Like any sports culture, American football arrives at its season with its own mythos. The difference is, here in the States, no other sporting event captures and communicates so well the id of the American psyche: good guys vs. bad guys, victory or defeat, and violence, violence, violence.
But I am more than an American. I am a Christian. Come September, however, I am a Christian who is an American who is rabid. Put my team on the television, and you will see a Jekyll-to-Hyde transformation from mild-mannered, white-collar family man, to Neolithic howler with whoops loud enough to win wars. It was during a moment of acute anticipation for this annual event of devolution that I took some time to think about just what lessons we, as Christians, can learn from the brute-on-brute contest. I mean, I know well its nuances as a national portrait, but what theological statements, if any, could a game where larger-than-life men collide in larger-than-life stadiums provide with respect to a right retelling of the Gospel?
In other words, what in this mythos could serve as an illustrative vehicle for delivering a fresh spin of the most beloved, as well as the more oft-forgotten, aspects of the grand narrative that is the Good News and God’s redemptive entrance into world history? Well, I did some thinking, and for me, after recalling my sense impressions from my experiences both in a helmet and in the stands, I think the gridiron can teach us the following:
As stated above, the game of American football is violent. Unlike other sports in which tackles are intended to control the movement or advance of the ball, tackling in football is intended to stop the advance of the ball carrier. To accomplish this, a tackle must be performed with proper technique and with a force so great it either drops the runner where he stands or drives him backwards. All the while, the runner resists and tries to muscle his way for positive gain.
The Christian story is not without violence and advance. Though Christ’s life and Kenosis stand as powerful examples of radical submission in the face of violence, it is violence that begins the ushering in of a new era of salvation. I’m speaking, of course, of Christ on the cross. While the age-old debate continues of whether or not the Son was pre-appointed by the Father or if the decision was the Son’s alone, the fact remains, reconciliation is made possible because blood was shed, and so the corporeal at its worst put in place the conditions for an ever-unconquerable triumph that was the ethereal reclamation of life before death and after. To this point also of new era and reclamation, the Kingdom come marches down the field from violent start to violent end, to when, as anticipated by the early Christians, our Lord returns to deliver his people into life with him and his enemies into a second and final death (2 Thess 1:8-9; Rev 20:14).
It has been said that football is the ultimate team sport. Before each play, the two sides decide a strategy to either score or to prevent a score. This strategy is designed around not only the intended roles of each position, but also around the skill-sets of players filling those positions. So also in the Early Church, there was a whole lot of discussion about what Christians, as individuals, brought to the table in the Kingdom here and now (1 Cor 12-13). Unlike football, however, these gifts were not physical but spiritual, and they bespoke creative empowerment that recaptured and transformed the individual ethic while appearing in corporate worship as powerful, Spirit-filled revelations (e.g., Acts 2:3).
It is the mass appeal, entertainment value, and flashy marketing of football that ropes a large and diverse group of people within an already large and diverse country. Teams and their mascots are tied to a location, whether to a city, to a university or school, but affinity for and identity with one’s team goes beyond the geospatial. Surrounding the roster is a culture that, as in any instance of culture, forms around a shared narrative of being, tradition, and ritual. Here we could pick a million-and-one examples: Pittsburgh and the Terrible Towel, “Play Like a Champion,” the Oklahoma Drill. But to pick a few is to exclude the many, so I will just trust Google to do the work for me.
For the Church, tradition is the vehicle of Scripture. Prior to a written record of the events, the story of the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Christ spread throughout the Near East and made its way into Europe by word of mouth. When received, the Good News formed collectives in which new revelation was communicated and celebrated through ritual (Acts 10:7). These rituals, such as the Eucharist, remain, and it is our observation of rituals as the tradition vehicle for the Gospel whereby we enter into community with believers past and communicate a powerful witness to the secular that the Church is a community everlasting.
Now, when we speak of ritual in the Church, we do not speak of superstition. This admittedly cannot be said for ritual in the world of sports, and American football is no exception. Still, the energy that compels fans to evoke the name of Lady Luck through whatever quirk or odd behavior is a nervous one that is ultimately an act of preparation for an anticipated end and result. So also life in the Body of Christ is anticipatory. Our presence as a believing corpus is a prophetic voice univocal, and our gathering bespeaks to the passing order an impending and abrupt world end. We live not merely as an end-time people, but as a prepared, end-time people (Acts 2:16-17).
This latter lesson of anticipation, in my estimation, is one that is most pressing even in our most light-hearted attempts at a uniquely Christian observation of the game of American football. What is more, this lesson is perhaps also the most glaring incompatibility. Unlike the fan chewing on her nails at the start of the two-minute drive, the Christian lives beyond the buzzer. The outcome has been decided, and so perhaps right faith remains squarely on her side of the gulf that exists between the stadium and the church, as the former’s invariable mantra “We’ll get ‘em next year!” has no real seat in the latter, where the common prayer is “Maranatha!”
Therefore, let it be said that, in the end, though football can teach our worship communities something about ourselves, the Christian understanding of violence, Charismata, community, and anticipation must proceed exclusively from the account of the Christ who was, the Christ who is, and the Christ who is to come. Amen, erchou kurie iesou.
And until then, go team!
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