They’re two of our favorite things here in the South, but they kind of exist in contrast to one another. Pastors love to chide their congregations about being more enthusiastic about football than they are about church.
But really, do they even want that kind of enthusiasm in their churches? When a sermon illustration falls flat, can the audience boo and profanely demand that they send in the back-up preacher? Can the church members show up six hours before the service and spend all that time drinking and getting into fights in the parking lot? On Monday, do they want to hear obnoxious talk radio hosts picking apart their sermons and speculating if maybe Bob Stoops would be doing a better job? When churchy people place football at odds with religion, I don’t think they realize what they’re saying.
That’s true in a more metaphysical sense too. A Christian can see the hand of God at work in any part of his life. We think that God can speak to us through art and music, through nature, and through interactions with our fellow human beings. If we believe that all good things come from God (which we do), then we have to concede that at least some people get some very good things out of sports in general and football in particular. Mark Galli expounds on this theme in his “Intimations of the divine in a well-executed screen pass.“
Sport—in this case, football—is not a quasi-religion or a civil religion or a form of idolatry as such. Like anything in creation, football can become idolatrous. But it is not football’s sociological parallels with religious life that make it a possible rival religion—all of creation, all these sociological forms (speech, music, discipline, camaraderie, ritual, and so forth) can partake in and hint at transcendence. If we really were convinced that football was a rival religion because it shared these forms, we Christians would not only have to abandon football, but life itself. For we cannot escape God; his love overflows into all of life, and does so—mysteriously, elusively to be sure—in more forms than we can imagine.
This is the reason Christians participate freely and fully in all of life. For we, of all people, have eyes to see and ears to hear God’s elusive presence, to discern his handiwork and love everywhere. The clearest revelation of God’s love comes to us in the preaching of the Word and the sharing of the sacrament, but it is precisely because we’ve learned to make out the outlines of the God-man Jesus with repeated participation at these specifically religious events that we can spot him in a glass of fine wine, in the startling lines of a skyscraper, in conversation with friends, in a timely block or a well-executed screen play.