The devout Tim Tebow won’t be playing in Super Bowl XLVI but the game itself — played on the highest, holiest day of the liturgical calendar of American sport — will be pure religious spectacle.
Critics of “organized religion” – especially those who consider themselves “spiritual” more than “religious” – are perhaps among the most devoted to the Church of Football, and most dogmatic in their defense of the faith.
This is an institutional religion with all the trappings that make people suspicious of institutional religion: patriarchs (coaches and owners) who rule from on high; rituals that stir (manipulate?) the faithful into frenzied ecstasy; a giddy devotion to saints (past and present players) worshiped for their superhuman qualities; and a crude obsession with money (revenue for said patriarchs, for players, for broadcast networks) that borders on the obscene.
The Church of Football has adherents like no other, devotees utterly faithful in their attendance, whether in person or through the medium of television; committed in their witness, happy to prosyletize for the sake of making new converts.
But as the congregation gathers for the act of worship that is the Super Bowl — either in the sacred space of Lucas Oil Stadium (the name alone reveals another of America’s deepest loves) or in one’s own living room — what are the effects on the worshipers? What does the Church of Football do for those who attend it week after week and who wouldn’t dream of missing out on the feast day celebration in Indianapolis?
I have no idea.
But my hunch is that Sport has colonized our collective imagination because there’s very little else in our civic life that gives us a sense of solidarity and shared meaning. Our politics certainly don’t do that, divided as we are along bitterly partisan lines. Even for people who regularly attend worship in churches, following your favorite sports team is somehow believed to offer more joy and adventure than following a first-century crucified Messiah. In fact, our Christian convictions often make us uncomfortable in social settings; talking about Jesus can be more than a little embarrassing. But sharing the story of our conversion to football or the stats of our favorite saint/player — we could go on and on.
I’m open to the idea that it’s possible to be a thoughtful Christian (or Jew or Muslim . . .) and a lover of football, though I’m baffled by the deep admiration of so violent a game in which human bodies are battered and broken, brains irreparably injured, long-term health compromised for the sake of a few years of glory (and a hefty paycheck).
Nonetheless for a few million followers there will be a meeting of heaven and earth today in central Indiana. Some of us believe we experienced that in the Eucharist this Lord’s Day but, again, that can seem like silly religious talk. The Church of Football knows no such embarrassment.