rack up the goals. This season, it has all changed. He seems listless, lacking in confidence. At the time of writing he has only scored five goals all season, (Erling Haaland has scored 17, Mo Salah 15). Every move or sign of body language is dissected by pundits or on social media, and he is no longer a sure starter for his club – an unheard of possibility last season.  And there was the famous bender that he went on in a night out in Belfast a few weeks ago - a sign that something somewhere is wrong. 

We have always tried to turn sports stars into idols. George Best was perhaps the first truly global, fully marketed star with a public image, idolised by both football fans and women (at the time, the two groups were much more distinct than they are today). Until, that is, his spectacular fall from grace. Soon after he reached the pinnacle of winning the European Cup with Manchester United in 1968, the descent began. He went out too much, lost his focus, made bad choices, left United and after various haphazard spells with a slew of clubs across the world including Fulham, Stockport County and the San Jose Earthquakes (yes, even them), he become a professional playboy, unable to control his alcoholism, appearing drunk on TV chat shows, being jailed for drunk driving until his tragic early death aged just 59 in 2005. 

None of us are capable of taking on the worship of others, because we will always disappoint in the end. 

The ability to do things we ordinary mortals cannot do inevitably leads us to idolise such people. Crowds perform the lowering of outstretched arms in semi-mock worship. Encomiums are written in the media on the extraordinary talent on display. Hopes are invested that this person will lead their club or country to sporting immortality.  

Yet at other times, they are vilified as idiots. The David Beckham Netflix documentary series is a salutary reminder of the astonishingly vindictive public treatment he received after getting sent off playing for England in the World Cup Quarter Final against Argentina in 1998. Perhaps now, with our increased awareness of mental health, the reaction would not be so vile, but the treatment of the England players who missed penalties in the Final of the Euros in 2020 warns us against too much complacency.  

If you’ve ever met a sports star in the flesh and spent any time talking to them (I’ve met a few) what strikes you is how ordinary they are. They may be shy, awkward, embarrassed - a bit like the rest of us, They may be able to perform physical feats that you can’t do, but I bet there are things you can do that they can’t, and that they wish they could do. Your talents may not be so much in demand and not attract as much financial reward, but just like you, they have their fears, anxieties, weaknesses and quirks. As we learnt from Netflix, David Beckham can’t go to bed without cleaning every surface in the kitchen and having his shirts lined up in colour co-ordinated rows. 

Sports stars are neither idols nor idiots. They are people. People who enjoy praise, so that it can go to their heads, but get hurt when they read vile things said about them. None of us are capable of taking on the worship of others, because we will always disappoint in the end. It is why Christian faith is so insistent on the danger of idolatry in all forms – taking something created by God and making it into a god. Theologian James KA Smith warns of the danger for a culture that has given up on God: "it is precisely when your ultimate conviction is that there is no eternal that you are most prone to absolutize the temporal." As St Augustine put it, paganised cultures tend to take created things and turn them into idols, and idols always disappoint, or even worse enslave.  

A vital part of Christian wisdom has always been to know our place within the universe – that we are called to the dignity of taking responsibility for, exercising a kind of benign dominion over the rest of creation, looking after it and caring for it on behalf of the Creator. Yet at the same time, we are ‘a little lower than the angels’ and certainly less than God. We are not self-created, free to rise as high as we can, aiming for the stars.  

On my regular journey into London some while ago, I used to pass a primary school that promised prospective parents that with the help of their teachers, there was ‘no limit to what your child can achieve’. It’s that kind of empty rhetoric that is so dangerous – it is bound to lead to a sense of disappointment when your beloved offspring doesn’t become a hot-shot lawyer, a brain surgeon, a wealthy banker or a sporting hero, but ends up serving behind a till in Tescos, or nursing the sick in a hospital, even though these jobs are just as valuable and essential for society as the better-paid ones. However gifted we are, there are things we cannot do, and will never do. All of us are frail vessels, with remarkable abilities, whether physical, social or intellectual, with the capacity for extraordinary acts of love and compassion, yet also liable to give into temptation to lie, cheat, or steal, as likely to let down our friends as much as to be loyal to them. 

Knowing our place in the world would stop us exalting our sporting heroes too high, or lambasting them as so low – raising them to heaven, or sending them to hell – that was never our job but God’s.  It would restore them as not idols or idiots but people – loved sinners if you like – with a high calling and remarkable abilities, yet with moral frailties and feebleness at the same time – just like us.  

6 min read

The rest is Luther

Can popular podcasts really do justice? The expert’s verdict is in.

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

Two podcast hosts in different rooms appear on a split screen talking to each other
Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook rank Luther's influence.

I’m not one of those who listens to every episode of The Rest is History - does anyone do that with the sheer volume of material they produce? Yet when I see something that interests me – 1970s Britain, the Lost Library of Alexandria, the Easter Rising of 1916, I’m in. So, when I saw they were doing a series on Martin Luther, I just had to listen.  

With much of what they cover, take the Lost Library of Alexandria for example, I wouldn’t really know whether they were telling the truth or not, having a passing interest and only a vague knowledge of the topic. Yet this one was different, because, without wanting to blow any trumpets, I do know a fair bit about Luther. I’ve written a doctorate, a biography and a couple of other books on him, lectured on Luther at Oxford University for many years, and spent a lot of time in libraries, poring over his commentaries and treatises, wading my way through dense books by German scholars picking apart the most minute aspects of his theology. 

 Very often when you hear something on the TV or radio that you know something about, you realise the journalists are winging it. They get away with it because no-one knows any better. So, I wondered this time, would I see through the boys on the podcast, and realise they were winging it too?  

They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was. 

Well, my admiration for Dominic Sandbrook and Tom Holland went up massively. I once asked Tom whether they had an army of researchers doing their work for them and he told me they didn’t - they read most of the stuff themselves.  So, to have them do five episodes on a topic that is not necessarily their specialist subject and get pretty much all of the story not just right, but really interesting, is quite an achievement. They made the Reformation sound and feel the dramatic and earth-shaking movement that it was.  

They normally recount history with a good dose of humour, drama and colour. That is taken for granted. They know how to tell a good story. However, they also really know their stuff. Tom led the way, and I must say, told the story with a level of detail, accuracy and sympathy that was quite remarkable. They clearly enjoyed it too – they loved his earthiness, his preoccupation with the devil and excrement that is so distinctively Luther. 

Martin Luther, as they said at the end, was no saint. He was a man of extremes. He could inspire devoted loyalty from his friends, and fury from his enemies in equal measure. He was never dull. He always said his besetting sin was anger – he claimed to write best when he was cross. That explains the vituperative language, the skill at invective, his genius for insults. He said terrible things about the peasants and even worse things about the Jews. Yet he launched a movement that brought fresh dignity and purpose to countless people across Europe and beyond – he can be said to have touched the lives of the one billion Protestants in the world today. He literally changed the world. And Tom and Dominic helped us understand why. 

Definitely a nine out of ten.  

But why not ten? 

Well, I did have one small quibble. Luther was portrayed as someone who struggled to know that God loved him. So far, so good. His great breakthrough was described by the excellent Holland as “a personal experience of God”, whereby Luther found “a feeling of being washed in the love of God.” Luther’s new discovery was that “If God loves you, you exist in a state of grace… which is a feeling that Christ is present in you, in your secretmost heart, and the certainty of that grace gives you a peace of conscience.”  

Now there is something of that in Luther, and it was close, but it’s not quite the way he would have put it.  

Luther is really not that interested in experiences of God. In fact, he distrusts them. in 1521, a group of prophets arrived in Wittenberg from a small town called Zwickau claiming experiences of God, but Luther was having none of it. He asked about their experience – but not whether they had experienced the love of God, but whether they had experienced his absence. Had they experienced what Luther called Anfechtung – the experience of feeling God is against you, when you struggle with temptation, are driven to despair, when God doesn’t answer your prayers, and when all you know is your own shame, sin, and disgrace? What do you do then?  

And that’s why the Bible was important to him – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

The reason he asked about this was that such experiences so often are the things that help bring faith to birth, because they press the question of who you trust in such times – your own feelings of inadequacy? Or God’s word that tells you something different? 

Luther found peace of conscience, not in some unmediated experience of the love of God for him, but in hearing afresh the Word which God had spoken to the human race in Jesus Christ. Against all the odds, and despite his frequent experience of God’s absence rather than his presence, God had sent his Son, as a pledge once and for all, that God’s heart was full of love and kindness. In sending Christ, God had given himself (or technical language, his ‘righteousness’) to us in Christ, and the only fitting response, is simply to believe and trust that this is true, whereby that ‘righteousness’ becomes ours. We are therefore, in Luther’s classic and paradoxical phrase, ‘both righteous and sinful’ at the same time 

He once put it like this: “God achieves his purposes through suffering, pain and anxiety. Yet of course these are not the things in which you expect to find God. As a result, most people do not recognise this as God’s work, because they expect God only to be revealed in glory, grandeur and splendour. The way God works confounds human expectations and so, faith is needed to see past the appearance of things to their true reality.” 

This was the doctrine of justification by faith – not trying to be extra religious or having ecstatic experiences of God but simply trusting your life on the notion that Jesus is God’s great gift the the world, a gift that tells us he is, despite everything that may point in the other direction, full of love and goodness – and not just to the human race in general, but to you, to me. And that’s why the Bible was so important to Luther – as an existential anchor when the storms of life hit. 

This is what gave Luther joy. It was not that an experience gave birth to faith, but it was the other way round: trusting God’s promise in Christ gave birth to the joy that comes from faith.  

Tom and Dominic did a fantastic job in their series on Luther. I really recommend you listen to it – you won’t regret it. But just remember Luther was more interested in faith than feeling:

“Faith is a living, bold trust in God’s grace, so certain of God’s favour that it would risk death a thousand times trusting in it. Such confidence and knowledge of God's grace makes you happy, joyful and bold.”  


The Rest is History on YouTube. Martin Luther: The Man Who Changed The World, Part 1.