Perhaps you’ve heard it said, or even said it yourself: “I wish people would get excited about Christ and the Gospel, the way they get excited about the Super Bowl! Why can’t we bring that kind of enthusiasm to the things that are most important?”
I’ve heard this sentiment more than once – most recently at a choir rehearsal, on the afternoon that the Denver Broncos were in the final round of playoffs prior to the Super Bowl. The choir member who said it was not trying to put anyone down, but was simply noting what he saw as a glaring irony in our culture.
In the past, I’ve tended to agree with this notion. Granted, that’s easy for me to do: I have no interest in professional sports; and I have a generally high opinion of historic Christian civilization, where faith was much more a part of popular culture.
This time, however, I had a skeptical reaction to the idea of Super Bowl-like enthusiasm for religious matters. I thought: “That sounds good in theory, but what would it actually be like?” Some less-than-appealing images came to mind.
I thought about the Protestant marching bands of Northern Ireland, parading their inflammatory anti-Papal polemics in the streets. I remembered learning about the chariot-racing teams of the Byzantine Empire, whose theological positions and team affiliations often went hand-in-hand as the cause of rivalries.
Closer to home, we have the kind of religious event that uses rock-concert atmospherics to generate “abstinence pledges” and “decisions for Christ” among teenagers. These methods are highly questionable, to say the least.
There are plenty of arguments against the idea of combining religion with the “hometown team” mentality. Examples could be multiplied – from the embarrassing (Jesus-themed merchandise, akin to sports collectibles), to the tragic (scenes of hooliganism and rioting in God’s name).
Nor is the “team mindset” the only issue. More broadly, there are problems with trying to turn faith into a modern pop-culture phenomenon.
Many Christians have found that flashy marketing efforts make religion more worldly, rather than making the world more religious. Jesus certainly drew large crowds in his day; but we should be wary of importing the entire modern celebrity-mindset into the Church.
These are among the problems that come to mind, when I imagine what it would be like for the fervor of sports-fandom to be applied to religion.
Rather than spiritually uplifting the enthusiasm of crowds, I suspect it would drag religion down toward the level of beer commercials and halftime shows. The tendency to mistake mere human enthusiasm for religious devotion is well known, and often results in a “zeal not according to knowledge” (Rom. 10:2).
Beyond all this, however, there is a deeper reason why the “fan mentality”– of whatever kind, whether it be sports fandom, indie-rock fandom, fantasy-novel fandom, etc. – should not be transferred over to religion.
The reason is simple: “Fandom” shouldn’t be redirected to the Gospel, because God doesn’t want “fans.”
Jesus wants disciples, friends, brothers, sisters; he wants apostles, prophets, sometimes even martyrs. He wants workers in the Father’s vineyard, cooperators with the truth. He wants healthy, functioning members of a Mystical Body, and living stones that comprise a temple of the Holy Spirit.
But Jesus does not need fans. He has no need for a cheering section of spectators, wearing jerseys and chanting, “Lord! Lord!” from the sidelines. God’s Kingdom does not need mere hobbyists, collectors, and trivia-buffs, for whom religion is a form of entertainment or escapism.
We often learn more from our critics than from our friends and allies. The person who taught me that Christ didn’t want fans, was not a Christian himself. In fact, he held some beliefs that I can only call delusional and dangerous. But truth is truth, and this person was right about something important.
I’ll call him “Dave,” though that is not his real name. Dave was a regular customer at the coffee shop where I worked during 2005 and 2006 – during which time I had stopped going to college, and somewhat unexpectedly converted from atheism to Christianity. (I was not yet Catholic, but was “on the way.”)
Dave, who seemed to be in his early 40s, would often come and drink tea alone in the evenings. We only ever saw him read two things: magazines about computers, and New Age books written by “channelers” who claimed to be in touch with “higher forms of intelligence.”
As customers go, he was slightly odd but usually friendly, often taking a seat at the espresso bar to chat with the baristas.
Dave told us about the book-channeling “spiritual entities,” which creeped me out and still do. (Seriously, don’t touch that stuff with a ten-foot pole.) This was also the time of The Da Vinci Code film, and I recall telling Dave why Jesus couldn’t have gotten married and gone off to France – or whatever the idea was.
But my most memorable conversation with Dave was about the “fan” mindset in relation to Christianity. It was an awkward, frustrating conversation, but quite valuable for me in the end.
Christians, in Dave’s view, weren’t bad people, but were somewhat immature – stunted in their spiritual growth, so to speak. I asked him what he meant, and he responded with a kind of parable:
“Christians,” he said, “are like the kid who idolizes Michael Jordan. That kid wears the Michael Jordan shoes, he collects the trading cards, puts the posters up on his wall. He wears the Michael Jordan jersey, and eats the cereal with Michael Jordan on the box.”
“What Christians do,” he explained, “is sit on the sidelines – cheering for their hero, their ‘Michael Jordan.’”
I understood his meaning. He saw Christianity as little more than a “Jesus fan-club,” a faith consisting mostly of passive admiration and applause for its central figure.
“But you know what I want to do?” Dave paused for dramatic effect.
Then he concluded his parable: “I want to play basketball.”
I didn’t appreciate Dave’s smug tone, or his characterization of Christians. I must have tried to give some response – about how that wasn’t a fair portrayal of Christian faith in the first place; about how Dave’s idea of spirituality was self-centered, and didn’t reflect our need for salvation by God’s grace .
I must have said things like this. But I don’t actually remember what I said. I mostly just remember what Dave said.
At first, I remembered it mainly because I found it so annoying and unfair. I couldn’t believe the arrogance of that dramatic finish: “I want to play basketball”! It became a shared joke between me and a co-worker – who actually shared Dave’s New Age leanings, but didn’t like the superior tone he’d used.
Later, as a Catholic, I used the story to illustrate the chauvinism of some “spiritual but not religious” individuals. I imitated Dave’s condescending description of Christians, his wiser-than-thou tone of voice, his dramatic pause before that unforgettable last line. It was good for a laugh.
Lately, though, I’ve been rethinking my attitude toward the Church’s critics. Even though they’re wrong about the nature of religious truth, they are sometimes right about us as people – and we should have the humility to admit it. Even Dave, whose generalizations I found so offensive, had a point.
Sometimes we really are more like “Jesus fans” than disciples. We become spectators – filling our bookshelves, walls, web browsers, and mp3 players with paraphernalia. We demonstrate a supposed “devotion” that’s actually more like the relationship between celebrities and fans.
We have a tendency to make everything into entertainment, religion included. Thus, our supposed religious fervor is sometimes quite worldly and human – disturbingly akin to sitting back in the bleachers, wearing a big foam finger that says “CHRIST IS #1.”
That’s the deeper reason why I don’t want religion to be the object of a Super Bowl-like enthusiasm. That kind of fandom may have its place in the world; but it cannot be compared to the supernatural bond of communion and fellowship with the risen Lord.
I don’t want a culture of people painting their faces and tailgating for Jesus, wearing tacky merchandise plastered with crosses. More to the point, I don’t think God wants it: when Scripture uses athletic metaphors, we are not portrayed as spectators. If there is a competition, we are right in the middle of it.
And what is “winning,” anyway, from the Catholic perspective? Our faith speaks of victors who received the “crowns of martyrdom”; we are told to rejoice in persecutions, sufferings, and even our weaknesses. Perhaps victory, for us, is profoundly different from a victory in the Super Bowl or the Olympics.
But that is a subject for another time. For now, I’m mostly thankful to “Dave” – thankful that God let him irritate me. It turns out I agree with him, to an extent: We aren’t here to cheer and collect memorabilia. If there is a team, we’re on it.