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Finding Faith in Faith

This blog is dedicated to exploring the intersections of faith and politics, the intricacies of religious culture and the struggle to balance devotion to a higher being and to one’s culture.

Monday, January 31, 2005

Super Bowl Celebration Illustrates Progress in American Religious Culture

As we have been bombarded by the hype of the approaching 39th Super Bowl Sunday, I suddenly realized there was a key element missing from the traditional build-up to the game: the anti-sports sermon. This sermon, present in so many of my childhood memories, once defined Super Bowl Sunday as a symbol of cultural conflict among American Christians.

Many were the Super Bowl weeks where one could hear messages from the pulpit and in church news bulletins about the apostasy of this event, and churchgoers often found themselves stuck in a competition of their own between the religion of their faith and the religion of their secular nation.

Today, these conflicts have quieted in tone and in volume. In fact, a quick Google search for “Super Bowl” and “church” will yield hundreds of links to church-sponsored Super Bowl parties and socials. And in Jacksonville, the site of the 2005 Super Bowl, the Jacksonville Baptist Association has even launched a Super Bowl ministry in order to promote their message during the pre-game festivities.

To be sure, there are still those who boycott the Super Bowl in the name of their faith or religious culture. And last year’s “wardrobe malfunction” involving Janet Jackson and Justin Timberlake have certainly raised the ire of those who support traditional family values. But, by and large, the Super Bowl weekend, one of the great representations of our civic religion, has been assimilated into our mainstream religious culture. And this assimilation makes a significant statement about how American Christians see themselves in the 21st Century.

Sports and religion have endured various relationships throughout the history of Western civilization. For the Greeks, whom author Thomas Cahill calls the “world’s first sports fans,” religion played an important role in their athletic events. In fact, the ceremonial sacrifice to Zeus before the commencement of the games still survives in spirit in the form of the ritual lighting of the torch before each Olympic Games.

The Romans also incorporated religious rites into their games, and it is from the Colosseum that Americans developed many parallel conventions (eating stadium food at the sports arena, fixating on the potential dramatic opportunities both before and after the competition, etc.) In fact, American football in particular seems to have several thematic similarities with the Roman games, though the American games have a decidedly lower mortality rate among the contest participants.

So why has the American sports enthusiast historically fared worse the sport fan of the ancient world? To get to the root of our current tension between religion and sports, one needs to look to the culture wars of the Reformation era in England. After years of religious strife following the break between Henry VII and the Catholic Church, the long reign of Elizabeth I secured for England the Protestant approach to the Christian faith. However, free of the pope’s religious influence, the Anglican church soon turned inward, giving rise to the Puritan movement, who first sought to reform their religion from within the church.

So, what does this have to do with sports? Quite a bit. Following Elizabeth came the rule of James I, the same king who in 1611 published the version of the Bible that many Christians still use today. During James’ reign, the Anglican Church became so factionalized between the Puritans and the Prelastists that the king felt compelled to take action to undermine the Puritan influence on his subjects.

One of the greatest evangelical tools the Puritans had was their Sabbath sermon, which turned Sunday into a day of preaching and spiritual reflection. To combat this practice, King James directed Bishop Moreton in 1618 to write and publish the Book of Sports, which encouraged Christians to engage in recreational and leisurely activities on Sunday. Though the book was not distributed and read across the kingdom as James intended, it was revived in 1633 under King Charles I and was largely viewed by Puritans as a text in direct conflict with the Holy Scriptures.

Of course, when the Puritans fled to America, they hardly abandoned their attitudes of conflict towards sports and recreation on the Sabbath. The historic American conflict between sports and religion, and particularly between the NFL and the church on Super Bowl Sunday, owes its ferocity to this historic struggle between the Bible and the Book of Sports.

Those who organize boycotts against the Super Bowl today are simply appealing to their Puritan roots. But for many groups, those roots are not leading them towards growth, and so they embrace one of the very attitudes their forefathers fled to America to escape.

Only in American can civic and religious culture adapt to such a degree that the Jacksonville Baptist Association actually embraced the Super Bowl as an opportunity to spread their message. This spirit of adaptability and tolerance should make the Super Bowl celebration more culturally significant than simply a prelude to a (hopefully) dramatic football game.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

HI; I found your article entitled Super Bowl Celebration Illustrates Progress in American Religious Culture very interesting. It had a lot of legitimate information about the puritans view opposed to Church of England. However I am a little unclear on your view of the whole issue at hand. I tend to think like the Puritans so I am not convinced that we are actually making progress with our culture.
It saddens me to see the obsession with spectator sports to the point that our entertainers are paid more than any other profession. It seems to be a sad indictment that we are not able to entertain ourselves. I think we have just about reached the bottom of the barrel of worldly entertainment. Would you align yourself with the basic philosophy of William Bradford or Roger Williams? Just curious. John Robinson

9:59 PM  
Blogger jrichard said...

Well, I wasn't taking sides. I was analyzing the disparities of history and the present.

Many of the social conventions and traditions we celebrate today have their roots in cultural conflicts like this one. And few of us know their origins.

But no, I wouldn't align myself with either school of thought. I am, myself, far too progressive to adopt the Puritan view myself.

Thanks for the comment.

5:11 AM  

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