Friday, September 7, 2007

Grace and idolatry on the gridiron

Yes, with the Colts blowing out the Saints last night, another pro football season is upon us. Hallelujah. (Though for me, the big gameday is college Saturday.) In honor, Christianity Today questions the righteousness of all our armchair quarterbacking in a lengthy story published online today, "Why We Love Football." A sampling from Steel Town U.S.A.:
When the Steelers made their remarkable, improbable Super Bowl run two years ago, the atmosphere across the region was electric, all day, all night, each week bringing a new level of primal voltage, powering countless parties, conversations, newscasts, even classrooms. At the college where I teach, students, faculty, and staff could speak of little else, to the sometimes flamboyant annoyance of the out-of-staters in our midst. Two guys, one from Ohio, the other from Cyprus, shaved their heads in protest, not of the Steelers so much as their fans. That included me, I suppose: I wore my Steelers necktie on Mondays and my "replica jersey" on Fridays—Black-and-Gold Day citywide, all month, as Pittsburghers sported their truest colors in effusive display.

January was, you might say, unusually warm that year, the temperature rising as the mercury dropped. Musicians wrote and recorded dozens of Steelers songs, some of which were played on radio stations, made available through the internet, and danced to at clubs and bars. ("What is it about the Steelers' success that makes people say, 'Where's my kazoo?'" quipped Pittsburgh Post-Gazette columnist Gene Collier.) When at last Super Bowl Sunday arrived, I was amused and charmed most by the elderly woman who wore into our staid two-century-old Presbyterian church a plastic Steelers vest and Steelers earrings, hobbling into her pew with a glimmer in her eye. How did the pastor make it through the sermon? It's hard enough under ordinary circumstances to preach to restless pew-sitters, let alone when they're wearing face paint, as the children in one family did.

Few dimensions of our common life so totally capture the 21st century American zeitgeist as the National Football League. Perhaps none do.


Here's what I wonder: What kind of organization provides us with everything we want, from extraordinary spectacles to godlike athletes to dancing girls? And what kind of people accept such offerings?

These are dangerous questions, costly to ask. So we don't.

But ask we must—if that troubling, first-century category "the world" and the older notion of "idolatry" are to have any contemporary meaning. What do these ancient words get at if not a people's steady refusal of the true pathway to life and their accompanying preference for counterfeits?


At its best, sport may lead us more fully into an experience of health, an experience of community, play, joy—all good gifts of the Creator. But this happens only if it is enfolded within a grander, richer participation in life, in which another set of rites and symbols and songs takes us more deeply into gratitude and grace, sourced in the Creator and centered on the Cross.
I bit heavier reading than I expected. But I get what author Eric Miller, an associate professor of history at Geneva College, is trying to say: Don't be blinded by the pleasures and distractions of this world. After all, for a lot of people, sports become religion.

For 2,500 words more regarding football and religion, here's a story I wrote two years ago about an American Muslim teenager playing football on the empty stomach required during the month of Ramadan.

(Photo: Those are the Chargers Girls during a Halloween game.)

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