Essay / Culture

Father, Son and Michael Jordan? Gatorade’s Image of the Trinity

You have likely heard several bad images of the Trinity. Ice, water and steam are one in that they are all water, but three states. There are three leaves to a clover, but one clover…. There are any number of such images, each offering an incomplete and largely unhelpful instance combining threeness and oneness. Ultimately, of course, each of these images depends on one or more largely heretical assumptions which undermine the benefit of the image. The reason for this is twofold. On the one hand, the Trinity cannot be explained by creation. On the other hand, the Trinity is what does the explaining–it is the basic reality, the living premise, which serves as the foundation for understanding everything which it has brought into existence.

All that changed, however, in 2002, with Gatorade’s foray into the doctrine of the Trinity, offering us what I take to be the most complete and helpful image for the doctrine currently found under the sun.

Gatorade, 21st Century Theologian of the Trinity

The commercial begins with Michael Jordan shooting hoops by himself in a gym. Shortly, a familiar voice says: “Nice shot.” In walks Michael Jordan as an NBA rookie. They proceed to play a rigorous game, full of the competitive trash talking for which Jordan is famous. As they take a break, in walks Michael Jordan the college player, asking: “Hey Mike: who’s got next?”

The commercial takes us into a world where the “current” Jordan is playing basketball against himself as an NBA rookie, and then again as a college student. The technology behind this is a matter for another blog–we will attend to its theology, as a rich theological exploration of the Trinity.

First is the manifest oneness within the commercial. The unity of the subject is evident: Michael Jordan, Michael Jordan and Michael Jordan; but not three Michael Jordans, different men sharing the same name: this really is the one Michael Jordan, playing against himself and then against himself again. A single subject is the only character in the commercial. This is no tri-theistic image, no attempt to fabricate a unity out of three distinct and separable subjects. This is one player, and one player only: a robust monotheism; or monoplayerism.

At the same time, however, is the amazing diversity, or threeness, as the superstar plays the rookie and the college student. This is much like the illustration of water, ice and steam, the difference being that the sequential separation or process inherent in the water image (modalism) is overcome by technology, so that within the commercial, the superstar really is alongside the rookie, in relationship and competition with him.

A Joyful, Relational Image of the Trinity

The truly delightful element of this image, however, is its liveliness. The joy, the play, the relationship… Every non-personal image of the Trinity falls dreadfully short of the fact that the triune God is the living God for whom love and relationship are intrinsic to his very being. While the Gatorade commercial adds elements of taunting and trash-talking, it would be easy enough to alter the script to make it just as competitive, but a competition of joy and encouragement. While Gatorade honored Michael’s crushing commitment to competition, we readily imagine a Michael whose competitive spirit has been redeemed (not abandoned), leaving us with a much more pure and adequate account of the relational dynamics between Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Such an image, intrinsically joyous and relational as it is, welcomes a transition from the doctrine of the Trinity to that of creation, for the logic between these two is close and intimate (with the latter deriving from the former). Why did God create? In order to extend to others the life and joy he has within himself. To put it in terms of our commercial, God created in order to extend to others the joyful play (and, may we add, competition?) proper to his own life, that all might share in this delightful game.

Trinitarian Weaknesses

There are weaknesses to this image, of course, for as we stated at the beginning, the Trinity is not explained by creation—it explains creation, for it is the sole and exclusive origin and source of all that is. The problem with the image (apart from Michael’s inordinately competitive spirit) is that the subject is the same subject across a span of time, artificially brought together via technology. As such it is not an image from creation. Moreover, the image works because the subject is spacially limited (unlike the Father, Son and Holy Spirit), and the subject is relating to himself at different stages of development across time. But that is just to say that this commercial stands as a limited though perhaps somewhat interesting gateway into the source of all mysteries: the life of the triune God.

Why does all this matter? (Can Gatorade Quench our Trinitarian Thirst?)

One might question the value of finding yet another (bizarre) image for the doctrine of the Trinity. Does this really contribute anything to Christian theology, or the life of the church? I believe that it does, in several ways.

First, and generally, it draws attention to one of the many ways that culture and theology have a lively and creative relationship. While culture often eats away at the Christian faith like a shore crumbling away a hillside and the houses perched on the cliffs above, this relationship need not be entirely negative. Approaching culture from theology affords us numerable opportunities to appreciate, honor and develop different aspects of culture, such as our commercial.

Second, this exercise is a token of the fact that the Trinity is the ground of all reality. All that exists has its origin in some way from the creative work and sustaining providence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. For this reason, the Trinity is the root mystery, the founding explanatory source of all that exists.

Finally, and most helpfully, this image offers a wonderful contribution to the set of images we often use to illustrate or (attempt) to explain the doctrine of the Trinity, in that it is a profoundly joyous, relational and active image. The triune God is a reality so living, so joyful, so abundant, that it is the source of all life, play and relationship. As we teach the Trinity, as we dwell upon the inner life of our God, we are not dwelling on something which is simultaneously three and one. This is far too dry, wooden and mathematical to do justice to the source of all life. This Gatorade commercial pushes us in a far more dynamic and living direction, to the greater joy of God, and greater benefit of the church, as it brings its thinking into conformity with the life of God.

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