Tiger Woods, Publicity, and the Earth

Tiger Woods captured my loyalty when he emerged as a Wunderkind on the collegiate golf circuit. His steely concentration, discipline, and even-tempered calm soon vaulted him to the top of the golf world. Every victory only amplified the power of his characteristic persona. He became a celebrity, tasting the ambrosia of the gods without losing his private life. But now this god of our creation has been brought low by the frailty he shares with all of us.

The media that made his castle possible has now dissected its every weakness. Many have written about the perils of celebrity and the collapse of private and public life. This fevered autopsy has reactivated my own long interest in “publicity” as the modern form of salvation. (Warning: recovering theologian at work!)

While most of Western religion has cast life’s quest in terms of disobedience, forgiveness, and salvation, I began to explore, some 25 years ago, how people in a media age experience life’s quest as a movement from obscurity to fame. The drive for “perfect publicity” replaces what St. Augustine saw as our search for “peace.” Perfected life is not a state of quiet obedience in a kingdom of the Father, but action in a republic of participation among equals.

But there was a catch. Our ordinary search for publicity could also become demonic, because we would invariably shape our performances to conform to the partial perspectives of others. We would try to turn them into mirrors of our own partial understandings. The persona by which we acted in our publics would inevitably distort the inner longings for a more complete life. Publicity would become our hell as well as our heaven.

Since then, it seems that this struggle over publicity (and the fame and celebrity that are its bloated forms) has only intensified as the means of communicating have vastly expanded and reshaped the publics into which we act. Tiger Woods is only one of myriad examples, though perhaps the most poignant one for those of us who admired him.

Many years after writing up these thoughts about publicity in God’s Federal Republic (1988), I wrote a very different book, Red Clay, Blood River (2008), in which the very obscurity of earth’s memory plays the leading role in defining who we are. Without really realizing it, I was providing an extreme counterpoint to my earlier work, placing us human beings in a field of contradiction between the memories we construct in our republics and the unknown memory of an earth – an immortal earth, as the ancient Greeks would say – that transcends our lives in a very different way.

Our quest as human beings is not only to become reconciled to the drama of our publics and their history but to be reconciled to an earth whose language, times, and processes are an equal mystery to our mortal minds.

May you come down to earth again, Tiger. May you walk the grass, taste the breeze, calculate the angle of the sun and turf, find a deeper public in the earth that gave you birth.

Your thoughts and comments are always welcome. You need not be a golfer to reply!