His whole life had been defined by distance. He was an “outsider,” they told him; a Samaritan. To this day he still couldn’t remember all the reasons why he and the Jews would never really get along. “Unclean,” they said, not because of anything he’d done, but simply because he’d been born that way. Read more
If you’ve missed it, we’ve been blogging through the book Reaching Out Without Dumbing Down: A Theology of Worship for This Urgent Time by Marva Dawn. For reference, here are the links to the previous chapters:
Her present chapter is entitled “Discovering Our Place in the Story,” which looks at the practical dimensions of liturgy, worship and art.
Dawn argues that performance is the outcome when God is no longer the subject of worship. She borrows from C.S. Lewis in saying that the best liturgy is one that we are not aware of. We are to “dance without having to count steps.” The concern is that the church’s penchant for novelty (in an effort to appeal to consumers) relegates the worship of the church to mere entertainment.
THE VALUE OF AESTHETICS AND CHARACTER FORMATION
Since the time of the enlightenment, there has been a movement away from the majesty of the cathedral to the simplicity of the chapel. The revivalism of the centuries that followed provided us with the ascendancy of showmanship even amidst two divergent theological contexts. The seeker-friendly movement of the last few decades is the natural outcome of this, where the Church has blended the artistic expressions of popular culture with those of historic Christianity. Even the architecture was meant to reflect that of the culture that surrounded it, resulting in churches that looked more like shopping malls, business centers and warehouses than the cathedrals of old.
Churches were motivated by pragmatism and utility. The need for a “multi-purpose room” outweighed the need for a sanctuary. And not without reason: the rise of children’s and youth programs with a concomitantly diminishing budget often necessitates such flexibility in building use.
But the end result was the loss of both beauty and sacred space. Part of the issue we now face is that each successive generation, while deeply shaped by the generation that preceded it, wants to escape the trappings and stale traditions they grew up in.
For the boomer generation, this meant exchanging the stale traditions they had grown up in for the contemporary expressions that have now become normative within the megachurch/church growth world. We don’t need a sanctuary, they insisted, we need a place that looks just like our jobs and offices. But the postmodern generations of today are doing the same thing: shirking the traditions of the previous generation in favor of new directions, which, ironically, resemble the traditions their parents had worked to escape from.
And because of this, rising generations place value in such things as beauty and transcendence – often because such things capture or at least contribute to the experiential, emotion-driven faith systems that they possess.
Dawn writes that beauty is inherently valuable, because
“Our increasingly ugly world makes it all the more imperative for worship to remind us of God’s beauty. Psychologists and sociologists (and even architects) comment on the fact that fewer and fewer people are able to enjoy the beauties of creation. Poverty leads to city squalor and overcrowding; busyness prevents many from taking time for the beautiful; and modern art often turns to grotesque and violent forms. Beautiful worship will foster in our character genuine humility and awe at the beauty of forgiveness, and profound thanksgiving that God invites us to share in the heavenly beauty of which we get glimpses while here on earth.” (p. 249)
The problem of course is that “beauty” is often mistaken to rest in the eye of the beholder rather than in the character of God. The reasons for this are manifold, some of which are cultural, and some of which are religious (pietism, for instance, has taught us to eschew all symbols in favor of strong, personal devotion). This combined with the penchant for “attractional” worship often leads us to the commodification of beauty. Beauty is therefore both subjective, in that audiences determine what is beautiful, and beauty is useful, in that it is a tool for attracting people. While philosophers throughout history have often been guilty of reducing beauty to the point of abstraction, contemporary culture has reduced beauty to the level of fashion.
Dawn therefore cautions that
“Out of concern for character formation, churches must think very carefully in planning the liturgy. We must not ask, Is this liturgy attractive? but always, What kind of character does this nurture? Does our liturgy focus on feelings rather than on God’s character, which evokes these feelings? If so, we will nurture a faith that depends on emotions rather than a faith that can cling to who God is in spite of human experiences of sorrow or estrangement. Does liturgy focus on the self and lead to pride, or does it focus on God and lead to humility, awe and thanksgiving, and petition?” (p. 249)
In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards spoke of God as either being a bonum utile or a bonum formosum, Latin phrases meaning “a useful good” or “goodness and beauty in itself.” Today’s world renders beauty into a bonum utile – beauty only has value if it attracts people to our church. But God created beauty to be a bonum formosum – to be enjoyed because it demonstrates God’s significance. The merchant sold all he had to purchase the pearl of great price. Jesus tells this story not so that readers would pity such a man, but understand that beauty (specifically, found in God’s revealed character in His kingdom) cannot be measured by standards of utility.
What Dawn is seeking to capture is that worship is beautiful inasmuch as it reflects the beauty of its object. Worship draws deep emotion not by cultivating emotion itself, but by directing our gaze toward the attributes of God which themselves elicit emotion. This distinction may seem subtle, but makes all the difference in the world with regard to character development and genuine community, because only such an approach makes much of the character of God rather than merely pandering to the contemporary, fashionable preferences of the world.
ISOLATION AND COMMUNITY
Dawn next articulates the way that isolationism has influenced the way we do community. She suggests that some are more comfortable in liturgical settings, where ritual does not demand that they be exposed before the scrutiny of others, though the rituals are themselves training them toward community and intimacy.
Her chapter continues in describing various aspects of worship such as the use of Psalms, creeds, traditional faith expressions and even silence as vehicles for genuine worship.
Beauty is one key to reaching the rising generations. As we discussed in an earlier post, one of the key problems facing the Church is that in the rejection of tradition and symbol, we have lost our ability to pass on our faith to both rising generations as well as outsiders. But recovering beauty and symbol can be a vital way of reaching others as well as uniting the Church.
Here I am not speaking of resurrecting stale traditions simply for tradition’s sake. Instead, I am speaking of the value of the Lord’s Table.
In theology, beauty is encapsulated in the framework of God’s redemptive story. Story matters to people in significant ways. Consider the following two quotations on the meaning and significance of story:
“As the biblical story unfolds, it does so in stories and poetry. In fact, approximately seventy-five percent of scripture consists of narrative, fifteen percent is expressed in poetic forms and only ten percent is propositional and overtly instructional in nature. In our retelling of the same story, we have reverses this biblical pattern. Today an estimated ten percent of our communication is designed to capture the imagination of the listener, while ninety percent is purely instructive.” (Colin Harbinson, “Restoring the Arts to the Church: The Role of Creativity in the Expression of Truth,” Lausanne World Pulse Magazine (online), July 2006)
“The new conversations, on which our very lives depend, require a poet not a moralist. Because finally church people are like other people; we are not changed by new rules. The deep places in our lives – places of resistance and embrace – are not ultimately reached by instruction. Those places of resistance and embrace are reached only by stories, by images, metaphors and phrases that line out the world differently, apart from fear or hurt.” (David Fitch, “The Myth of Expository Preaching (Part 2): Proclamation That Inspires the Imagination,” Out of Ur (conversations hosted by the editors of Leadership Journal), Christianity Today blog, posted July 25, 2006))
The Lord’s Table is important because it connects us to God’s story using the common language of the bread and cup. We are simultaneously reminded of God’s past faithfulness to His people in Egypt, reminded of the significance of Christ’s redemptive work at Calvary, and are joined together to celebrate the coming work of Christ that is yet future. Postmodern generations may find immense value in such symbols, and they themselves can be tools to make the old traditions and stories new again, reviving not only tradition and doctrine, but the very hearts of the believing community.
In Dawn’s next section, she explains how worship can be used as a tool for reaching our culture.
“Some things you shouldn’t get too good at. Like smiling, crying and celebrity.” (-U2)
So I’m famous now. For serious. The local paper did a whole story about me and everything. You can read all about it here.
I have to admit that it’s always strange to hear your story coming from someone else’s words, but I’m appreciative of the work the staff of the Herald Mail for their time and interest.
But the whole business of one’s life story is one that I feel deserves to be (re-)visited. Most of the way we relate to the world is through story: whether through literature or film. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems as if there’s a part of our humanity that wants our own stories to be…well…good. I mean really good. Like, “most-interesting-man-in-the-universe” good.
If Shakespeare’s right and we’re all actors on a grand stage, then part of human depravity consists of “method acting:” we have to devise and manage our identity to look good in the eyes of others. That’s why social networking sites have such an attraction: we can literally create a personal identity by cleverly managing our photographs, likes and interests and even friend lists.
But I recently found some really great stuff in the writings of a recent blogger by the name of Ian Morgan Cron. You can read his blog here. The following is from a recent post entitled “Owning Our Stories:”
“One thing I have learned in this process is how important it is to “own your story.” I haven’t always done this well, and I fight the temptation to disown parts of my story everyday when I sit at my computer to write. The truth is we all have a past that is filled with mistakes we regret. Others have wounded us, sometimes profoundly, and we’ve done our share of inflicting pain on others and ourselves along the way as well. But rather than own our stories in their totality, most of us engage in some form historical revisionism. We edit out the parts of our past stories we don’t want to own.
When you leave the most painful pieces on the editing room floor and don’t acknowledge they really happened, you literally become dis-integrated. To accept as a whole package the totality of everything we’ve done and that’s been done to us; to name it, own it, grieve it, celebrate it, this is where Shalom is found.”
I find a tremendous amount of wisdom in this, especially as I find myself getting just old enough to be reflective (wait…is there an age limit to that?). I think the great thing about the gospel is its ability to weave together the colored yarns of so many different (and often painful) stories, and have the result be something beautiful.
And all with the promise of a “happily ever after…”
Getting some work done today, I found myself listening to the latest album from Damien Jurado, Saint Bartlett.
Good stuff. I’ve been a fan of Jurado since the beginning, and never disappointed. Saint Bartlett has all the indie-folk influences you’d expect from this accomplished singer-songwriter, mixed this time with a little more of a garage-rock element. The end result is slightly harder than previous albums (though in that respect I’m speaking relatively), with a bit more of a layered, resonant sound.
Lyrically, the album draws from the deep well of personal narrative that made so many of the other albums so memorable. The lyrics of “Wellingford” have a melancholy air: “Calling out/ Your voice is an echo./ No words come back but your own,” reflective of the themes of love, loss and spirituality. As a whole the album features songwriting rooted in character, which in turn finds itself in the context of the contemporary world and the many spiritual journeys that accompany it.
Good album. Recommended.
Story. Stories – our stories, matter.
It was the postmodern philosopher Francois Lyotard (apparently named after an unattractive female garment) who said that il n’y a pas d’hors-texte – that there is no “master story” or “metanarrative.” Words like metanarrative sound out there – if not pretentious – but it’s the language of philosophy, so don’t look at me.
A metanarrative is a way of organizing and unifying the human experience. I frequently compare it to one of those photo-mosaic posters you buy at the mall. Stand up close, and all you see are a bunch of unconnected, unrelated pixels and photos.
Stand back, and the image becomes organized into a cohesive picture.
Metanarrative. It organizes our experiences into something that can be perceived, understood and shared. Lyotard (and his contemporaries) rejected the idea. Since some metanarratives (e.g., communism) are fundamentally oppressive, all metanarratives must be rejected.
The irony? The human quest, even in our postmodern times, has been dominated by the search for story and meaning.
One of my favorite fiction writers is Douglas Coupland, in whose latest book, Generation A, we read:
How can we be alive and not wonder about the stories we use to knit together this place we call the world? Without stories our universe is merely rocks and clouds and lava and blackness. It’s a village scraped raw by warm waters leaving not a trace of what existed before. (p. 1)
And for the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815, the island became meaningful in the context of their stories, and viewers found themselves increasingly attached to this core group of survivors.
SEARCHING FOR MEANING:
One of the best commentators on this aspect of the show has been Sarah Pulliam Bailey. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Bailey writes:
“In the beginning, “Lost” was simple. A plane crashed on a Pacific island, leaving survivors looking for food, shelter and rescue. But polar bears, skeletons and rattling smoke soon made it clear that this was no “Gilligan’s Island.” As ABC’s critically-acclaimed television series approaches its Sunday finale, aficionados are still crying for promised “answers” to “Lost’s” many unresolved questions. The show’s writers have hooked an invested group of about 11 million viewers, and these devotees want to believe some larger purpose exists in the storytelling, something meaningful that makes six seasons of watching worthwhile. Each week, however, every answer seems to lead to more questions, leaving enthusiasts with grave angst. Yet this is how all of life unfolds. In the end, we may find only an approximation of the truth. The viewers’ search for meaning in “Lost” exemplifies a microcosm of that experience. If we give the writers a little grace and extend some patience, the suspense leading up to the finale of this television show could teach us something about faith in general.”
Bailey, I believe, is onto something. Most of the lavish praise heaped upon the show’s conclusion was in its ability to bring resolution to the show’s characters and relationships. And, conversely, much of the criticism aimed at the show’s conclusion was in its inability to bring resolution to the many important questions raised by the previous seasons.
As frustrated as I am with the lack of answers, I think I’m beginning to “get” the appeal. The stories of the individual characters (through the flash-backs/sideways of the first and final season) are like the individual snapshots of the poster we mentioned above. These images were brought to a cohesive unity through the island and the experiences on it. Questions of time travel, smoke monsters and the source of “the light” are (allegedly) less relevant than the issues of the core characters.
But this also highlights one of the frustrating elements of our postmodern culture: perspectivalism. Perspectivalism means that truth is relegated to the perspective of the individual. This is the “open-to-interpretation” clause, or what some reviewers praise as being the “Rorschach” quality of the show.
A perspectival approach to LOST means that the show is interpreted not in terms of an objective, master story (which would demand answers to those nagging questions), but only through the lens of the characters’ various perspectives. What some, like myself, found so bothersome about the finale, was that it forced viewers to adopt such a perspectival approach, and abandon all previous quests for solutions.
LOST AS MIRROR
Nevertheless, the characters form a valuable link to the audience, who sees in the flawed characters a mirror of their own brokenness. Chris Seay (whose insightful article we mentioned yesterday) writes:
Every one of us bears the marks that Jacob used to describe the candidates. We are all flawed, and we struggle to connect with others in a deep and meaningful way. The feeling that we are alone in this world haunts us, and we believe deep within that if people knew us for whom we truly are, they would reject us. The opposite is actually true: We learn to embrace one another not in spite of our broken state, but because of it… You can live your entire life as a one- dimensional character, holding everyone at arm’s length. But, bare your soul to me about your evil father who stole your kidney and abandoned you a second time as you recover in the hospital, and you have a friend for life.
MIND THE GAP
To bring the conversation back to one of faith, we must remember that Christianity is fundamentally about a story, a story that finds its fullest expression in the person of Jesus Christ. In John’s gospel we read the Greek word exegesato, referring to the way Jesus has made God known (Jn 1:18). The word is where we theology nerds get the word “exegesis,” the science and art of deriving meaning from the text.
Jesus, we might say, is God’s narrative. So for Christianity, truth and story are not abstract ideas, but are embodied in the flesh and sinew of a person. The Hebrew scriptures foreshadow His arrival, the Greek scriptures describe both His life and legacy. It is into this story that He beckons us, offering us bread to break, wounds to touch, and a mission to carry forward.
The call, therefore, is tolle lege – “take and read” – to enter into this story ourselves, and to live in the shadow of a cross, and in the light of a risen Son.
In the next post, we’ll look at what LOST has to say about contemporary cultural expressions of spirituality.
I totally realize this is more than a week late. But I’ve been sick and you can deal. Also, if you’re looking for explanations and theories, you’ve dialed the wrong blog. Please hang up and try again.
The ABC program show has captivated audiences, sparked debates and dominated water-cooler conversations across the country. And last week, the show concluded its six-year run with “The End,” a television event that attracted as many as 20 million viewers.
The show’s conclusion could hardly be called anything but beautiful. But as for whether it was meaningful…well, that seems to be the core issue of way too many debates.
Without stepping into any of those debates (after all, it’s just TV), I want to spend some time evaluating the reaction to the show’s finale, a reaction that – at least to me – has proved far more fascinating than the show itself.
WHO LIKED IT
In an earlier post, I listed some of the philosophical issues that the show would be dealing with in its final season (boy, was I barking up the wrong tree). But viewers didn’t seem to mind the plethora of unanswered questions. In fact, what I heard the show’s fans and producers, is that the mythology of the island is not what the show was ever “really” about, but instead focused on the relational dynamics of the characters.
At first this positive reaction surprised me, given my own desire for resolution to the island’s great questions. But in retrospect, I’m surprised by my own surprise (I know…very “meta”).
- Valuing speculation over revelation. Fans appreciate the “open-to-interpretation” element of the show. Today’s culture is much less open to revealed truth, but more open to truth that is discovered through personal exploration.
- An increased affinity for mysticism. Reality doesn’t always need to be rational. Today’s culture is okay with unanswered questions, mainly because today’s postmodern world has taught that truth can never be known fully.
- Appropriating truth and beauty. Postmodernism tends to emphasize truth as a complex web of related ideas. Hence, science is no more or less equipped to explain reality than is art (a notable difference from enlightenment rationalism). The show’s ability to captivate the audience’s emotions through image, music and storytelling can therefore be more powerful than had the answers be revealed directly.
WHO WAS DISAPPOINTED
And yet, not everyone was satisfied with the show’s ending, still demanding answers to those pesky, unresolved questions. Given the show’s tendency to answer questions without ever really answering them (did we ever really learn what the island is, other than the obscure “cork” metaphor we got this season?), I suppose we should not be surprised.
Among the disappointed is Chris Seay, author of The Gospel According to LOST. In a recent article in Christianity Today, Seay writes:
It seems that our favorite story took a trite turn for the worse at the last minute. Both stories— on the island and in the “flash sideways”—were powerful, compelling, well-written and brilliantly acted. But for the finale to be a complete success, these two stories had to come together as one coherent narrative, and it failed to do that. It is not a cop-out on the level of a child gazing into a snow globe, but it is a cop-out nonetheless.
I suspect many will agree with Seay. As much as we claim that culture has been so strongly influenced by postmodernism, there remains a strong desire for meaning and order. Look at the success of shows like CSI, Law and Order and even House: shows that all seem to state (implicitly as well as explicitly), that reality is meaningful, and its revealed clues can be used to unlock hidden mystery.
This post is one of several. Tomorrow we’ll explore some of these issues further, as we explore what the show reveals about faith and story.
While truth comes to us in many forms, it is most vividly received in the context of story. It is within the context of story that readers are invited into the literary and emotional landscape, and experience truth through the eyes of its characters.
And this principle holds true for C.S. Lewis‘ beloved Narnia series, which have recently been brought to life on the silver screen. Even casual readers and viewers are now aware that the books reflect a strong Christian theme, and that there is a deep theological richness contained within these pages.
Aslan is an allegory for Christ, who stands in opposition to the White Witch, who holds the fantasy world of Narnia captive – “always winter, never Christmas.” But when a group of children stumble through an old wardrobe to discover this world, it is young Edmund who betrays Aslan and his friends.
“You have a traitor there, Aslan,” said the Witch…
“Well,” said Aslan. “His offense was not against you.”
“Have you forgotten the Deep Magic?” asked the Witch.
“Let us say I have forgotten it,” answered Aslan gravely. “Tell us of this Deep Magic.”
“Tell you?” said the Witch, her voice growing suddenly shriller. “Tell you what is written on that very Table of Stone which stands beside us?…You at least know the magic which the Emperor put into Narnia at the very beginning. You know that every traitor belongs to me as my lawful prey and that for every treachery I have a right to kill…And so, that human creature is mine. His life is forfeit to me. His blood is my property.” […]
“It is very true,” said Aslan, “I do not deny it.”
“Oh, Aslan!” whispered Susan in the Lion’s ear, “can’t we – I mean, you won’t, will you? Can’t we do something about the Deep Magic? Isn’t there something you can work against it?”
“Work against the Emperor’s magic?” said Aslan, turning to her with something like a frown on his face. And nobody ever made that suggestion to him again.
Lewis’ story reflects an older, though historically ingrained theological tradition called the “ransom theory” of the atonement (if you read his “Space Trilogy,” you’ll recall that the lead character of those novels is named “Ransom”).
It finds its basis in Jesus’ promise to “give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The early church, seeking to understand this concept, suggested that mankind is the captive property of the devil. On the cross, Jesus paid the “ransom payment,” liberating man from this bondage.
We rightly recognize that while Jesus and the early writers employed the language of “ransom,” suggesting that God owed the devil some payment is bit of a stretch.
Still, Lewis’ story makes clear the “costliness” of redemption – and even the word “redemption” carries the meaning of “payment” or “exchange.”
As we read on, we see that there is an even “deeper magic” to be counted on.
Susan and Lucy had just witnessed the horrific death of Aslan, and were now said to be “walking aimlessly,” unsure of how to proceed.
At that moment they heard from behind them a loud noise — a great cracking, deafening noise as if a giant had broken a giant’s plate…. The Stone Table was broken into two pieces by a great crack that ran down it from end to end; and there was no Aslan.
“Who’s done it?” cried Susan. “What does it mean? Is it more magic?”
“Yes!” said a great voice from behind their backs. “It is more magic.” They looked round. There, shining in the sunrise, larger than they had seen him before, shaking his mane (for it had apparently grown again) stood Aslan himself.
“Oh, Aslan!” cried both the children, staring up at him, almost as much frightened as they were glad….
“But what does it all mean?” asked Susan when they were somewhat calmer.
“It means,” said Aslan, “that though the Witch knew the Deep Magic, there is a magic deeper still which she did not know. Her knowledge goes back only to the dawn of time. But if she could have looked a little further back, into the stillness and the darkness before Time dawned, she would have read there a different incantation. She would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backward.”
DEATH WORKING BACKWARDS
C.S. Lewis is speaking quite meaningfully of the hope of resurrection – a “deeper magic” than our traditional categories of decay and death.
In Christianity, the cross and resurrection serve a two-fold purpose: to pay the costly price of sin, and to show victory over its consequence, namely death.
Historically, the empty tomb and risen, embodied Savior served as evidence for this event – that faith and hope are built not on idle speculation or sentimental desire, but on the knowledge of the resurrection.
And the joy – the deepest, most fantastic joy of all – is that there is a “deeper magic” available for all of us.
We soon will be celebrating Easter. What is Easter? Easter is “death working backwards.” It is both the celebration of the historical reality of the resurrection, as well as the hope in the future promise of our own.
He’d had enough. More than enough. In years gone by, he’d eaten his fill of pizza rolls and chicken wings, and had long grown weary of this most wretched of holidays.
“Humbug,” he was known to exclaim. “Anyone who celebrates this holiday should be boiled in his own guacamole and buried with a stake of bagel bites in his heart.”
Alabaster Cruise was not alone. There were plenty of others who had grown to hate the holiday as well, decrying its excesses and its follies.
Yet his neighbor, Doug Ratchet, didn’t feel the same. He had hung out flags advertising his favorite team. He bought extra lawn chairs for his living room. He helped his wife carry in several cases of snacks and drinks from the trunk of their SUV. He even invited his neighbors over for the big super bowl party.
But Alabaster Cruise merely tossed the e-vite into the junk folder on his g-mail account. “Humbug,” he said again, then went about his business.
Bob St. John, author of The Laundry Legend, writes that
“…there are few things more special than the Super Bowl. People from all walks of life beg, borrow, steal or mortgage to come from all over the country to be part of the fine madness surrounding the biggest sporting event of any year….But there is nothing quite like the madness surrounding the Super Bowl and, unless you have been there, you can’t fully appreciate it. … The Super Bowl is almost worshipped; we go to its altar to make sacrifices in papier-mâché. So, indeed, we make it bigger than life not only because of the effect of the hype but also because, perhaps, we need to do so, need to have the greatest of distractions from everyday life and what comes with it.”
The Super Bowl really is nothing less than a religious experience. Whether from the stands of the stadium or the living room sofa, the cheer section reaches near-pentecostal ecstasy as we watch America’s heroes take the field.
In an earlier post, we borrowed from Winfried Corduan and defined “religion” as “a system of beliefs and practices that provides values to give life meaning and coherence by directing a person toward transcendence”(Neighboring Faiths, p. 21).
Everything about the event of the Super Bowl can be described in these terms. A recent article on Religion-online states that
“…There is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life. … The invocation is a series of political rituals: the singing of the national anthem and the unfurling of a 50-yard-long American flag, followed by an Air Force flight tactics squadron air show. The innate religious orientation of the Super Bowl was indicated first by the ritual of remembrance of ‘heroes of the faith who have gone before.’ In the pregame show, personalities from each team were portrayed as superheroes, as demigods who possess … the talent necessary for perfecting the game as an art.”
To that end, the Super Bowl has indeed become America’s temple, a cultural event that draws sports fan and casual observers alike. Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor call Super Bowl Sunday
“a national day of gluttony for Americans to unabashedly embrace the joys of advertising, consumerism and greasy foods… Football taps into our most violent, survival instincts. It repeatedly draws a line in the dirt and dares opponents to cross it. While it offers rules of engagement, often the meanest and nastiest prevail. .. Football reminds us of who we are and how we got here, what battles had to be fought, what bodies had to be sacrificed to forge a nation.” (Craig Detweiler, Barry Taylor, A Matrix of Meanings)
And this is to say nothing of the scantily-clad cheer section that accompanies each team, making the whole affair a Freudian dream of sexuality and aggression.
THE ALTAR OF EXCESS
In this “religious” observance, more food is consumed on Super Bowl Sunday than nearly any other holiday of the year, the one exception being Thanksgiving. According to one article, Americans consume the following on Super Bowl Sunday:
15,000 tons of chips, which if laid out end-to-end would reach 1.5 times the distance of the earth to the moon
4,000 tons of popcorn, which if strung together could wrap the earth more than 5 times
4,000 tons of guacamole
That’s a lot of food.
And the excess is hardly confined to food. I’ve been hearing reports that this year’s Super Bowl ads will cost between 2.5-3 million dollars for a 30 second commercial spot – that’s money spent at the rate of 300 grand per second.
And the commercials themselves are works of art. In past years, companies have been known to hire big-name directors such as Ridley Scott to direct their Super Bowl commercial. I know more than a few people who only watch the commercials.
And these commercials often reflect the zeitgeist of the culture into which they are received – whether for good or for ill. As much as the Super Bowl has become a time of getting together, there are at least some ads that have been less than family friendly.
Then, late one night Alabaster Cruise was visited by three spirits: The Ghost of Super Bowl Past, the Ghost of Super Bowl Present and the Ghost of Super Bowl Future, and while Cruise at first thought there was more of guacamole than of grave about them, they provided him visions of his troubled attitude toward the game.
The Ghost of Super Bowl Past led him to view scenes of parties when he was a younger man, where he was seen cheering on his favorite teams and players, and laughing with his friends, family and neighbors.
Then the ghost showed him a time in his life when he began to change. Some of his Christian friends had been a positive influence in his life, but of late they’d come to introduce the term “culture war” to Cruise’s growing faith. They taught him of the corruption that culture can bring, often through such “worldly” influences as the Super Bowl. Cruise could only nod his assent. From that day forward he took to avoiding such trivial affairs, focusing instead on decrying its excess.
Some time later, the Ghost of Super Bowl Present led him from his bed to the window of his neighbor, Doug Ratchet. The house was nearly bursting with laughter and activity. There gathered his friends, his neighbors, all laughing and eating and seemingly having a good time. “This is no den of sin,” he remarked.
Finally, later during the night, he was visited by The Ghost of Super Bowl Future. The ghost led him to his own window, and there he found himself sitting, alone, reading by cold lamplight. It was an unpleasant contrast to the joyous sounds he’d heard at the Ratchets’ house. The spirit explained that by now, his neighbors had all but come to ignore him. And though his bookshelves were full of resources designed to equip him for the “culture war,” his heart was unfathomably empty.
“Spirit,” he remarked, clutching at the ghost’s flowing robe. “Are these the things that will be, or only the things that might be?”
The ghost said nothing. And Cruise found himself back in his bed, alone.
HOW I LEARNED TO STOP WORRYING AND LOVE THE BOWL
Super Bowl Sunday is something of an odd, uniquely American religious holiday.
But can anyone truly point their finger at “culture,” as if this were some sort of swear word? The truth is, like it or not, we are at the very least the stepchildren of our culture. Even if we have not been raised by our culture, we still find ourselves living under its roof.
When Paul was in Athens (Acts 17), he observed an untold number of idols and religious rituals, not least of which was an altar labeled (“to an unknown god”). And into this culture he publicly addressed them as “very religious.” Here the Greek word is deisedeimeresterous (pronounced “DICE-ah-DIME-er-ESS-ter-OOS,” it’s fun to say, having a kind of sing-song kind of quality that should make you a big hit at your next party), a word meaning “religious” or “superstitious.” Christians often find themselves embedded amidst the ostensible religiosity of Super Bowl Sunday, often parked on sofas with family and friends.
And this is a good thing.
One of the tragic effects of postmodernism is the loss of shared experience. Man often lives a fragmentary exist in the absence of family, friends or shared meaning and values. The Super Bowl represents on of the few remaining examples of shared experience, and even amidst the clamor of the game and its associated excess, relationships are made and strengthened. Christians who find themselves at such gatherings may find unexpected opportunities to show Chris’s significance in their lives – much like Jesus at the wedding at Cana (John 2).
So while I’m not wholly comfortable with the celebration of excess that seems to be associated with Super Bowl culture, I certainly don’t want to dismiss any opportunity for missional living.
The next morning Cruise awoke – suddenly wondering if it had all been a dream. Then he remembered the e-vite he had deleted from his computer; was it too late?
He opened the front door, and called out to a neighborhood boy riding a bicycle.
“You there, boy; what day is today?”
“Why, it’s Super Bowl Sunday.”
“Good; then it’s not too late.” he reached into his wallet and pulled out his credit card. “You know those big bags of Doritos they sell in Wal-Mart?”
The boy nodded. “You mean the ones as big as I am?”
“Yes, yes! That’s the one. Run along now and get me as many as you can carry. Run along now!”
When the boy returned, Cruise gathered up his snacks and beverages and headed over to Ratchet’s house. There, he joined in the festivities, laughing with old friends, and making some new ones.
Perhaps it was Jim, Ratchet’s son, who said it best. “God bless you Mr. Cruise.”
“And God bless us everyone.”
They’d been adrift for days.
Plans, it seems, have their own unique way of crumbling, like the exterior of the B-17 bomber over the pacific. His name was Eddie Rickenbacker, and his mission was to deliver a message to General MacArthur who was somewhere in New Guinea.
But now, days later, he and his crew found themselves lost at sea, the wreckage of their plane claimed by the same waves that rocked them endlessly on the swells of the Pacific. Above them was only empty sky. By day they were baked by the suns penetrating rays, and at night the cold salt air raked through their clothes with unrelenting savagery.
Below them was only the curious enmity of the deep, revealed only through fleeting glimpses of fin and scale. And all across, in every direction the needle of the compass could only show them a vast expanse, a heaving desert, an emptiness that at all times threatened to swallow them whole.
And so on fragile life rafts the men could do little more than wait – for what they could never be sure. Perhaps a passing transport would, against impossible odds spot these men. At this point, even the enemy would bring a more welcome sight than another day of this inescapable void in which they had become enveloped.
But a needle in a haystack would be far more easily found than a small group of men adrift in the Pacific – a body of water inconceivably vast and cruelly indifferent to those trapped on her surface.
By the ninth day at sea, the listlessness of waiting had taken a dismal though unexpected turn. Depleted of rations, the small raft of men knew that there was little hope but to succumb to the cruelty of inevitability.
And so armed with only a small Bible, the men conducted an impromptu church service there in the raft, reading the words of the Savior: “Seek first the Kingdom,” all the while wondering if “all things” could ever be added to such a small speck in the ocean.
After the service, Rickenbacker leaned back to nap in the heat.
He awoke to feel a peculiar weight on his head. He could see the startled anticipation on the faces of his companions, leaving little doubt as to what had landed on the brim of his hat.
A sea gull.
A sea gull would mean food. Its meat could be eaten, and its innards could be used as bait to catch fish. Rickenbacker caught the gull that day, and between the bird and a passing rainstorm the men survived for a three more weeks before being rescued.
But the truth of the story is one that should give us pause.
Seagulls only come out to sea to die. And this gull had managed, in the middle of this vast ocean, to locate these needy survivors in the hour of their most desperate need.
Across the void, he found them. He crossed this void, to be a sacrifice for them. He brought with him nothing, but the hope of a second chance.
We are each, in our own way, adrift. We are cut off from land, from rescue, from those we love and from the comfort and stability of solid ground, condemned instead to the rise and fall of a world that tosses us about with cruel indifference.
But at Christmas we remember the miracle of the incarnation – when long lay the world in sin and error pining, God would cross that void to find each and every one of us: alone but far from abandoned, arms outstretched for rescue. And in the middle of this vast cosmic ocean, the Savior finds us, comes to us in our most desperate hour of need, and in His incomparable sacrifice we find provision for new life and new hope.
Across the void, he finds us. He crossed this void, to be a sacrifice for us. He brought with Him nothing, but the hope of a second chance. He appeared, and in a brief moment of time, like the pause before waking, our soul felt its worth.
This Christmas, my prayer is that each of us come to renewed understanding of this story, whispered to us amidst the cluttered noise of the season, and that we come to more fully understand the Savior, God with us, made more vividly real in our lives as we follow Him each day.
Grace and love to you all.