Welcome to Holy Week: The Super Bowl as Religious Festival

One of the most intriguing aspects of the study of religion and sport is to watch the games evolve from sacred origins to a more secular place today.  Allen Guttman summarizes this evolution well: “We do not run in order that the earth be more fertile.  We till the earth, or work in our factories and offices, so that we can have time to play,”  (From Ritual to Record: The Nature of Modern Sports – p. 26)  Of course, that is not to say that the sacred is completely absent in today’s games, and that is never more clearly on display than the week of the Super Bowl.  A little over a decade ago, Jospeh L. Price penned a brief essay entitled, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival.”  Though he doesn’t describe the comparison in great detail, his observation is keen.

In his book The Holy Trinity of American Sports, Craig Forney explores the elements of America’s civil religion in our three most popular sports: football, basketball, and baseball which he believes, “form a trinity of ‘major sports’ working together each year in portrayal of the national worldview” (16).  Forney, among others, point out that the ebbing and flowing of American culture is largely dictated by its sports.  Rather than January ushering in the start of a new year, baseball’s spring training, and college basketball’s March Madness provide a more accurate occasion for a new year.  Coinciding with the renewing of nature in spring, these spring sports capture the imagination of the American public and catapult us forward into a new season.  As sports continues its burgeoning throughout the cultural landscape, at both subtle and overt levels, sports dictates the framework within which much of culture operates – whether one is a sports fan or not.

What makes sports so powerful, I am in the process of arguing, is that it is so intertwined with other powerful realities: politics, economics, and culture to name but three.  The National Anthem serves as an invocation, as well as a military fly-over, and often a recorded message from the President.  The astronomical price of advertising during the Super Bowl is common knowledge and accentuates the economic power that sports have come to embody.  While sports have an obvious universal appeal, each culture has its own games and national imperialism often has sport as a key element (think of the prominent way that Americans emphasize (and proselytize baseball, basketball, and American football around the world), but have been slow to accept hockey (from Canada), and soccer, rugby, and cricket (from Europe)).

All of this comes together in the spectacle of the Super Bowl.  Football is a fall sport, but its championships are played in the winter.  College’s champion was crowed a few weeks ago, and now all eyes have turned to the American crown jewel of sports: the NFL, and it’s crowing moment – the Super Bowl.  To the extent that sports is America’s civil religion, the Super Bowl represents its most important religious festival.  There are regularly serious petitions set out to make the Monday after the Super Bowl a national holiday.  It is the culmination of a year’s worth of sporting events, set to restart itself with the basketball season, and just-around-the-corner MLB spring training.

If the Super Bowl is the chief religious festival in the United States, that makes today the start of Holy Week (and in true America style – our Holy Week actually last two weeks – with the additional week off between the conference championship games and the Super Bowl).  There will be non-stop talk about the game, the teams, the half time show, the commercials, past Super Bowls, past Super Bowl MVPs, the current state of football, and any other obscure, quasi-related topics they can find.  And the game will be played, after the seven hour pregame show, crowning a new champion who will be “going to Disney World” .  .  . and then . . . the whole year will start over again.

Stating that the Super Bowl is a religious festival is neither to affirm that as a positive cultural trait, or to chastise it as all too secular.  It’s simply an observation of our culture.  This weekend, our nation will be littered with Super Bowl parties, tailgate parties (all inside, in this part of the country!), fun and game.  It’s the one time of the year that, even if you don’t care the slightest for sports, come next Monday, if you don’t know what happened the day before, people will look at you like you’re Amish.  In any regard, I have no interest in the teams that are playing this year (other than the fact that as a Browns fan, I never root for the Ravens), but I will watch all the same.  I will enjoy a fun evening with people from my church, as well as friends from our neighborhood.  It seems to me to be the perfect night for America to truly embody the ethos of the New Testament ideal of koinonia . . . it’s just disappointing that it takes a sporting event to draw us together like this.

In any case, it’s almost baseball season!  This is our year!  Go Tribe!

 

Moving words from David Cone


On my way home from work yesterday I heard about this exhibit in San Antonio that highlights poverty and hunger in the United States. I just caught the end of it, but was moved by what I heard. I listened as they played clips from the exhibit as people reflected upon times in their lives when they were hungry. It dawned on me as I pulled into my driveway, “I have never been hungry.” Now, that sounds like a pretty obvious comment, but I delved into the deeper ramifications of that fact. I’ve never been hungry. Ever. I’ve fasted on occasion, but never for more than 36 hours or so – and you don’t get really hungry in 36 hours. So to relate to these voices – real people who have experienced real hunger. It was moving to me. Convicting.

It’s the last week of Lent, and I feel a sense of accomplishment after having left both candy and pop behind for the duration (though I did have one bottle cap, and Monday convinced myself that chocolate covered cashews were more nut than candy). That’s how trite I am. This story helped me stop in the mundaneness of my suburban life and reflect on the hunger pangs that so many people in our world feel. It doesn’t make any sense to me, as I sit amidst so much excess it’s hard for me to comprehend. I decided it’s time for me to feel real hunger pangs. I’m committed to working towards a three-day fast in the near future. Three days seems sufficient for me right now. Just to connect. To reflect. To receive a kick in the butt. A wake up call. People feel this all the time.

Then, to top it off, I am reading Marvin McMickle’s book Where Have all the Prophets Gone? with some minister friends of mine, and I came across his quotation of an incredible poem from African American theologian David Cone. It seems timely as I reflect through these things:

I was hungry
And you formed a humanities club
And you discussed my hunger.
Thank you.

I was imprisoned
And you crept off quietly
To your chapel in the cellar
And prayed for my release.

I was sick
And you knelt and thanked God
For your health.

I was homeless
And you preached to me
Of the spiritual shelter of God.

I was lonely
And you left me alone
To pray for me.
You seem so holy
So close to God.

But I’m still very hungry
And lonely
And cold.

So where have your prayers gone?
What have they done?
What does it profit a man
To page through his book of prayers
When the rest of the world is crying for his help?

From Cone’s essay entitled “The Servant Church” in The Pastor as Servant. eds. Shelp and Sunderland Pilgrim Press, 1986.

Revisiting the Truth Project

Last fall I did a series of posts reflecting on the video series promoted by Focus on the Family called The Truth Project. It was a well-produced series that promotes, by my assessment, a foundational Christian philosophy that has gone on the offensive in recent years as it has lost steam in the face of the demise of modern philosophy. I continue to receive many hits from folks searching for information to the Truth Project and thought I would repost my most recent response to a Truth Project inquiry.

Someone inquired to my reaction to this link regarding Lesson 9 on the state. I offered the following thoughts:

Thanks for the post, Randy and the link. I looked over the information and it lays out Tackett’s premise in regards to the role of the “sphere of the state.” In some of my other posts on The Truth Project, I’ve critiqued this “sphere” understanding to the Bible.

It is Tackett’s understanding that the Bible somehow maps out this grandiose social order. Now, I’m the first to acknowledge there is a great order and scheme behind the great creative God, but I’m not convinced that he isn’t over playing the cards on this one. Foundational to his argument (again, a philosophical underpinning that I’ve already rebutted in this post) is the idea that God has created blue printed confines within which the state must operate.

His case point is a handy one considering his conservative realpolitik. Why not consider the question, “Can the state murder unjustly?” His case study on can the state steal is simply his case against the welfare state.

In his argument he chooses the relatively obscure story of Uzziah. Now, Uzziah’s in the Scriptures and I also believe he should be considered. But, it could hardly be argued that Uzziah somehow represents an exemplary story of the core identity of Old Testament social ethics.

A broader and more fundamental Old Testament example would be Leviticus 25’s teaching of the year of Jubilee. Every 50 years the state of Israel was to forcibly redistribute wealth. It’s not often termed that way since it sends up so many red flags, but is that not exactly what happens? Those who had become imprisoned were to be freed. Those who had lost everything were given a fresh start. Those who had accumulated too much had to give up their excess. Interestingly, Tackett makes strong statements about the Bible’s teaching making it being an overstepping of the role of the state to do exactly what Israel was commanded to do (and later reprimanded by the Old Testament prophets for not doing!) And this is no obscure law on the edge of the Torah – this was fundamental to it’s economy! By no means am I claiming that this solves any discussion . . . however, it blasts major holes in Tackett’s arguments and shows him to be rather inept in his presentation by not dealing with the most glaring shortcomings of his overgeneralization.

One other aspect of the notes I’ll comment on is the listing of the states and their leaders who have shown “obvious overstepping of the state’s authority.” It’s a list of the notable notorious world leaders: the worst of the worst – Hitler, Stalin, etc. While I am in no way comparing these evil empires with the American empire, I do think it deserves mention that the United States and other Western empires are not allowed a free pass. Millions have died at the hands of American militaristic campaigns.

Again, I’m not in any way denying the blessings of our country. However, as Christians we are called to be prophets, standing back from the culture and acknowledging God when we see Him, acknowledging sin when we see it. More Christians need to acknowledge America is an empire. The only empires in the Bible were staunchly addressed in the Bible (be it Rome, Egypt, etc.) We must not give America some free pass. Tackett’s theology here is a house of cards created to avoid real critique and consideration of prophetic implication for the new empire in which we find ourselves.

Thanks again, Randy for you comments, I’m going to post this as my newest blog entry as well since it’s been awhile since I’ve commented on the Truth Project.

The Truth Project Twice More

We are nearing the end of our small group study of The Truth Project. Last night I watched the second to last installment about the “sphere of labor.” I did not get to see the last video about “The American Experiment” but have a pretty good idea of where he was going with it – a place I will be spending a great deal of time arguing against in the coming weeks. Essentially believing that America is a great last hope for the Gospel and we need to continue to try and “save it for God” or bring it back to God or whatever. Anyone reading this who has been here before knows that I especially struggle with such a perspective. I just finished reading Gregory Boyd’s book entitled The Myth of a Christian Nation. It is a great pastoral piece written to challenge and make people uncomfortable in dealing with their idolatry of nationalism. This problem is alive and well and way too often has gone unaddressed. I would like to say more about the book as I found it to be a poignant and sharp pastoral treatment of a topic that is all too often left in academia.

However, back to the truth project. I had many misgivings and much reserve in studying this material knowing that it was produced (or at least marketed) by Focus on the Family. I knew there would be some underlying agenda-driven points along the way. It met me squarely with this video on labor. Now, I do applaude the inclusion of this topic in the series. He is right that we too often do not speak of the place of labor in our theological framework. And for the first part of his video I felt he did a fair job of presenting a biblical perspective. Our role in work is rooted in God’s working in the Genesis account. God worked. He created us to work. Work is not inherently evil. The Fall did affect work (he states that the text shows it affected the ground, not work itself, which may be a semantical variation, but I don’t feel as though he gives enough credance here to the affect the Fall has had – he sure was adament that the Fall had affected our moral capacity in the rest of the series!)

When he moves away from Genesis, however, he begins some hermentuetical gymnastics to make his right wing political ideology fit the Bible. I found his use of the biblical text in this video to be incredibly selective and misleading and incredibly unfortunate. He loves the Old Testament where it talks about leaving behind the gleanings for the poor people to work – to ensure they WORK for their wages. The poor should not be given hand outs. OK, I’m with him there. Systematic rehabilitation is at the core of addressing the complex issues of poor – but little progress will be made by wood-working factories leaving the sawdust for poor people to collect and recycle (the “incredible” example he gives). But here, as throughout this series, he is showing an incredibly myopic and fundamentalist perspective of the text. The Bible says it, I believe it, let’s move on. He came across to me as a very well-intentioned (I don’t doubt his heart) white, middle class American who has taken little time to sit down accross the table from the impoverished families who are all out of “easy” answers. For Tackett, everything is flat. The poor need jobs; people with money need to make jobs so they will work. If only it was that simple!

This is, to me, one of the most frustrating aspects that frequently surfaces from evangelical Christianity – an utter disregard for the complex sociological and economic factors affecting the world. Please don’t take this the wrong way, but there comes a point and time when we need to put our Bibles down and learn from economics, sociology (and all other disciplines) and struggle and wrestle with how this impacts our understanding of the sacred texts. It is like Tackett has been unaware through this entire series how he has been shaped by these disciplines and through his life experience, and instead stamps his perspective as the way.

Unfortunately, his way doesn’t consider the fundamental economic program in the Old Testament. I have had disagreements with his teaching throughout the series, but felt as though it served as good discussion. Some of his statements and teachings in this series are downright misleading and un-biblical. I am flabergasted that he would spend 15 minutes of his hour long session on the gleanings passage and NEVER mention jubilee. Jesus reads from the text in Isaiah at the beginning of his ministry in Luke stating that he has come to fulfill this (in their hearing). Israel was intended to be built around the idea of redistrubtion of wealth – something he lists on the screen that the Bible teaches is a SIN! A sin! It is a biblical teaching! I’m not supporting socialism or anything like that . . . my point is that Tackett has allowed his culture to dictate his understanding of the text. The Bible does teach that this is a sin. It actually looks a lot like what the early church did. Jubilee forcefully redistributed the wealth every fifty years. I don’t believe that this makes everything easy to understand . . . but if you are going to have a Bible study you CAN’T spend a fourth of your times talking about the gleanings (because that fits into your Republican/Protestant work ethic ideology) and not address the jubilee (because that fits more into a Democratic/liberal sharing of wealth that you don’t agree with). Why else would he avoid this teaching? It is even more central to Old Testament theology? And of course he went to the Proverbs to uphold the value of work and all that. There is a lot to be wrestled with here, and he avoids the conflict altogether and instead presents our form of economy as though it is ordained in Scripture – it is not. It may be a better version than most or all other economies . . but it is not presented in the Bible (our economy is totally foreign to the biblical authors).

He makes the same mistake in the New Testament. He rushes to you don’t work you don’t eat and says . . . See, told you. But totally avoids Jesus’ fundamental teachings from the Sermon on the Mount – if someone asks for your tunic, give him your cloak as well. Tackett would say give him a job. Hey that’s great . . . but all I’ve got is a tunic and cloak. His poor use of the Bible in this episode shows that he is not a theologian working outside his field, mistraining those in the ways of his ideology.

He shows his card and the house of cards falls out from under him by a simple and seemingly harmless comment he makes off the cuff and on the side. To completely understand this you’ll have to know the general outline that he uses for his teaching. There are great foundations built on the nature and character of God, anthropological insights, supporting pillars of philosophy and others and on top are these spheres: labor, sociology, and others. His premise is that these spheres are the created order set in place by God with a purpose. It is when these spheres overlap into another sphere that sin enters. It sounds great, but it’s not biblical. The Bible nowhere lays out some created order that everything follows. This is where modernistic scientific models break down. Sure, there is some good in organizing things this way and it is a helpful way to talk about things that don’t get addressed enough. However, you can’t draw logical conclusions based on these faulty logic premises. That fails to see them for what they are. They are illustrates for the sake of discussion, not ontologically secure facts.

His comment is that the spheres of government (the state) and labor are different and that jobs can’t come from the state. Wait . . . was that John McCain or Dell Tackett. The Bible doesn’t say anything about that. He knows that, that’s why he quickly moves on, but if you’re paying attention, you can’t let him get by with that comment. His whole system breaks down if you begin to use it in that way. My postmodern mind was fatigued by trying to follow his thoroughly modernistic approach and application to Scriptures. It furthers my suspicions that The Truth Project is a thoroughly modernistic agent dressed up with some bells and whitles (there was a really well done and cool video at the beginning of this session depicting God’s creation), but riddled with the same issues that are being debunked by postmodernity.

In the end, Tackett offers too many answers, and not enough questions in an area that is very challenging and complex. I appreciate his willingness to address the topic, but wish that he would do so acknowledging his biasses.

Political Wake

I write this post as the 2008 political campaign has finally ended. At 29, this marks the third Presidential election of my voting career. Having taken part in these three elections (and most of the others in between), this election year was altogether different for me. In the weeks and months leading up to yesterday, I had countless conversations, emails, facebook exchanges, etc. with people who vehemently disagreed with my political ideology and an occassional sympathetic ear – but I find myself very alone in this arena. Perhaps, I’ll look back one day and see that this was the political season that raped me of my youthful naivete in approaching politics. I, as a minister, I have found myself in a precarious position. Most of us know to leave politics out of the pulpit as it has no place there. I’ve never been tempted to dabble there – that area seems pretty black and white, but from there the water gets a little cloudy.

Most ministers I talk with leave politics at home. They don’t put signs up in their yard or bumper stickers on their car (both, I strongly believe all people of faith should avoid – public endorsement like that seems like a bigger barrier to the kingdom than anything positive). They don’t blog about it (unless they have some secret blog that no one from their church knows about – yeah, I don’t think many folks from church come here, so I’m guilty). They limit their conversations with sympathetic church members they know to be “safe.” I suppose there is some value there. It seeks to avoid polarization. I in no way wish to cast aside those good intentions. However, I can’t help but seeing in that perspective a bit of superficiality and television evangelist. If someone asks me what I think, I believe I should tell them what I think instead of dancing around like some little girl holding in her pee. We, like the rest of the world, have strong convictions and beliefs. Talking about them with others helps temper our ideals as well as challenge them and grow them. I don’t believe that we should go on the offensive, but I also believe that we should not run from them and play the politically safe game. Avoiding them altogether, as many do, seems too “safe.” Perhaps, their naivete is long gone and they realize how hot the fire is we are playing with.

So . . . I chose to be a bit more vocal about things for the first time. Still no preaching or signs or bumper stickers, I’m not talking about that. But, I have posted publicly on facebook a couple of articles that lean to the left. (I’m sure there were a few folks who said, “I thought he was a minister!”) I have made comments here and there on facebook (which are seen by 300 plus people I know at differing levels – most Christians, some not). It’s been a great way to reconnect with some folks at a level beyond the, “How’s the wife and kids” stuff. The result has been numerous conversations on ideology with people I know at varying levels and who are from an array of different socio-economic situations: doctors, lawyers, factory workers, professors, business folks, other ministers, that one strange guys that I don’t know what he does, and that girl from high school who I think is stalking – just kidding, on both accounts). At first, I thought, great! We can talk through these things and hopefully help each other grow, etc. That’s where that naivete was probably still alive and well. The discussions turned to tomes, and I came to realize that my minutes were turning to hours addressing this stuff. The tone of the discussions also changed. What I entered into, at first, with an open and honest heart, quickly became frustrated and more interested in changing the other person’s opinion than any kind of growth or encouragement. I got really caught up in that again today, when I finally realized I needed to take a step back and think about things. The result is this, very long, post that is currently on my blog and posted as a note on facebook.

I am disappointed with the attitude of so many Christians I have seen living out their faith in this political season. I am disappointed, especially, in myself. I, like so many others, have lost my way this political season. I have become more interested in arguing my wacky concepts that nobody is pro-abortion, that capitalism isn’t God’s one and only design for the economy, that the zealous nationalist patriotism so many Christians hold to, looks similar to jihadism from outside our country, and on and on (these things I think are important and uphold a counter-culutral sense of politcs that the wounded Lamb embodied choosing the way of death instead of imperial power – that’s the point of Revelation!) And I have failed to use this opportunity to hold unabashedly to my core tenet of faith: there is a Supreme Being who has created this world as it is, and who, through some incredible Providence that I cannot understand, will make all things good in the end. I have forgotten the great catechism that has guided so many believers in history: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” Not to win elections. Not to pursuade people of the “right” answers.

As we move forward into this new world, I believe that Obama’s tenure will bring a new chapter to our nation in many ways. For me, the most important thing to be said as we move toward a new world will be learning to move beyond our prejudices. No matter your affiliation or feeling, you couldn’t help but be moved by the scene in Chicago last night which inspired hope and opportunity for all African Americans in our country. Hopefully, all were able to set partisianship aside last night for a few hours and just enjoy what this means in the big picture of our nation – and of the world. John McCain’s concession speech encouraged all to do so, and was a wonderful call for all to move forward. This is the most important political event of my 29 years.

The way forward means a call to a new conversation. I apologize to people who are not Christians who have watched over the past months and have seen no difference between people of faith and those without faith. I am sorry we have not shown the way forward in the midst of disagreement. We should have shown the way. Our sacred text reads that nothing is to divide those with a believing faith in Christ – but that has not been the case – or at least it has not been evident. We are divided . . . blue and red Christians.

You and I both must overcome the desire to be right, and instead let the desire to be good be our chief aim. Instead of locking heads about the semantics of abortion law, let’s work together to help young people find more constructive things to do with their time than have irresponsible sex. Instead of fighting over how to best combat terrorism, let’s make every effort as individuals, organizations, businesses, and even government to be people who love others. I am sorry to say that our faith does not fight force with force and may not always look “successful.” Instead of bickering over money and taxes, let’s share the incredible wealth our nation has been blessed with with those in our cities and living on the streets, with those around the world. I am sorry so many of my fellow Christians speak of what they want to do with “MY” money. All that I have is yours, and if you have a need that I can address, I will do all that I can to do so. Instead of arguing over health care, let’s help take care of our neighbors and fellow citizens.

Most non-Christians would be surprised to know that this is exactly what the first church was like. There are four Gospels that tell us about the life of Christ, and then a Book called Acts which tells us what Jesus’ followers did with his teachings. Early on we find thousands who were cut to the heart and didn’t know what to do in light of thier faith. They came to believe that Jesus was God’s Son, and became followers of him. The result was not toting Bibles around yelling at people, but instead living communally with each other. They shared all that they had. They cashed in their retirement accounts and took care of each other. They ate together every day. They created little communal societies of accountability. It wasn’t easy – which is probably why they didn’t last. But, there can be little doubt that if the church was doing that today, many of the arguments that created our political campaign this year would have never happened. Early on, it was difficult for leaders of the nations to do anything to the Christians – they were so peaceful and helped the nation so much. Compare that to today, and it is hardly recognizeable.

So . . . for all of those who are reading this who have had long dialogue with me, I am sorry that I have taken up so much of your precious time. Thank you for taking the time to read these words right now. Those of you who don’t know me at all, or have lost touch, I hope this is a clear window into my heart and mind. For Christians reading this, I hope you will turn the news off tonight, stop reading political articles online, and spend time with your family. Pray with your wife and kids. Leave the comfort of your home, and find someone in need. Over and over again we are commissioned that way, but I run from those opportunities. Pray about your church. Pray that God will move in you. It is my suspicion that most of you are like me and have spent much more time reading through political rants than quality time with your Maker. I know it sounds trite, and it isn’t like me to be trite, but I can’t really remedy this issue any other way.

I come from a tradition that inadvertantly has used prayer more like a cop-out than the incredible world changing power that it is. I feel well-grounded and totally dependent on God in some areas of my faith, but prayer is not one of those areas. I think sometimes I read, blog, or do other things to avoid the face to face encounter with a God I so seldom talk with. I think, if you are like me, I need to stop typing and reading . . . and spend my time where I can actually do some good – relying on the one who will get me there. And, if he tells you how to fix some of these major problems, be sure to let the rest of us know!