Armstrong, Absolution, and Oprah

Lance-ArmstrongUPDATED 14 January 2013 (see below)

9 January 2013

Sometimes the most interesting words show up in pop culture. A faithful HB correspondent (whom I won’t name for his sake) sent me a link to a story claiming that cyclist Lance Armstrong will appear on Oprah to confess his sins and to ask for absolution.

Consider those nouns and verbs: sins, confess, and absolution. Lance Armstrong was considered, until recently, the world’s greatest cyclist. He won the world’s most difficult cycling race, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times and this after surviving cancer. He was a hero. He established a foundation to fight cancer. For a time people everywhere were wearing brightly colored bracelets on their wrists in support of his fight against cancer and it established a new fashion. Recently, however, news came out that, after years of denying charges of cheating (and after passing repeated tests), compelling evidence was presented and Armstrong was stripped of his titles. The idol has fallen and, to this point, he has been mute.

Enter the high priestess of our therapeutic culture: Oprah. A former television news reader and sometime actress, Oprah transformed herself into America’s mediatrix of self-help in a phenomenally successful afternoon TV talk show. She combined all the most successful qualities of the most successful talk shows (part freak show—remember Tom Cruise jumping on the couch?, part pathos). By awarding cars and computers to her studio audience, Oprah became known for her benevolence to her  flock. Most of all, however, she mediated the national religion: therapy, “You’re okay, I’m okay. It’s all good.”  She mediated a common experience. Through Oprah Americans experienced the same emotion at the same time. Now, like everyone else in America, she has her own channel. She has decreased and each of us has increased. We’re all Oprah now.

She’s poised to reclaim her former office, for a moment at least, as it it supposed that she will sit across from the sinner, Lance Armstrong, to hear his confession for an agonizing 90 minutes of public humiliation. Confession. What an interesting word in a therapeutic culture. Therapy assumes illness not sin. Therapy is for healing, for renewal not for forgiveness and righteousness. Courtrooms are for judgment and innocence and hospitals are for healing. Confession, however, is an admission that one has violated a fixed standard of righteousness, not just one’s own expectations or one’s subjective standard. It’s a legal not a medical category. The very act of confession presupposes something to confess and someone else to whom it must be confessed. It presupposes that something isn’t right and needs to be made right.

Judging by the comments on the site (and elsewhere) many Americans are disillusioned with and angry at Armstrong. They want justice, righteousness. As Mr Spock used to say, “Fascinating.” Even though we have descended deeply into the therapeutic culture of “healing” and “disease” people apparently retain legal notions of righteousness, transgression, and punishment. Maybe, however, it is the case that they want “healing” for their diseases and justice for your sins?

Enter the “A” word. No, not adultery (Hester Prynne) but “absolution.” This is a word with which many Americans are probably unfamiliar. Absolution refers to an ecclesiastical announcement that sins have been forgiven and the sinner is now right with God. For example, there was a time in the liturgies of some the old Reformed churches in the 16th and 17th centuries where the minister read God’s law. He would say a prayer of confession on behalf of the congregation, usually patterned on the prayer of confession in Daniel chapter 9. Next came the declaration of judgment upon the impenitent, i.e., the announcement of the state of affairs for the unjust. For example, in the Heidelberg Liturgy (1563) the minister says:

But as there may be some among you, who continue to find pleasure in your sin and shame, or who persist in sin against their conscience, I declare to such, by the command of God, that the wrath and judgment of God abides upon them, and that all their sins are retained in heaven, and final that they can never be delivered from eternal damnation, unless they repent.

There was another announcement, however, and this one was not bad news but good:

Thus says our Lord Jesus Christ, – John 3: 16, For God so loved the world, that He gave his only begotten Son, that all who would believe in Him might not perish, but have everlasting life. To as many of you therefore, Beloved Brothers, as abhor yourselves and your sins, and believe that you are fully pardoned through the merits of Jesus Christ, and resolve daily more to abstain from them and to serve the Lord in true holiness and righteousness, I declare, according to the command of God, that they are released in heaven from all their sins, (as He has promised in His gospel), through the perfect satisfaction of the most holy passion and death of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Christian message is clear. God demands perfect righteousness. As sinners we have not produced and cannot perform the same but there there is free, unconditional acceptance with God only through faith in Jesus Christ. The gospel announces a great transaction whereby all our sins are credited to and punished in him and all that he has done for sinners is credited to us and rewarded and received through trusting in Christ and in his finished work for sinners.

The message of the Oprah culture, however, is mixed. On the one hand we are said to be victims of circumstance (the Curly defense) and yet she offers absolution. Why do victims need absolution? Of course they do not. Offenders need absolution. What is before us, health or hell? It’s a false choice. Jesus brings both healing and heaven.

Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them (Luke 4:40)

When Lance Armstrong leaves Oprah’s couch he may be restored to a measure of conditional acceptance by his disillusioned fans but there is another with whom he and we all must reckon, for whom Oprah is no mediator. She is not the Righteous One. She was not crucified and raised. She has not ascended to the right hand of the Father and she is not coming again in glory to judge the nations.

Healing happens but it only follows forgiveness and righteousness. We need both and we need to look for them in the proper place:

For there is one God, and there is one Mediator between God and men: the man Christ Jesus (1 Tim 2:5)

Like Lance Armstrong we are all hypocrites (hiding sins) under judgment but like Lance Armstrong, and Oprah, we can find true righteousness and true healing in Christ by God’s free favor alone, through trusting in Christ alone. I’m praying that Armstrong, Oprah, (and their fans) find all that Christ offers.


The apologies have begun.

The AP says that he taped the interview today and it airs on Thurs.

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  1. Thanks for this. Very good and very challenging. How often do I find myself asking forgiveness from my wife, my brothers and sisters in Christ, colleagues, children, etc. while forgetting that though I have offended them and do need to ask for their forgiveness, there is One whom I have offended much more profoundly and to whom I need to turn first and foremost for forgiveness.

  2. Interesting interpretation. Allow me to preface things with this: I have not known Lance for many years, and when I did know him, he was a better friend of my Step brother’s than mine and we were all kids in Plano, TX a couple of houses apart, so the Lance I knew is certainly at least somewhat different than the one preparing to be on Oprah.

    I tended to see Lance going on Oprah as a pragmatic issue, not a forgiveness issue. He is tired of fighting the charges, he wants to be able to race again and the way he can do that is to bow to pressure and tell story. Tell a story to someone he understands has a wide community acceptance, but not necessarily accepted in his own circles.

    I was forced in the past to make a pragmatic statement that I have regretted to this day. I lied to a judge by claiming to have done something that I did not do in order to escape a harsher penalty for something else I did not do because I could not afford the legal representation to fight it.

    I see Lance’s situation through my own history and see him going to Oprah to admit to something he did not do in order to escape from a much harsher penalty for something he also did not do, but canot prove that he did not. Oprah is his choice of venue because she is popular, but not important to him.

  3. Excellent indeed! That liturgy is quite interesting as well, as one can detect in that Ordo the basic structure of the mass, though it is “dry” (no communion). Some Lutheran territories also put the Absolution after the sermon, but the purpose was ostensibly preparation for communion which would follow immediately, though the normal practice was that confession and absolution would take place privately each time one wished to commune. Modern Lutheran liturgies put confession and absolution first as a “preparatory service” before the actual beginning of the mass with the Introit, mainly due to private confession falling into disuse.

  4. Great post. I would have preferred you putting DR. Spock since there was a MR. Benjamin Spock who might never have said, Fascinating.
    I forgive you.

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