Graven images and the Joe Paterno statue

“I think they should tear that statue down like they did Saddam Hussein’s,” the angry caller on the sports-talk radio show said.

“I’m going to stop you right there,” the host said. “We’re not going to make that comparison.”

But, like a jury being instructed to disregard a statement made in court, you can’t really erase what’s already been said. The statue in question was, of course, the Joe Paterno statue at Penn State University. Paterno’s legacy has already come crashing down in the wake of a child abuse scandal. It was further tarnished last week by the report of former FBI Director Louis Freeh, who asserted Paterno protected the abuser. Freeh was hired by Penn State’s Board of Trustees to investigate the university’s handling of the abuse scandal. The immediate impact of the Freeh Report has been a vigorous debate over removing Paterno’s statue from campus.

In the mountain of words being written and spoken about Paterno’s statue, I have yet to see or hear anyone raise this simple question: why are we erecting statues to begin with? Isn’t putting up a statue what Exodus 20:4 called making a graven image? 

Paterno was neither the saint Penn State fans made him out to be prior to last fall, nor the monster he’s being portrayed as today. He was a football coach. His primary objective in life was winning football games. He won more than any other coach. A few years ago that was deemed statue-worthy at Penn State. Today the university is wondering what to do.  

Before we throw too many stones at Penn State, has anyone noticed that our culture has moved from erecting statues that honored deceased statesmen and military figures to now honoring sports stars? What does that say about us? 

Statues have replaced being elected to the Hall of Fame or having a uniform number retired as the ultimate sign of respect for a sports figure. President Barack Obama awarded Boston Celtic great Bill Russell a Medal of Freedom in 2011 and asked aloud why there wasn’t a statue honoring Russell in Boston. Apparently the Medal of Freedom wasn’t enough. A statue was immediately commissioned. Another basketball player, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, is upset that the Los Angeles Lakers have not put up a statue honoring him. Maybe Paterno’s story will give Kareem second thoughts. It’s a dangerous business being immortalized. That’s why God told Moses his first rule was to keep straight who was God and who was not, and that the second rule was to not make images of created things because the images confused the issue. 

Should the Paterno statue come down? Absolutely. It’s an embarrassment to the university. Of course, I didn’t think it should have been put up in the first place. In that regard, the comparison to Saddam Hussein is apt. Regardless of who is honored in this way - from a megalomaniacal dictator who erected his own statue to a once-iconic football coach - that person remains a person. Casting someone’s image in bronze doesn’t change that. It only sets the honoree up for a fall.

At the end of the movie Ordinary People, Cal Jarrett turned to his troubled son Conrad and said, “Don’t admire people too much, they might disappoint you.” I’d take Cal’s fatherly advice a bit stronger: “Don’t admire people too much, they will disappoint you.” Even after you put a statue up in their honor. 

What Do You Think?

  • Should Penn State remove its statue of Joe Paterno?
  • Are you in favor of erecting a statue in someone’s honor?
  • Does Exodus 20:4 apply to such situations?

Comments (5)

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How did it ever get so bad that an athlete like Kareem Abdul Jabbar felt justified complaining that a statue of himself had not yet been built? I guess it doesn’t matter. The Paterno example gives us a chance to correct this terrible practice forever. But will we?

What can be said:  The World does so love its icons.  Lesson learned, yet not really, since more statues to honor and venerate both the dead and the living will be cast in iron.  Mankind needs its idols since it refuses to worship the invisible God who is Father.

There are a lot of people out there who think that Joe’s legacy should stand despite his crimes. 

We all have to recognize that we all make mistakes that are, from a Biblical perspective, just as bad as anything the Penn. State crew has made.  Yet, on some level, we still want our recognition, be it a pay check, statue, or some other re/award.

I don’t know that the Exodus passage applies here.  The intention here is to avoid images that may become gods.  We engrave images everywhere - and while on some level this is worship (showing respect is always an act of worship because that is what worship is), whether or not this man is deified has more to do with what happens in a man’s heart - I don’t know that a statue encourages or discourages this kind of activity.

Erecting a statue not only “immortalizes” someone, it also literally “idolizes” them. A statue says that the subject is an embodiment of certain virtues or ideals that are to be valued by the society at large. This is as true for Joe Paterno as it was for the idols of Greece, Rome, and other ancient cultures. In idolizing Joe Paterno, or anyone else, we associate the virtues we worship with the image of a (fallen, flawed) human being rather than with the living God. This is the definition of idolatry.

That’s the nature of the sports media.  They create “gods” and then tear them down.  They make money off the ride up and especially on the way down.  It’s a great business.

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