Jesus Juking and the Super Bowl

I’ve seen a lot of tweets / posts today to the effect of “Christian, don’t get more excited about the Super Bowl tomorrow than you are about worshiping Jesus with the body of Christ.”

On one level, I get this, and I think those who are saying it mean well. There is a legitimate danger of idolatry with sports, as with any area of life. We ought to constantly be on guard against placing anything in our hearts above our affection and love for God. If this is the message these men and women are trying to send, then I heartily agree.

And yet it seems to me that these statements may imply something else, perhaps unintentionally, something in addition to a warning of idolatry. In my opinion, these comments imply an uncrossable line of “excitement”, where one cannot be more “excited” about a football game (or whatever it is gets you “excited”) than you are when participating in corporate worship.

There are at least two things that strike me as odd, and perhaps wrong headed, about these statements. The first is that they equate the type of excitement a person shows about or during a football game to the type of excitement (if we can even call it that) a person shows about or during corporate worship. These, in my opinion, should not and cannot be compared.

To give an example: in my excitement for a football game, I might stand up at some point and yell “oh COME ON! That’s a terrible call!” Or, maybe the team for which I’m cheering makes a great play, and I stand up and yell loudly whatever my team’s cheer is. Would that type of expression be at all appropriate during corporate worship? Should I be intensely involved in how the service ends? If it doesn’t end in as dramatic a fashion, or perhaps with my favorite song, does that mean we lost at worship?

In other words, the simple fact is that “excitement” for worship means something entirely different than it does for a sporting event. This makes the attempt to draw some imaginary line where I can’t get more excited about the Super Bowl than church even more puzzling. First, because they aren’t equivalent, and second, because it promotes undue worry on the individual’s part. “Uh oh, I’m not excited enough during the sermon – I need to pump it up a notch just in case the game is really good this afternoon!” Or, during the game: “oh man I didn’t yell that loudly in church – sorry Jesus!” This is, if we examine it carefully, nonsensical.

The second reason why I think these types of statements are problematic is because I think they imply yet another false equivalency between worship and sports. My excitement over corporate (and individual or family) worship comes because I understand my own sin and Jesus’ payment for it in his penal substitutionary death, because I worship the risen Christ, who burst the bonds of death and began renewing the world at his resurrection, because Christ is king over all things at this very moment, even my own life, because Christ shows me the Father, the Creator of all things, and because Christ gives me his Spirit, who allows me to understand his Word and worship him in spirit and in truth.

My excitement over a sporting event comes because I attended the school or grew up in the city or live in the city now or just because I’m on a bandwagon.

*These are not the same thing.*

I should also point out here that sporting events are by nature temporal, both in the sense that they are season to season and game to game, whereas corporate worship is a regular and ordinary means of grace.

*These are not the same thing.*

Now, I want to say again that sports can become an idol, just like anything else. We need to guard against finding our ultimate happiness in anything other than Christ, including whether or not our team wins a game. But finding ultimate happiness in a sports team is not the same as being excited when they play, and being excited when they play is not the same thing as being excited about worshiping the risen Lord Jesus.

Q&A with biblioblogger and FSU fan Chad Chambers about National Championship Game and Theology

Chad Chambers and I decided to celebrate the National Championship Game between Florida State and Auburn University (of which we are fans respectively) by answering a few questions about the game itself and the connections between football and theology. You can find my answers to his questions on his blog – Cataclysmic.

1. Given FSU’s recent success coupled with starting an unknown redshirt freshman at quarterback, what were you expectations for FSU coming into this season?

My expectations for FSU this season were they would have a good, not great, season. I thought a 10-2 record was most likely, with us losing to either Clemson or Florida and one game we shouldn’t.

Although 11 players were drafted from last year’s team, my optimism came from the simple fact we have better players than just about every team we face (Clemson and Florida being the possible exceptions). I thought even if Winston struggled at times, like most first year starters, the talent surrounding him would be enough to win most games.

2. At what point during the season did you begin to think, “This team could be really good?” And then, “This team could play for a National Championship?” Why?

I will highlight four things:

A. Winston’s performance in the 1st game of the season against Pittsburgh was extraordinary (25-27, 356 yards, 4 TDs/0 Ints). After the game, many FSU fans, myself included, thought if this a true picture of what kind of QB he would be then this team would be really, really good.

B. After the Boston College game the defense made several changes, most importantly moving Christian Jones from LB to DE. Up to that point, the defense had been good but not great especially against the run. After the personnel changes, the defense became dominant. The one concern was meeting a big, physical power running team because the defense is built to stop spread offenses. That concern was highly diminished as Florida’s season crumbled (and perhaps after Auburn beat Alabama see prediction below).

C. In the first quarter of the Clemson game, it became obvious this team should finish the regular season undefeated. It was no guarantee, but it was assumed FSU would be a double-digit favorite in the rest of their games (and some have them as double-digit favorites against Auburn).

D. It has been the cumulative effect of winning big every week. This team never let down, never played down to competition or had an off week. Basically, it had one off quarter all year against Boston College and trailed by 14 points, but it responded with a 35-3 run in 2nd and 3rd quarters. The ability to focus on every game and not just win but win big reminded me off the great FSU teams of the 80’s and 90’s.

3. As a Southerner, I am very familiar with the way sports, especially football, and religion are intertwined. As Christians and football fans, how should we respond to those who integrate religion with sports? Does this mindset open doors for honest discussion or make discussion more difficult?

The saying “Football is religion” is burnt into my head from my upbringing. I can remember playing games on Friday nights and even as an arrogant and stupid teenager thinking this is crazy! Don’t get me wrong I lived for Friday nights and reveled in the attention but I still knew something was wrong.

To fully answer this question the way football and religion are intertwined would take way too much space (this is a blog post not a book!) because there are so many different layers to it. I want to discuss only one side, the sense of belonging or participating that comes from following football or sports in general. Being a fan involves a collective emotion as you witness your team’s fortunes rise and fall during a game or season. It sparks conversations, relationships as you share in ecstatic moments of joy and despair but more than that it involves a loss of one’s self in a ‘higher’ purpose. The me becomes we, and it is not just us fans banding together in support of a team; we as fans we feel like we become part of the team.

It is this experience of becoming a part of something bigger than ourselves that in part drives us to talk about sports like they are religion. Religion is meant to offer meaning and hope to the whole of life, but all to often Christianity has become me and Jesus and it loses the communal, the me becoming we. So sports are often used to fill the void. They are used as a way to find a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, a purpose, and a hope. All religious language. All longings that cannot be filled by sports, even if your team wins the National Championship.

Therefore, how should we respond as Christians? More of our churches need to move out of the simple come to Jesus and go to heaven mentality. We need to become places that reach the whole of life by being places of belonging, meaning, purpose and hope centered around the life, death, burial, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. Our places of worship must mold us in a community of living witnesses to the transformative power of the gospel. And we should foster active communities who seek to understand scripture more fully and witness to it more clearly.  

4. What do you think about the current move to pay college athletes? Is this a case of systematic injustice or is the system fair? Is this a moral issue the church should be discussing?

As someone who was ‘paid to play’ baseball in college, I have thought about the question a lot because I get asked about it quite often. But to be honest, I do not have an answer. The world of college athletics is different now and the money is so much more, I can’t relate to the experience of today’s athletes. Furthermore, the difference between being a player at a big-time football (even some basketball) program is a world away from playing in a non-revenue sport. I will say, if it becomes a situation where universities are required to pay every athlete in every sport it may very well be the end of college athletics as we know them.

As to the last part of the question, yes the church should be involved in discussing these issues because it should be interested in discussing all moral issues.

5. There has been an intensifying discussion recently concerning the physicality of football and the relationship to Christian ethics. Do you consider football inherently “violent”? What is your definition of violence? Does the Bible address this issue, and, if so, can a Christian faithfully participate in football as a player or fan?

Answered by Mike Skinner (contributor at Cataclysmic who writes a lot about violence. And as you can see also a football fan).

I confess I would have to answer this question with an asterisk: I am a football fan.  So upfront, I fully own up to a bit of cognitive dissonance when it comes to my nonviolent christological commitment and my love of football.  My ad-hoc definition of violence would be: “an intentional action against another in which permanent (or lethal) physical, spiritual, and psychological damage is a real possibility.”  I do, however, think there is a tension between the physicality (/violence) of football and the call to Christian living embodied by Jesus and encouraged by the Scriptures.

I think the tension is found in three places: 1) football has the tendency to glorify violence (who doesn’t get a little satisfaction out of a BIG hit), 2) it has a tendency to promote a hyper-violent/angry/competitive vision of masculinity, and 3) it is a sport that often dehumanizes the athletes at the expense of entertainment (long-term damage to bodies/minds, etc).  [I think there is a spectrum here – with sports like UFC being on one end and sports like basketball being on the other end – in terms of violence].  I think questions of intentionality (are the players really “trying” to hurt each other?  are we really “attempting” glorify violence, etc?) and inherency (does it have to do these things?  Is it inherent to the sport itself or simply inherent to individual/corporate nature of humans?) are legitimate responses to my above analysis, however.

Ultimately, I think the Bible does call us to an awareness of how our lives are shaping our own moral character and affecting those around us.  The things that we watch, pay money to attend, cheer for, and spend time doing are always forming us as virtuous creatures (whether we want it to or not).  Indeed, out of all the popular sports in America, football has a very distinct liturgical shape to it.  Thus, it shapes our own character, our society, and has long-term effects for certain men who are “sacrificed” for our entertainment.  All of that might seem a tad “much” for the average Christian – and I again want to acknowledge that I enjoy being a fan of football.  There are many good things that football does as well (particularly in shaping discipline, teamwork, critical thinking, community among fans, etc).  And on a list of what is wrong with the world, I would consider it towards the bottom (if indeed it is a problem).  As a nonviolent Christian, I’ll worry about the violence of football when we can stop things like unjust drone strikes.  Until then, I’ll be praying that the Texans draft Johnny Manziel.

6. What are the keys for FSU to be successful against Auburn in the National Championship game? What is your prediction for the game (winner and score)?

The key for FSU is slowing the run. I know this is obvious, but that does not make it less true. Auburn’s game plan seems to be simply to outscore the other team and it has worked because Auburn’s running game, especially in the last half of the season, has been unstoppable. I am still not sure whether to call it a power running game since it relies more on zone blocking schemes rather than power blocking, but regardless it works. Yet, I do not think FSU has to stop Auburn because they should be able to score on Auburn’s defense, but they do need to slow them down.

I can see the game going three ways:

          A. FSU slows Auburn early and jumps out to double-digit lead. From         there the two teams trade scores with the FSU winning something         like 42-28.

          B. Neither team is able to consistently slow the other and we get a   good-ole Western (Pac-10 football since in California) shootout. In         this case, I think FSU has the better defense and will make the one       stop needed to make a difference. Prediction in this scenario, FSU    wins 45-42.

          C. Very similar to the last version except both teams come out tight,          rusty after 30 days off and so the score ends up being in the 20’s    rather than the 40’s.

Since you asked for my prediction not predictions, I think the first option is more likely, so I will go with FSU 42 and Auburn 28.

 

Scripture and Science

The relationship between science and Scripture is a hot topic today. I am of the opinion that, too often, Scripture is asked to accommodate to the positivist rationalistic assumptions and conclusions of modern scientific inquiry. Here are Vos’ insightful words on the subject:

“At present many writers take exception to [death entering the world through Adam’s sin], largely on scientific grounds. With these as such we have here nothing to do. But, as is frequently the case, strenuous attempts are made to give such a turn to the Biblical phrases as to render them compatible with what science is believed to require, and not only this, some proceed tot he assertion that the Scriptural statements compel acceptance of the findings of science.

Attempts of this kind make for poor and forced exegesis. Scripture has a right to be exegetes independently from within; and only after its natural meaning has thus been ascertained, can we properly raise the question of agreement or disagreement between Scripture and science.”

Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology: Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948; repr., Carlisle, PA: Banner of Truth, 2012), 36-37.

 

Scholarship and Christian Charity

Yesterday I was reminded again by a good brother of how important it is to speak with love and humility towards those with whom we disagree. This has me thinking today about Christians and scholarly engagement with one another’s differing theological stances. Of course, I’m also reminded of this because of the continuing debate about Calvinism within my own denomination. The following is not really an argument for anything or a set position on what it means to have charity in Christian scholarship, just a few thoughts about the subject.

First, as I think about this issue, I’m reminded of Jesus’ prayer in John 17 and Paul’s teaching in Ephesians 4 that the church, the body of Christ, is unified in Christ. When we engage other brothers and sisters on matters in which we disagree, our first thought ought not to be how I can win the argument but how I can love and be unified with my co-heir in Christ. I’ve encountered the statement elsewhere that “unity is accomplished through the truth,” and while I understand this on one level – the church MUST guard against false teaching – I do not in many cases think this is the best approach. On second and third level issues, where the “faith once and for all delivered to the saints” is not at stake, such as Calvinism, I doubt that the way to unity is continued argument until one side capitulates. When we engage fellow believers on these types of issues we certainly ought to do so with conviction, but shouldn’t that also be coupled with a strong dose of humility? I know that I am not right about everything, nor will I ever be, and so the idea that I can only be united in fellowship or missional cooperation with my brother if he “comes to the truth” (i.e. agrees with me) about a certain matter seems to me to be the exact opposite of humble. The idea that everything is a first order issue – that if you don’t agree with me then we are of a different faith altogether – seems to me to fall under this category.

Second, I have heard writers, speakers, theologians, and preachers mention Luther (or some other such person) and his tone towards those with which he disagreed as evidence that a certain invective tone is permissible in theological argumentation. Again, this seems wrong headed to me for a few reasons. No one theologian is ever correct about everything, and this includes the tone they use. I’m not so sure that Luther, giant as he is, ought to be commended for the vindictive way in which he speaks of his opponents at times. Further, our culture is 500 years separated from his, and while I abhor some of the ways in which “political correctness” has permeated our speech, we do not swim in the exact same linguistic, cultural, or emotional waters as the Reformers. Then there’s the fact that none of us is Luther, or any of the Reformers for that matter.

Finally, I also have noticed an increasing amount of people, whether Baptist or Anglican or Methodist, Calvinist or Arminian, egalitarian or complementarian, liberal or conservative, who seem to be waiting for someone, usually a “celebrity” pastor or theologian, to say something upon which they can pounce. Why do we do this? Part of the answer, I think, is that controversy is what draws people to books, blogs, websites, tv shows, and even churches and pastors. And so, in our American sub-conscious desire to rise up, pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, and get rich and famous, we stir the pot. We nitpick at each other.

This all bothers me. And it bothers me that I am so easily ensnared in it. I do all of this and more, and so I am not in any way trying to pull out anyone else’s speck while ignoring my plank. But I hope that we, as the body of Christ, bought by his blood and raised to new life by his Spirit, can treat each other with more Christian charity and humility than I have seen of late.

Worship “Bands”

I could not be more appreciative of this post by Justin Taylor on the difference between congregational singing and a worship concert. I have long been troubled by the celebrity status of many of the most influential pastors in modern evangelicalism, and our treatment of their churches’ worship leaders as rock bands only exacerbates the problem. This came to a head for me 4 or 5 years ago when I attended a conference with many of the big names in conservative evangelicalism lined up as speakers. A few of these pastors brought their worship leaders from their churches to lead us in worship. One of these worship “bands”, right before they were about to play their first song, announced that their new CD “release party” was happening at such and such a time and such and such a place. They then proceeded to blast my eardrums and sear my soul for 30 minutes.

“Release party”? For a “worship” CD? And playing “worship songs” like you’re Metallica? Combine that with our zealous following of many of the biggest names in evangelicalism and I think what we have is a capitulation to the American celebrity culture. What we have is close to idolatry (if it’s not that already). Does this kind of thinking and performing in our churches lead to congregational worship? I don’t see how. Sometimes at conferences I want to look around and yell, like Russell Crowe in Gladiator, “are you not entertained?!”

Celebrity pastors don’t help this situation either. I’ve heard of one of these men telling an audience that of course he wouldn’t ever let a campus pastor preach regularly at one of his sites because God had obviously blessed this celebrity pastor with gifts of preaching and leading 10 times more than that campus pastor. What is that saying other than, “my celebrity is what draws people, and I’m not going to trust the Spirit of the living God to raise up faithful men elsewhere, even among sites we’ve planted?”

I say all this having fallen trap to much of it. I still brag that I slipped behind security and spoke with (and hugged) one of these celebrity pastors at a major conference. I have complained about music because the “quality” wasn’t as good, instead of singing to and being sung to by my brothers and sisters around me.

May God turn our hearts away from celebrity and toward his Son through the power of the Spirit.

Americanism

This quote from Peter Leithart (Between Babel and Beast, xiii) cuts deep:

Remember who you are, and to whom you belong. Remember that you belong to Jesus first and last; remember that the church, not America, is the body of Christ and the political hope of the future; remember that no matter how much it may have served the city of God, America is in itself part of the city of man; remember that the Eucharist is our sacrificial feast.

 

A Critique of Van Drunen’s “Two Kingdoms”

Over the last two days I’ve been reading David Van Drunen’s Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture. I want to start by saying that there are a number of points I appreciate in Van Drunen’s work, especially his argument that the technical aspects of education, work, and politics do not have a specifically “Christian” how-to manual.  I also think good Christians can certainly disagree on this topic. That being said, in my opinion there are at least two fundamental problems with Van Drunen’s articulation of the two kingdoms position in this book. There is, first, the issue of Van Drunen’s supposed biblical foundations, and, second, his misunderstanding about the gospel’s impact on “ordinary” tasks.

First, in terms of the supposed biblical foundations for two kingdoms (which, by the way, take up almost two-thirds of the book), I don’t see Van Drunen laying any in a convincing fashion. He relies on four primary pillars, as far as I can tell: the Noahic covenant, Christ as the last Adam, the cataclysmic nature of Christ’s return, and the “sojourner and exile” language of the NT. Van Drunen argues that the Noahic covenant establishes the common kingdom and that the later Abrahamic covenant establishes the redemptive kingdom. The Noahic covenant, in this view, is not about redemption but about the establishment and preservation of the common kingdom, especially through justice (blood for blood) and family. This is, along with Christ as the last Adam, the major foundation for Van Drunen’s position. I find it thoroughly unconvincing. The Noahic covenant is highly redemptive, both in looking back to creation and looking forward to Christ. The flood is presented in similar terms as the chaos of Gen. 1:2, and the ark’s landing on dry land and Noah’s commission by God to be fruitful and multiply both echo the original creation narrative. It is, in other words, new creation, restoration. Of course it is not THE new creation; Noah, the second Adam, gets naked and drunk immediately. But that’s how the OT operates – it gives us proleptic typological pictures of the final and ultimate redemption in Christ. So Noah points us back to creation and speaks of its renewal, but points us forward to the ultimate renewal in Christ. It is thoroughly redemptive, not just “common.”

The second major biblical foundation Van Drunen gives for his position is his repeated refrain that believers are “not little Adams,” which for him means that the church must distinguish its work from “common kingdom” activities like caring for creation, vocation, or familial relationships. I want to commend Van Drunen for recognizing that the first Adam had specific tasks related to his image bearing – ruling, keeping, being fruitful, and obeying – that he failed at these tasks which plunged the creation and humanity into sin, and that Christ as the second Adam accomplishes what the first Adam did not. Van Drunen also rightly states that it is Christ and Christ alone that accomplishes this. But to then go on to say that we are “not little Adams” that do not participate in Christ in these is again thoroughly unconvincing in my opinion. The NT repeatedly refers to the church in “new Adam” language, and in ways that tie the church’s task to Adam’s tasks. Jesus “breathes the Spirit” into his disciples in John 20, which is a direct allusion back to Gen. 2:7 – Jesus, the last Adam, is creating “little Adams.” In Acts 6, 12, and 19, the Word of God “increases and multiplies” through the gospel proclamation of the church. In Ephesians 2:6 we are “seated with Christ in the heavenly places,” a location in Ephesians 1:20-21 that directly relates to Christ’s authority over the principalities and powers – in other words, his rule. The ruling task is also the focus of Rom. 16:20, where Paul promises that Satan will be crushed under the feet of the church. “Little Adam” language is also found in Ephesians 4 and Colossians 3, where Christians are told to “put off the old man” and “put on the new man.” This is directly related to the image of God being restored in Christians, an image that was first made in Adam. So to say that the Bible doesn’t call us “little Adams” just does not bear the weight of the NT evidence.

Two other biblical foundations are used by Van Drunen: 2 Peter 3/Revelation 21 and the NT language of “exile and sojourner.” I don’t have many quibbles with the latter, but the former again presents major problems in my opinion. Van Drunen asserts that 2 Peter 3 and Revelation 21 teach that there is a radical or cataclysmic break at Christ’s return between life now and the life to come. He presents this break as being manifested primarily in the arena of the common kingdom, so that activities in that arena now are temporary and fleeting with no eternal effect. First, I don’t think that Van Drunen correctly interprets the apocalyptic language of 2 Peter 3 or Revelation 21. You can read my post about that here. I don’t think that the radical break that Van Drunen rightly recognizes is primarily manifested in the “common kingdom”, but in the presence of sin in all areas of creation. That is where the cataclysmic break occurs. Remember, Jesus’ death and resurrection is also presented in apocalyptic language, and while his resurrected body is certainly new and restored and radically creative, it also is still a physical body that looks like his old body (because, you know, it’s the same, just a new creation body). In other words, I don’t think Van Drunen’s assertion that the apocalyptic return of Christ will basically abolish the common kingdom and anything in it now is justified. It’s possible to read the NT this way, but I think to do so is to go beyond the NT evidence. At the end of the day then, I don’t see Van Drunen laying any convincing biblical foundations. Even the “sojourners and exiles” foundation, which in his NT chapter is very reflective of biblical categories, ends up being so reliant on his first two foundations that it is eventually unconvincing as well. For me, this is a major issue. If most of your book is a biblical defense and the biblical foundations you purport don’t make correct sense of the biblical data, why should the position itself be convincing?

As if this isn’t long enough, my second major issue with Van Drunen’s work comes in his understanding of the gospel’s impact on Christians’ activities in the “common kingdom.” Because this is already so long, I’ll make this brief – Van Drunen asserts that the New Testament’s commands concerning work ethic and family life are just good natural law principles and that there isn’t anything really distinctly “Christian” about them (other than that we do them to God’s glory). But again I don’t think this bears the weight of the NT evidence. If the gospel doesn’t change the way we do these activities, then why is it that Paul continually addresses them after explaining the gospel to his readers? Perhaps the parameters he gives are in some sense “natural law” – but any recognition of depravity should not that, under the deception and distortion of sin, we can neither see nor behave in a way that is consistently in line with that natural law. The gospel allows us to both understand and behave in accordance with these principles that God has laid down daily activities, and that means that the gospel changes the way we do those things. Additionally, the gospel impacts the “common kingdom” and societal structures, as seen in Philemon and Paul’s discussion of slavery. The gospel does have something to say to societal structures, although as Van Drunen rightly says we are not to pursue proclaiming that in a theonomistic manner. Still, even in that agreement, in order to avoid theonomy Van Drunen goes to far and cuts off the gospel of the kingdom’s voice and its ability to proclaim the way of Christ to the larger culture.

At some point I’d like to see an alternative to this “two kingdoms” language. I’m not a transformationalist or a theonomist; I don’t think we can bring Christ’s rule and reign here right now. And Van Drunen is certainly right that the church is the only visible institution where the heavenly kingdom is seen on earth right now. But that doesn’t mean that Christian activity in other areas isn’t a sign of the kingdom or an invisible manifestation of it. Maybe at some point I’ll write something constructive in that regard. For now…