In a recent TV interview, LeBron James said that when his career is over, he would be on the “Mount Rushmore” of NBA players. For James, the four greatest are Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Oscar Robertson (until one of them moves in order to make room for James). This prompted members of the basketball media, as well as current star Kevin Durant, to name their own top four players of all time. It also led me to think about Mount Rushmores in general.
While I don’t always limit my favorites to sets of four, or rank them in any particular order, I suppose I do have a lot of Mount Rushmores. Take music, for example: There’s a Rushmore of rock, a Rushmore of jazz, a Rushmore of interpreters of the great American songbook, and more. Incidentally, my grandfather’s Rushmore of music is populated by two and only two figures: Bing Crosby and Jo Stafford. (Nobody else should even pretend to wish for a place on that mountain.)
We must appreciate and imitate excellence that is relevant to us, because excellence in whatever area is a gift from God (1 Kings 5:6; Esther 1:1-4; Song of Solomon 5:15; James 1:17). And, we must select our heroes carefully in order to have exemplars worthy of our study and emulation. The tricky part is that no human being is exemplary in every area. The old Cole Porter lyrics strike us as funny precisely because no one love interest could possibly fit the overly lavish description of excellence in every area:
You’re the top!
You’re the Coliseum.
You’re the top!
You’re the Louvre Museum.
You’re a melody from a symphony by Strauss,
You’re a Bendel bonnet,
A Shakespeare sonnet,
You’re Mickey Mouse.
You’re the Nile,
You’re the Tower of Pisa,
You’re the smile on the Mona Lisa.
I’m a worthless check, a total wreck, a flop,
But if, baby, I’m the bottom you’re the top!
What are we to do? In short, we need one Rushmore for this category and another Rushmore for that. For example, the people on a Rushmore of scientists would never find a place in a Rushmore of gospel preachers.
If we become confused on this point we might fall into one of two predicaments. On the one hand, we might think that just because someone is exemplary in one area, he must be exemplary in a closely related area. For example: “Bill is a great public speaker. I’m sure he’s a great preacher.” It ain’t necessarily so, to quote Gershwin.
On the other hand, we might rob ourselves of the opportunity to witness excellence. For example, someone might say that we should avoid some music because the artist who makes the music has taken a bad political position. My response might be, “Well, I never listened to that artist’s music because of a political agenda. I just thought the music was good.” In other words, the musician wasn’t on my Rushmore of political ideals or ideologues to begin with. (Similarly, I never enjoyed Michael Jordan’s basketball abilities because I thought he was a wonderful family man.)
Part of being a grown-up—and not every adult is—is being able to appreciate excellence in one pursuit while abstracting it from other pursuits. But it’s not necessarily part of being a child. A child is probably not prepared to understand how a person could be impressive in one way and quite disappointing in another. Therefore parents who want the child to love good and despise evil are justified in both (1) Shielding him from knowledge about the flaws in certain people who are influential in the child’s life; and (2) Directing his interests away from certain people when their influence at the most general level is tainted by some sin, even if he doesn’t know what the sin is. I’m thankful that my parents didn’t let me find out about some adults’ flaws until I was old enough not to have my faith in godliness shaken by the bad news.
Parents need to teach their children to have a Mount Rushmore of spiritual heroes (see Proverbs 5:1; Proverbs 19:20; 1 Corinthians 11:1). The mountain will be populated by people who are imperfect, but who will be more accessible to their young minds than the heavenly Father. At some point, kids (and adults) must grow up and recognize that the only perfect exemplar for living the human life is Jesus Christ. It’s fruitless to have one, or even many, Mount Rushmores if we fail to exalt the Lord to a higher plane. “Do not imitate evil but imitate good. Whoever does good is from God; whoever does evil has not seen God” (3 John 1:11).