"Go big or go home." Like "you only live once," it's become an increasingly popular mantra these days. I'm not sure I agree with the underlying sentiment, but it certainly describes the Super Bowl/Mardi Gras/Valentine's Day juggernaut of excess we're about to enter this month.
Take the Super Bowl, which falls a mere 10 days before Lent, one of the holiest seasons of the Christian calendar. From the big-dollar advertising to the finger-food-filled party menus, it's pretty much the American sports equivalent of Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled into one. Interest in the event is so keen that many believers plan their church attendance around it. This year, my pastors have sent out emails asking less-avid or sacrificially minded sports fans to attend our evening service, so the morning service isn't overcrowded.
The event isn't just popular; almost every aspect of the game and its surrounding festivities involves extremes in money, sex, and power. Super Bowl tickets are the most expensive of any U.S. sports event, with fans attending this year's game paying nearly $4,000 per seat on average. (Compare that to the recent World Series, for which it was possible to get standing-room tickets for under $400.) Not only are the ads on TV notorious for their expense and production qualities, they frequently push the envelope for raciness, with the infamous GoDaddy running a longstanding campaign of "teaser" ads that drive viewers to more explicit versions online.
None of this renders the Super Bowl irredeemable or inherently sinful, but it does present a challenge to followers of Jesus – particularly those of us who look forward to observing not just Easter but the entire 40-day season of Lent preceding it. How do we make the Super Bowl-to-Lent transition well?
On the website launched in conjunction with his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch used to run a feature called Five Questions that considered a range of "culture artifacts." Applying those questions to the Super Bowl might be helpful.
What does the Super Bowl assume about the world?
That most of the country roots for one of two opposing causes. That football brings together young and old; rich and poor; male and female; musicians, designers, athletes, journalists, businesspeople, and janitors. That the honor of hospitality should be shared, but only by cities and only by urban centers with an adequate arena and related business infrastructure.
What does the Super Bowl assume about the way the world should be?
That sometimes we should all stop to watch the same thing and allow ourselves to be absorbed and entertained by a singular event.
What does the Super Bowl make possible?
Winner and losers, wealth, athletic drama, parties, drunkenness, exposure, shared experience, profits for pimps and sex traffickers, special access for the rich.
What does the Super Bowl make impossible (or at least a lot more difficult)?
Getting people to attend competing events.
What new culture is created in response to the Super Bowl?
Camaraderie across cultural lines and other barriers, among those who root for the same team. Collaboration among businesspeople, marketers and other teams that prepare something tied to the event. Food and other celebratory traditions. A movement to educate on behalf sex trafficking victims brought to the host city.
Doubtless you could think of many other answers to these questions, but even these few answers highlight some of the winners and losers, the blessings and curses created by the larger cultural artifact the game entails.
Community comes through as a clear theme. Few people watch the game alone. We can certainly carry into Lent that blessed sweetness of connection with others. Though at times the Lenten season may try us (for those who fast and abstain), strong relationships with others can you help refocus and persist to Easter morning.
On the other hand, the Super Bowl tends to exert a kind of tyranny over our time and attention during the sacred game. Even for those of us who spent the morning worshiping God in a church service, it may be easy to all but forget him during the throes of the game. That's one reason I plan to pray during at least a few of the natural breaks in the game, as part of a prayer event I'm organizing called Pray for the Johns Day.
It's a chance for people to ask God to change the hearts and lives of customers, pimps, and others who participate in sexual exploitation, an evil that seems to gain strength from the Super Bowl.In this year's host city, New Orleans, Free NOLA offered a prayer guide leading up to the Super Bowl and Mardi Gras.
But even if sex trafficking isn't a burden on your heart, why not take the time to pray for something else?
Another reason I plan to pray is because I don't like to think there's any sphere or experience I would enter from which God would be entirely shut out. The more I tie prayer into some other, pre-existing rhythm like walking, washing dishes, or my bike commute, the more consistently I pray.
Growing up, I had limited understanding of the church holidays: to me it was mainly two brief celebrations at Christmas and Easter. But as my church has pulled me toward observing the Advent and Lenten seasons, those stretches of longing and lament have taken me back to parts of life I've rather avoid.It isn't necessarily easy or fun, but these rhythms slowly beat against the walls I erect to compartmentalize my life, walls that not only divide me from myself, but keep God and others out.
As peculiar as it might sound, I hope that praying during the Super Bowl will help me keep leaning toward Lent, wholeness, God, even amid an exciting sports event. Maybe it could help you do the same.
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