dispatches to and from

nathan f. elmore

Dispatches to and from faith, culture, and things in between

Winning It All, Semifinal No. 1

The madness of winning is much with us. Which university will alone survive the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, the annual spectacle that every March embeds “madness” into our cultural vernacular? Even now the VCU Rams have colored my beloved city – Richmond, Virginia – with the unmistakably psychotic hue of victory.

On the international scene, we in the West continue to watch an unprecedented “Arab spring” bloom in North Africa and the Middle East. The people of Egypt have triumphed – and in a show of wonderful, pluralistic, democratically incurable insanity.

Then there’s the curious case of “winning the future.” The phrase dominated President Barack Obama’s 2011 State of the Union address, yet the slogan was the title of a 2005 book by Newt Gingrich, the everlasting-to-everlasting Republican presidential candidate. When reached by phone somewhere in China, the future offered this humble but lame response: “No comment.”

Finally, enter Rob Bell, the Michigan mega-church pastor and evangelical rock star, who recently re-ignited a very old theological hubbub on the subject of heaven and hell with his book Love Wins. Love wins. That's right: two words have sent my brethren into a thoroughly crazed state of biblical commentary in an effort to win the soul of evangelicalism and the souls of others.

So to honor the grand occasion that is the Final Four, and in the unquenchable spirit of madness and winning, I hereby offer another sort of tournament – one where the silliness is severe even if the trophy, thank God, does not actually exist. Welcome, then, to a Final Four of Christian-Muslim Relations, featuring a pair of semifinal games between old foes – top seeds – in the pursuit of religious adherents.

This particular Final Four matches the rhetorical flourishes of two self-describing Christians and two self-describing Muslims. For those of you who like rules, there are no rules to speak of. Except: we have limited the field of words to those spoken after 2000. Also, a caveat: the quotations on display by Christians or Muslims are not necessarily inflammatory of the other’s faith, religion or culture. They are, however, usually inflammatory of the person saying the words.

And with that, let us convene this extravaganza with a titanic matchup between Mike Tyson, the former boxing heavyweight champion of the world, and Sarah Palin, the former Republican vice presidential nominee to lead the free world.

 

Mike Tyson, on June 24, 2000

I’m the best ever. I’m the most brutal and vicious, the most ruthless champion there has ever been. No one can stop me. Lennox is a conqueror? No! I’m Alexander! He’s no Alexander! I’m the best ever. There’s never been anyone as ruthless as me. I’m Sonny Liston. I’m Jack Dempsey. There’s no one like me. I’m from their cloth. There is no one who can match me. My style is impetuous, my defense is impregnable, and I’m just ferocious. I want his heart! I want to eat his children! Praise be to Allah!

 

Sarah Palin, on July 18, 2010 

Ground Zero Mosque supporters: doesn’t it stab you in the heart, as it does ours throughout the heartland? Peaceful Muslims, pls refudiate.

 

For starters, obviously this first semifinal features a nuanced tradition of relative madness and relative winning. Mike fought to the top of his sporting vocation, shadow-boxing his insanity and all comers since childhood. Sarah almost arrived at second in command of the United States of America all the while concealing the underlying cuckoo clock – until this fateful interview.

In Iron Mike's favor, he tattooed one side of his face. There’s no way that a man like that would be caught dead in Iowa in January 2012, or any other time. Meanwhile, we can rest assured that Sarah Barracuda will absolutely go “Iron Mike” on young Bristol if she pulls that unwed pregnancy crap again.

Ironically, both Tyson and Palin share this: they are more the scrappy fighter than the expert professional. Also, it seems especially generous that both of them have much to say about the heart. But, lest we get carried away, it remains true that only one of them loves pigeons more than grizzlies.

When evaluating this confrontation, we must naturally consider the context in which the above words ushered forth. In the case of Tyson, he had just finished whipping Lou Savarese, who bravely went on to feature in The Sopranos. Tyson was hyping a potential big-money fight with Lennox Lewis, which explains the vintage boxer bravado. In the case of Palin, she was weighing in – via Twitter – on the proposed Park51 project in lower Manhattan.

OK, so, in looking at the quotes, specific points must be awarded to each of them for the following good moves to the basket…

To Mike Tyson: for the creative use of a question; for invoking Alexander the Great and dragging the Greek hero into mortal games of human comparison; for the racially balanced mention of boxing greats Sonny Liston and Jack Dempsey; and for psychological realism: “There’s no one like me.”

To Sarah Palin: for the creative use of a question; for violently juxtaposing the act of being stabbed in the heart with the act of living in the heartland; for stepping out of her ideological world to assume that there are peaceful Muslims; and for conflating two words into a word where once there was no word (“refudiate”).

At the end of the day, there can only be one winner – the Christian or Muslim who scores more points, either offensively or defensively, and who lives to fight another quotable day. And that person is…Mike Tyson.

For me, cannibalism is the real game-changer, the three-pointer in the last minute to go up by 7. How can anyone in their right or wrong mind rhetorically compete with that? And the type of cannibalism: the eating of children, for God’s sake.

Cannibalism and associating it with the worship of God are unequivocally the greater sins than, say, hacking up the English language while tweeting. Yes, everyone knows Twitter didn’t make her do it. But at least he can articulate his desires.

You can find the second semifinal in this Final Four in rhetorical madness pitting Christian v Muslim right here.