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And God Created Football
Intimations of the divine in a well-executed screen pass.
Mark Galli

Thursday, January 28, 2010

A fair amount of recent scholarship argues that American football—and perhaps American sports in general—has become a religion. What's interesting is that the very people who have a vested interest in this issue seem uninterested, or at least unconvinced.

In the recent past, the Christian community was ambivalent about sports. As long as athletes used their athletic accomplishments as a springboard to missions—think C. T. Studd (from cricket to China missions), Billy Sunday (from baseball to revival ministry), and Eric Liddell (track & field to China missions)—all was well. But to dedicate your life to athletic excellence, especially to professional sports—well, it was bad stewardship at best, and likely to be censured as downright worldly.

In case you haven't noticed, all that has changed. As Shirl Hoffman shows in Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (coming in February from Baylor University Press), Christians have embraced sports with no little enthusiasm. Christian parents enroll their children—boys and girls alike now—in youth leagues and enthusiastically follow them in traveling teams, even if that takes them away on weekends, and thus from Sunday morning worship in their home church. Churches have sports ministries and banquets featuring Christian superstars who wax eloquent about how God helped them who helped themselves (with discipline, teamwork, and so forth). And, in large parts of the country, high school sports is seamlessly woven into religious life.

What about Sabbath issues, long a major stumbling block for Christians? Well, Eric Liddell's qualms about running on Sunday now seem quaint. Every professional football team has Christian chaplains who hold pre-game services for players still committed to Sunday worship (if not to Sabbath rest). And when it comes to the Big Event of the Year, churches no longer complain about the Super Bowl depleting Sunday night services. Now the services are scheduled so as to not conflict with the Super Bowl, and some churches even hold Super Bowl parties (as an outreach event, of course).

The pacifists among the faithful remain concerned about football's violence; the moralists frown on football's alliance with beer and sex; and pastors remain jealous about Sunday morning attendance in the fall. But these same preachers will, without blushing, use football illustrations to drive home a homiletic point. It is rare to find any Christian today who suspects that football is a religion, let alone a rival religion.

So it is ironic that it is mostly the members of the secular academy who seem to have the eyes to see sport as religion. A reading list from recent years would include The Faith of 50 Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture, edited by Christopher H. Evans and William R. Herzog II; From Season to Season: Sports As American Religion, edited by Joseph L. Price; and The Holy Trinity of American Sports: Civil Religion in Football, Baseball, and Basketball, by Craig A. Forney—among others. Books like this have been around for a few decades now, and they argue or at least suggest that football has all the trappings of traditional religion and, in fact, does a better job at religion than does the Christian church.

Have American Christians become blind to this new rival religion, giving themselves over to the modern Baal, the civil religion of football? Or have scholars, in attempting to say something fresh, committed metaphor-overreach? In short, is football a religion or even religion-like?

I had hoped that Football and Philosophy: Going Deep would help me unravel the mystery, but it was not to be. In four parts, or "four quarters," the authors apply philosophical thinking to some current issues in football—whether winning is "the only thing," whether we should have a playoff system in college football, whether instant replay is a good idea, whether using steroids is cheating, and so forth. It's mostly an exercise in ethics, with football used as a point of departure for larger philosophical concerns and conversations. One essay discusses how Aristotle's philosophy of friendship applies to football friendships and team camaraderie, another how Immanuel Kant's aesthetic theory helps us evaluate whether football is beautiful. Such pieces are interesting, but they remain above the playing field—they don't help us understand football as football.

Only in the "Fourth Quarter: Metaphysical Mojo" did I find an essay that tried to do that, Mark Hamilton's "Is the Gridiron Holy Ground?" Here we find a summary of many book-length arguments for football as religion:

John Lennon was criticized for saying that the Beatles had become more popular than Jesus. Well, the Beatles were long ago eclipsed by football, which is now America's most popular cultural icon. On scores of Sundays, many fans "sacrifice" attendance at church for opportunities to attend a professional football game. On ESPN the Super Bowl has become an American holy day complete with sermons of how these teams have pilgrimaged to the holy land. Sunday evening services are rescheduled around the Super Bowl as it draws all Americans together. It has become the Church of Football, or more cynically the First Church of the Last Down.

Hamilton argues that "civil religion reigns in American sport and, in particular, in football." He wants to show how Christians can properly embrace football without football becoming an alternative or rival or syncretistic religion. Along the way, he quotes Andrew Miracle and Roger Rees and their book Lessons of the Locker Room, which describes how high school football, for example, is made up of a series of rituals that demonstrate a community's shared "beliefs about particular ways of thinking and feeling. These myths … are cultural blueprints for understanding our society …. Ritual is sacred because it denotes a special time in which we do things that confirm the importance of deeply held beliefs."

Hamilton notes that during crucial games, and crucial moments in a game—especially when the games are closely contested—individualism gives way to community. As Miracle and Rees put it: "Hundreds of thousands of voices become as one. Almost simultaneously, many individuals may experience ecstasy, that is, an altered state of consciousness, a tremendous natural high. It is the force of public ritual that gives sport the kind of cultural power usually attached to religion."

Miracle and Rees quote anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who believed that religion acts to "establish powerful, persuasive, and long lasting moods and motivations" by "formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and clothing those conceptions with such an aura of factuality that the morals and motivations seems uniquely realistic." They conclude, and Hamilton seems to concur, that "Sport has done this for American culture in a way that traditional religion could not."

At first glance, Michael Oriard's The End of Autumn: Reflections on My Life in Football seems to support this popular view of football. Oriard is Distinguished Professor of American Literature and Culture and associate dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University. He received his PhD from Stanford and has written much on sports, including Brand NFL: Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and Bowled Over: Big-Time College Football from the Sixties to the BCS Era.

But it is not Oriard's considerable sports scholarship that carries weight here. What sets him apart is that he played for four years in the National Football League. In The End of Autumn (a book originally published in 1982 and now reissued with a new afterword), Oriard describes his life in football, from boyhood, to high school, to becoming a starter at Notre Dame after being a walk-on, to playing special teams for the Kansas City Chiefs. After he was cut by the Chiefs, he played briefly in the Canadian Football League before retiring.

Oriard played football in another era—before ESPN, before the Bowl Championship Series, before free agency and million-dollar salaries for nfl players. But the nature of preparing for and playing the game of football at the highest athletic levels has not changed all that much, and Oriard's book illuminates it for us.

That experience could be described as religious. Oriard himself never uses the word "religious" to talk about his years in the game, but sports scholars will no doubt see a lot of what they call religion here. As Oriard notes, football players follow a kind of liturgical calendar (my phrase): "My entire collegiate career was governed by [structured] patterns: its seasons not so much fall, winter, spring, and summer as football season, off season, spring football, and summer training …. During the season, the rhythm fell into weekly cycles." Thus Sunday was light running and films of Saturday's games; Mondays through Thursdays meant workouts of varying intensity; Friday was a light day; Saturday was game day.

He also talks about the powerful brotherhood experienced by the few athletes who share the rare talent and dedication it takes to play professional football: "Long seasons of pleasure and pain, jubilation and frustration, wins and losses created a world of shared experiences that we players alone participated in …. The bond among teammates is perhaps unique in its intensity and simultaneous fragility."

And then there is the experience on the field, which in its physical intensity becomes, at times, a moment of transcendence:

The longest play in a football game rarely takes over four or five seconds, but on occasion I would be transported into a state in which I could watch my actions unfold as slowly and beautifully as a blooming lily. Instead of a chaotic collision of bodies in which I instinctively drove for position against my opponent's resistance, pads popping, legs churning, arms punching, and voices grunting, I would see my man transfixed like a bird mesmerized by a striking snake. I would see a distinct target, into whose center I would drive my head and shoulders, feeling complete control rather than scrambling desperately to make contact only to see him slide off and make the tackle. Such moments came infrequently, but when they did, they provided the supreme physical pleasure of the game—a unity of mind and body and will so complete that for an instant I seemed to transcend my human limitations.

There are other passages where Oriard describes a football stadium in terms that made this writer think of "sanctuary," and others still in which his description of the sheer physicality, the incarnational reality of football, made me think of Eugene Peterson's spiritual theology in Christ Plays in a Thousand Places.

Wisely, Oriard never makes the connection with religion explicit. He is grateful for his years in football, for the maturity it brought him, for the way it tested him, for the intensity it offered, for the friendships he formed. And he concludes, "Football has been so often hysterically attacked and outrageously applauded that we can lose sight of what it really is: a much more varied experience than either extreme implies …. It brings pleasure, pain, glory, and tragedy."

In other words, football as Oriard experienced it is part and parcel of the larger world we all share. A more intense experience, to be sure, but a very human experience nonetheless. As such, I conclude that football may not be any more or less religious than the rest of life.

From my vantage point—as a casual scholar of football, a football fan, a former pastor, and a Christian who has dabbled in a fair amount of theology—the problem with seeing football as a religion is that it ends up making religion less than what it is, and football more than what it is.

For example, the Clifford Geertz quote above suggests that religion is about "formulating conceptions of a general order of existence" and then "clothing them" so that they appear "uniquely realistic." This is not the only description of religion anthropologists and sociologists of religion use, but it does share a characteristic of many: it is flagrantly reductionist. It mistakes the form for the substance of religion.

Take the issue of ritual. Miracle and Rees say, "Ritual is sacred because it denotes a special time in which we do things that confirm the importance of deeply held beliefs." To be sure, there is indeed something transcendent about communal rituals—whether they happen at the Elks Club or during the State of the Union address or on the football field. But this does not make communal rituals religious, or a civil religion, let alone idolatry, that is, a religion that competes with true religion. Communal ritual is no more religious than the transcendence one might experience in listening to Mozart or viewing the Grand Canyon or in making love with one's beloved. Our gracious God has so ordered things that he breaks into our lives in small and large ways through a variety of means—"his invisible attributes, namely his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world in the things he has made" (Rom. 1:20).

What makes Christianity unique is not its sociological forms. The sociological forms carry not merely a general sense of transcendence but, in the case of Christianity, the very revelation of God's unique Word. As Scripture attests, God uses the common things of life (public speaking, communal meals, and so forth) and fills them with a specific and concrete content—namely, Jesus Christ.

Sport—in this case, football—is not a quasi-religion or a civil religion or a form of idolatry as such. Like anything in creation, football can become idolatrous. But it is not football's sociological parallels with religious life that make it a possible rival religion—all of creation, all these sociological forms (speech, music, discipline, camaraderie, ritual, and so forth) can partake in and hint at transcendence. If we really were convinced that football was a rival religion because it shared these forms, we Christians would not only have to abandon football, but life itself. For we cannot escape God; his love overflows into all of life, and does so—mysteriously, elusively to be sure—in more forms than we can imagine.

Some Christians do practice civil religion, and for some, football has become an idol. Such is the nature of the human heart, that desperately wicked thing (Jer. 17:9). But one reason many Christians are not concerned about football as religion is that what seems to make it a religion to some scholars is precisely the thing that makes it another sign of God's presence in the world, a sign that comes in the most mundane ways—through ritual, physical sacrifice, a sense of brotherhood, shared joy and despair over little things (like if our team wins or loses).

This is the reason Christians participate freely and fully in all of life. For we, of all people, have eyes to see and ears to hear God's elusive presence, to discern his handiwork and love everywhere. The clearest revelation of God's love comes to us in the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the sacrament, but it is precisely because we've learned to make out the outlines of the God-man Jesus with repeated participation at these specifically religious events that we can spot him in a glass of fine wine, in the startling lines of a skyscraper, in conversation with friends, in a timely block or a well-executed screen play.

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today and author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).