A Super Bowl Carol (or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bowl)

6 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

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.

AMERICA’S TEMPLE

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.”

6 February 2010

Christopher J Wiles

writer | speaker | servant

Chris is a writer and speaker. He currently serves as teaching pastor at Tri-State Fellowship and as a research writer for Docent Research Group.

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