Inspirers and Muckrakers

“Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things
are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely—meditate on these things”
(Philippians 4:8)

We members of an earlier generation were raised in a culture that lifted up the best a person could be in life. We were inspired by greatness in all walks of life. This generation will laugh at the myth of George Washington and the cherry tree episode: “I chopped it down. I cannot tell a lie.” Or that Abe Lincoln borrowed a book and put it in the chink of the roof to keep out the cold, and then when the rain ruined it, he insisted on working off the cost.

In athletics we honored Jim Thorpe, part Sac and part Fox native American who won both decathlon and pentathlon gold medals in the 1912 Olympics, then played in both professional sports of football and baseball. There were baseball players like Ted Williams who could have turned out like his alcoholic brother except for his strong will and determination to succeed. He would go to school hours before it opened mornings, just to escape his horrid family life. He enlisted in World War II and flew airplanes in the service of his country. We celebrated Glenn Cunningham, who was so burned in a schoolhouse fire at age eight that doctors said he would never walk again, only to win 1932 Olympic medals and in 1938 became the fastest man on earth. Or Cleveland’s Jesse Owens who humiliated Adolph Hitler at the so-called Nazi Olympics in 1936 by defeating the pride of the Aryan race in their own country. Such heroes were the stuff of my childhood, offered up to us so that we would drive ourselves to our maximum potentials. Even today there are such as Pat Tillman, who abandoned professional football to serve his country and make the ultimate sacrifice in Afghanistan.

St. Patrick of Ireland is famous as the great missionary bishop of Erin, but also because he was captured by pirates as a youth and spent grueling years in their service before taking the opportunity to escape. Though he had little formal education, he worked his way through the ranks of Christian clergy to convert the pagan druids in the land and inspire many missionaries and simple Christians everywhere ever since.

It may be that some of the lives of the saints of the Church and those secular heroes of more recent times had been embellished somewhat, puffed up beyond the literal truth in order to motivate the readers, but the intent of their recorders was noble. Their purpose was to inspire future generations to aspire to higher things above mediocrity and material goals. They sought to create in the readers dissatisfaction with the mundane things of life, to question the status quo and to reach beyond our supposed limitations. Was that wrong of them? If we had been taken in by their exaggerations, should those storytellers be accused of falsifying the facts or praised for their intentions?

Scholars and journalists in these times dredge up the worst in order to expose the failings of the influential and prominent. They sniff about for some odor coming from the great persons of past and present. Like Ham, Noah’s son who called his brothers to mock the inebriated patriarch, they dig out the faults of the famous and consider themselves worthy of a reward. In fact they play a game of exalting the victims and raising them high on their verbal pillars, only to chop them off and chortle at their downfalls. In the end we are left with the opposite of what St. Paul calls us to do in the verse above. Truth, dignity, honesty, purity and beauty are treated as unattainable for humans, vapid Platonic ideals that can never be met, therefore not worth striving for. And our society is all the worse for fixating on the lowest aspects of human nature.