Guest Post: Nate Claiborne
I grew up in the South. Besides a year in upstate New York, my entire life has been south of the Mason Dixon line. But, not only did I live in the South, I grew up in Knoxville, home of the University of Tennessee. It is also home to the 3rd largest football stadium in America, the 6th largest in the world. With a capacity of 102,455, Neyland Stadium could hold almost 60% of the population of Knoxville on any given Saturday to watch the Tennessee Volunteers play.
Football time in Tennessee is a big deal (Google the phrase). We even changed our area code to 865 when I was growing up (the rest of East TN is 423), because it spells the shortened form of Volunteer (VOL). With a riverside stadium bigger than any in the NFL, we also have our own “navy” of people (The Vol Navy) who boat down the river to tailgate on game day.
Certainly we take football very seriously in East Tennessee, but growing up, this was just how things were. When I moved to Texas to go to seminary, I saw a culture that was even more serious about football, especially at the K-12 level (that’s right, K as in Kindergarten). The community in Dallas where I taught private music lessons had such a nice (read: multi-million dollar) high school football facility that the Green Bay Packers used it for warm-ups during the week leading up to the 2011 Super Bowl. The Super Bowl, of course, that was played in the mecca of NFL stadiums, Cowboy Stadium (which dominates the flat Texas horizon going west out of Dallas), which had opened midway during my stint in seminary.
It was during my time at seminary that my perspective on football started to change. Part of my research interest, then as it is still now, was Old Testament cultural backgrounds. The depth of my research culminated in a doctoral seminar in ancient Near East literature during the fall of 2009, which also happened to be the inaugural season for the aforementioned Cowboy Stadium just down I-30 from us. As I was digging through the ancient Near East cognitive and cultural background I was particularly interested in the nature of idolatry and what it might look like in our modern context.
Following football, whether in the NFL or college, began looking suspiciously like a religious activity. It didn’t seem to necessarily be religious, but in the culture I came from, and in the culture I was currently immersed, it definitely slanted that way. What is a football stadium if not a kind of temple? Speaking as someone who has been inside European cathedrals and one of the largest football stadiums in the world on a weekday, the effect is eerily similar. When in use, the effect is even more pronounced, and while I’m not going to develop it more here, there is a certain kind of “liturgy” to a football game.
What is more interesting to me is how being a football fan has the potential to shape a person’s worship. We tend to worship what we love, or you could say we love what we worship (I realize those are different propositions, but they tend to go hand in hand). Generally speaking, no one loves football in the abstract. You can like football in a general sense, but if you love the game, then you usually have a specific team you love, and if you really love that particular team, you’re starting to look a worshiper instead of just a fan.
When this happens, you see grown men have their entire weekend ruined because a 19 year old kid drops a football. In the grand scheme of things, this shouldn’t cause anyone real concern, but in the context of an important game, it can lead to a defeat of the person’s functional god. They have done everything they can to ritually ensure victory (superstitious activity, yelling “prayers” at the TV screen), but if the odds are not in their favor, then their “god” will be defeated and their worship will have been vain and their efforts unrewarded. Collections of disappointed worshipers will console one other, and rather than abandon their “god” in its defeat, they will gear up for another game, and the process starts all over again.
I really don’t think it is too far-fetched to suggest that really fanatic fans worship their favorite team. It might be too much to suggest that the idolatrous progression of worshiping animals has a Romans 1 feel to it (which would make reptile teams the bottom of the barrel), but there is a sense in which a certain level of devotion to your favorite football team (or any sport for that matter) interferes with other religious devotion, and specifically in our context, devotion to Christ Jesus our Lord.
This isn’t to say that having a favorite team is necessarily idolatrous. My wife and I both have our favorite teams in the NFL and in college (Dolphins/Redskins, Vols/Gators). We are both excited when they win, but we aren’t devastated when they lose. I think the reason it’s like this for us is that our treasure, and so our hearts, are placed elsewhere. Because we enjoy football, but worship the triune God first and foremost, we can feel free to go to church Sunday morning and worship, and then spend the afternoon relaxing and resting to various football games without either activity infringing on the other (and without anyone’s blood pressure spiking).
But, when someone treasures their favorite NFL (or college) team above everything else (and the NFL and ESPN cater to and encourage this sort of thing more so than other sports) then they are giving their heart away in a way that is incompatible with Christian teaching. As Christians who like, and might even love the game of football, we are confronted with a subtle challenge of our allegiance. Without realizing it, we may confess with our mouth that we worship the risen Lord, when in reality our hearts and affections are stirred more by the outcome of a football game.
This is certainly what I see to some extent when I look back at both my hometown and my time in Texas. Ironically, both are deep in the Bible Belt and both cultures treat football with a kind of religious zeal that I think is unmatched in the rest of the country. Because it is just part of the air everyone breathes, it almost goes undetected a problem for Christians. Like every good kind of idolatry, it is so embedded into the culture that no one seems to notice. But, for those with eyes to see and ears to hear, there is a clear need to keep football in its place. It can be an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon or it can be an idol that keeps our hearts captive.
Unless you’re a Tennessee Vols fan, and then the perpetual disappointment does wonders to keep your heart in check!
Nate Claiborne is an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. He has many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then connect with him beginning with @nateclaiborne.