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Repentance & the Penn State Cult

November 15, 2011

[The following is the text of the talk I gave to Calvary Elements on Monday, 11/14, a little over a week since the news broke about the sex abuse scandal at Penn State]. 


Repentance & the Penn State Cult

23 Surely the idolatrous commotion on the hills 
   and mountains is a deception; 
surely in the LORD our God 
   is the salvation of Israel. 
24 From our youth shameful gods have consumed 
   the fruits of our fathers’ labor— 
their flocks and herds, 
   their sons and daughters. 
25 Let us lie down in our shame, 
   and let our disgrace cover us. 
We have sinned against the LORD our God, 
   both we and our fathers; 
from our youth till this day 
   we have not obeyed the LORD our God.” Jeremiah 3:23-25

The cries of “We Are…Penn State” have taken on new meaning this past week, a week that we will never forget and don’t want to remember.

I’ve struggled to put into words what this has felt like. I’ve heard more than a few people here compare it to a death in the family, or even our own 9/11, and neither of those is far off. The events of this past week have had a shocking, seismic, things-will-never-be-the-same quality, combined with our entire community processing grief and horror together.

Now, at the beginning of week 2 “after Sandusky,” the response has already begun, with prayer, the candlelight vigil, the blue ribbons for child abuse, and the charitable giving.

While I’m heartened by positive responses, my fear is that we will try to move on too quickly from this. It is crucial that we respond in thoughtful, heartfelt, and as Christians, godly ways, to the events of this past week.

The comparisons to 9/11 or a death in the family are worth exploring, because it should cause us to ask “What exactly has died?”  Michael Weinreb, a writer at ESPN and State College native, wrote an article called “Growing Up Penn State” with the subtitle: “the end of everything at State College.”  “Everything.”  Interesting word choice. It’s not the end of Penn State. It was the end for Curley and Schultz, Spanier and JoePa. It was the end of Sandusky’s unspeakable acts. It is hopefully the beginning of the end for those who were victimized.

But I hope it was the end of something else here: our Penn State idolatry. Here in Jeremiah, he says the in the lands of the hills and mountains, people have believed an idolatrous lie. It’s the same way in the shadow of Mt. Nittany. Because let’s face it, we have given ourselves over to the rampant, idolatrous love of all things football, JoePa, and Penn State. We’re even enamored with our ability to pull ourselves together and show the rest of the world how fantastically great we are at doing good, whether it’s raising money for kids with pediatric cancer, or money for kids who are victims of child abuse.

I use the word idolatry intentionally here. And I mean it in all its awful, gory, biblical sense. It’s not uncommon for Christians to talk about idolatry, and say “I make an idol out of school, or relationships, or comfort.” I wonder if we (including myself) really know what we’re saying.

If we did, we’d probably soften our language, because idolatry is something that is radically destructive. It is disgusting. It leads to unspeakable horrors.

What’s so idolatrous about Penn State, you might ask?  Well, think with me for a minute what we love, celebrate, treasure, and boast about around here:

  • Our football program that’s never had a major violation
  • The man who built that football, and in many ways the University, St. Joe.
  • A world-class University, that could simultaneously be #1 party school and #1 recruiting destination according to the Wall Street Journal. We’ll have our cake and eat it to, thank you very much.
  • The myth of safe, secure, comfortable, “Pleasantville” Happy Valley


No wonder people have been talking about the cult of Penn State, and the cult of Joe Paterno.  As one student told me on Friday, “everybody who comes here has to buy in. If they don’t, they transfer out after a year or two.” How do you buy in?


Here in the Valley, we’ve allowed idolatry to flourish.  We’ve been using religious and worship language about our devotion to Penn State for years.

  • We have shrines & houses of worship.  The Nittany Lion shrine is the 2nd most photographed place in Pennsylvania. The JoePa statue. And Beaver Stadium is a house of worship with seating capacity that is second only to one.
  • We riot when our idols are taken away (just like the people of Ephesus in Acts 19).
  • We worship sexuality, celebrating “do what feels good, it’s just a normal appetite,” words that Sandusky could have used to justify his actions.
  • Finally, and most awfully, as Jeremiah says, idols “consume” our sons & daughters. The wicked Israelite kings worshiped the Canaanite god Moloch. This god was worshiped through child sacrifice, through the offering up of the first born in the flames.  When this sacrifice occurred, the musicians were commanded to make so much noise so that the parents would not hear the cries of their child and change their minds. Idol worship drowns out the cries of the children.


Is Penn State idolatry all that different from the biblical versions? No, it’s not. And we are complicit in this. Haven’t you found part of your identity in Penn State? Haven’t you boasted about Penn State in some way?  A little over a week ago, I would have told you I didn’t. I thought I had dealt with that.


But this crisis has uncovered Penn State idolatry in me that I didn’t see.  In my shock, I see how I’ve idolized the myth of Happy Valley, that “those things don’t happen here.” In my sorrow over JoePa being fired, I see how I’ve elevated that man to too high a place. In my defensiveness towards the media and people on the outside “who just don’t get it,” I’ve seen a desire to justify myself and keep the Penn State part of my image intact.  Like many of you, I’ve shed a lot of tears. Much of that was genuine grieving. But some of it was for the departure of idols close to my heart.


How about you? The words of our alma mater have gotten a lot of attention recently, particularly the line “May no act of ours bring shame.” But it’s the first words that have been sticking in my throat: “For the glory of old State.”

How do we sing of the glory of Old State, and reconcile that with the first of the Ten Commandments, “You shall have no other gods before me”? (Exodus 20:3).


No one here is completely innocent. That’s not to say we’re all equally guilty.  But we’ve realized that we do, in fact, bear some of the blame in this, in elevating people too high, in winking at the seriousness of sin and saying “it’s just college kids being college kids,” in helping to perpetuate a system that allows these evils to occur, and in worshiping a University, bragging about it, and finding our identity in it, instead of in Jesus Christ.


So, if we realize we’re guilty of idolatry, what do we do about it? People typically do one of two things with guilt: the first tactic is that we minimize, deny, and ignore. We say “it’s not that bad, not that big a deal.” But the charges here are so awful, so horrific, and already so infamous, that minimizing and denial just won’t work. So that brings in the other tactic: make up for it. Atone for it.


That’s what I believe has already taken root. I’m seeing constant updates online about how much Penn Staters have donated to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network. A worthy cause, and I’m glad Penn Staters want to see some good come out of this. But in the constant tweets and messages, I ask “Why are we doing this? Why do we need to let everyone know?” I fear the same old Penn State jingoism is already returning, the attitude that together, we can “overcome” this.


Do we really think that we can ever atone for these sins? What could we ever do that would somehow atone for the crimes committed against these boys? How do you measure it? How long should we feel bad for? How many blue ribbons should we wear? How many dollars should we raise? What kind of penance can we do? What on earth can atone for our sins?


Nothing can. We can never atone for these crimes. We can’t do enough penance.  To think that we can only dishonors and minimizes the suffering of those poor boys. This is one of those rare instances when, if we’re honest, we see that we can’t right these wrongs. The sins against those boys have damaged them forever.


We need something else, something outside of us. We need someone: a Savior.  As our heroes fall, we’re reminded there’s only one man who was perfect, one man who is worthy of our worship. Like Jeremiah says, “Surely in the Lord our God is our salvation.” Not in us.  We need someone else to take the guilt. We need someone else to deal with these sins, so that justice is served.  That’s the point of the Cross—that Justice is served, sin is punished—but that grace is simultaneously extended to us, the guilty ones.


We can’t approach a Savior by thinking we can work our way out.  That’s penance. We can only approach God through repentance. The difference between penance and repentance is that penance tries to earn our way out, while repentance confesses that we can’t. We are guilty, and can’t save ourselves.  Repentance is owning our sin. It’s humbling ourselves. It’s throwing ourselves at the mercy of God. There’s no other way. Repentance is also turning from our sin. It’s taking action.

How do we know the difference between penance and repentance?

  • Well for one, we’ll make it about God, then others, then us. That’s what was so powerful about that midfield prayer on Saturday, when EVERYONE stopped.  It’s about God first, others second. Psalm 51.
  • It’s not about us. We won’t brag about what we’re doing. We won’t keep score of how much money we’ve raised.
  • We won’t be defensive when the media or others attack Penn Staters, rightly or wrongly.
  • We’ll get rid of our idols. Turn from them.


And that’s what we must do now. It’s not time for “back to normal.” It’s time to repent. In the Bible, God commanded his people to destroy their idols, so that they would not be tempted to worship them. I have a JoePa cutout in my basement, which has some other Penn State décor in it. I took down JoePa today, probably some other stuff soon. Spending some time fasting and praying is appropriate. I can’t go back to “normal,” because normal was idolatrous. What about you?


Finally, what about those on our campus who haven’t been driven to their knees? It struck me that the Ninevites declared a fast and put on sackcloth and ashes. We…tailgated and had a football game. Not everyone is repentant. And this is where we, as Christians, come in.


The Bible is full of examples of godly men and women who stood in the gap. People who took action on the behalf of others. Like Jeremiah, who I quoted at the beginning. Many others, like Isaiah, Daniel, Ezra, and Nehemiah, repented for the sins of others, even sins that they did not personally commit. Abraham and Moses bargained with God, pleading for him to spare wicked people. Esther acted courageously, believing God had put her there “for such a time as this.”


Friends, it’s the same way for us. This is why God has brought us here—to intercede for our community. If you love Penn State and this community, let’s repent of our own sins, and then identify ourselves with our community, confessing their sins as well. That’s the Christian sense of “We Are…Penn State” this week.  Let’s not get back to normal, let’s call sin for what it is, so that everyone would truly know the power and grace and forgiveness and healing of Jesus Christ. Psalm 79 shows us how to pray:


8 Do not hold against us the sins of the fathers; 
   may your mercy come quickly to meet us, 
   for we are in desperate need.

 9 Help us, O God our Savior, 
   for the glory of your name; 
deliver us and forgive our sins 
   for your name’s sake.  Psalm 79:8-9


We have spent enough time exalting football, and people, and Penn State. It’s time to exalt Jesus Christ! For a long time, some of us have prayed that Penn State would be more famous for what God has done, than for football or partying or THON. We now have that opportunity.  The THON mantra of “FTK, for the kids” was a modification of gamer lingo, “for the kill.” Let’s see that redeemed further to be “For the KING!”  Instead of singing about the glory of Old State, let’s sing about the glory of our King!

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Ellen permalink
    November 15, 2011 1:59 pm

    Steve, this is fantastic. As a former Happy Valley resident with a son who is a senior at PSU, I shed some tears myself at the news. My thoughts immediately turned to the idolatry, but this passage of scripture NAILS it. I mean, if you didn’t know that he was talking about Israel, you would think it was a poem about the past week’s events at PSU.

    I believe that this time next year we will see the manifestation of God’s plan for State College and the university. This event will send ripples through the entire university system in America, which needs to be shaken. This isn’t just about sex abuse; this is about how some in power think they are above the law, and that they will do anything to further their own reputations, careers and influence. How much will be exposed before this is said and done about the practices of other university administrations remains to be seen, but it will be seen.

  2. HMS permalink
    November 15, 2011 3:17 pm

    Thanks Steve…While at the candlelight vigil on Friday night I heard the call to restore Penn State pride because we Penn Staters are “better than that.” The message was clear….Salvation would come through a restoration of our Penn State values (a re-commitment to these idols) and we are already atoning for these acts through our good works of giving to those that have been afflicted. Your call to repentance is spot on. We have all served these idols. We all are paying the price. But as you pointed out we do have a hope. The last few days over and over this verse has been going through my mind “If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.” It is time we repent of our idols…we sure do need the healing.

  3. November 18, 2011 7:40 am

    Great Steve….my prayers continue for the reviving of hearts in the midst of the toppling of these Idols. I am transferring these thoughts to my owns Idols which are being revealed as well. much love, eloise briscoe


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