This is the time of year for theological reflections about the Super Bowl. One of the most stimulating discussions that I can remember on the subject was at a Reformed Journal editors meeting back in the 1970s. Someone had submitted an article alleging that the Super Bowl was an idolatrous “civil religion” rite, glorifying patriotism, militarism, consumerism and male chauvinism. This was a rather common line for religious elites to take in those days, and we decided as editors to have a lengthy discussion of the merits of the case.
At the end of our long discussion, we decided to run the article, even though we all had misgivings about doing so. Leaving the meeting together, my friend (now of blessed memory) Marlin Van Elderen remarked that he thought the author of the article was probably right about a few things—but, said Marlin, “I still hope that Dallas gets creamed!”
Marlin’s remark pretty much captures my own settled opinion about such things. Yes, be aware of all of the nasty “-isms” that are often associated with major sports events. But for all of that, do try to enjoy the game.
Mark Galli made the basic point here in a more sophisticated manner in a fine review essay that he published a year ago in Books & Culture (“And God Created Football,” Jan/Feb 2010). Galli cited instances where writers see football games and other major sports events as “religion,” ritualized events that produce ecstasy, bonding experiences, communal celebrations, “physical sacrifice,” and so forth.
Galli rightly rejects such portrayals of football as such. Sure, “for some,” he writes, “football has become an idol. Such is the nature of the human heart, that desperately wicked thing (Jer. 17: 9).” But it is precisely because many of us experience true religion that we can relax and see a football game for what it is: one of the places where we can often see God’s “handiwork and love” being manifested.
Super Bowl events can show us many things: advertising that appeals to our worst instincts; half-time shows that put false value-systems on display; commentators who mouth inanities expressed with horrible grammar; players spouting bad theology in post-game interviews. We certainly need to approach such events with prayers for discernment.
But we should also allow a football game to be itself, and often a very good “self”: an athletic contest in which we see amazing 80 yard runs, spectacular pass receptions, and a coach’s wise use of time-outs in the final minutes of the game. The old anti-Freudian remark that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar has its parallel here. Sometimes a football game is just a football game.