Dr. Baker is professor of history at Western Kentucky University, Bowling Green.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 5, 1975 pp. 997-1001. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
People create games and pass on through their games the rules and values and dreams of their real lives. Perhaps the real message of the Christian game is that as in every other age Christ is the one who exposes the violence and exploitation of our crassly commercial game of life and through his subsequent rejection by the powers-that-be dramatically illustrates his message of freedom to those who couldn’t see or hear it any other way.
It’s a game, yes — and much more: a school for life, a cultic celebration. Football, I mean. It is what we are and what we will be. Passionate involvement with football begins for most American males in grade school; for a few, it culminates in playing with the National Football League; for most, it eventuates in watching the NFL on TV from an easy chair.
Let me make my own position clear: I may presume to comment on the game and the society it mirrors, but I am no disinterested, dispassionate critic. For years I thought I was. I arrogantly declined to attend the local high school and college games; and with eyes narrowed and brows aloft I flipped from the Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday TV battles to the public broadcasting channel for a film by Ingmar Bergman or a lecture from Chicago on recent trends in Bulgarian poetry. But last fall, when after ten or more long, sad seasons of mediocrity and travail my own alma mater — Baylor, home of the fighting Bears — began winning a few games, something surprising and a bit frightening happened to me. A flame I thought long dead came leaping up to thaw my cold heart.
At first I just checked the Sunday papers for scores — still detached, uncommitted. But then I found myself collecting news features, the longer and more fantastic the better, about the Cinderella team of the Southwest Conference. Before long I was hanging out at the faculty lounges bragging to the boys about how the old green and gold had disposed of last week’s opponent. And when at the end of three months of glory I was forced to see those brave colors stomped flat in the Cotton Bowl in Dallas by Penn State, I was so disconsolate that I couldn’t eat or sleep.
I was, I am, a man as other men.
‘In Town’ and ‘In the Field’
I suppose it’s natural for an American male to love the national sport. It’s hard to overcome conditioning. People create games of real life — as lumberjacks invented logrolling, cowboys rodeos — and pass on through their games the rules and values and dreams of their lives. Football is rooted in our deepest psyche; it replays our experiences as a people.
Baseball, that pleasant anachronism we play in the dog days when we have time to catch our breath and dream of the dusty past, was once our game. It was played on long, slow, warm Sunday afternoons. There was little danger of injury to undermanned teams. There were no time limits to interrupt or hurry the ritualistic chewing and stretching and scratching, because the cows could always wait another hour. Team play was less important than individual skill and power. Discipline mattered less than heart. But even then it was obvious that people had more fun “in town” than “in the field.” We all wanted to be “in town.”
Football was born and grew to maturity, as did the modern age, in those burgeoning industrial towns, once the farmer’s dream, now the urbanite’s reality, where people were and are expendably plentiful and time artificially, efficiently restricted. Its fast pace, its strict discipline, its controlled brutality were all perfectly tailored to the needs and style of a society where it is not heart but guts that matter. For half a century now, football has been telling us who we are and what we will be. We made it; now it makes us.
Vietnam: Not Our Kind of Football
It probably even helped us win those two world wars, both fought as if under a referee’s eye along well-defined lines, according to established rules, mostly fair and sportsmanlike (if entirely without moral conscience). And of course the game was ended before anyone got bored or hungry or lost too much time at the mill. We fought as football had taught us; convinced that the side with the better players and coaches and training had won, we came home happy champs, worried only by the fact that somewhere along the way we had misplaced the trophy.
Our football mentality may even partially explain why we fell so colossally on our faces in Vietnam. ’Nam just wasn’t our kind of game. The opposition, the red team, wouldn’t play by the rules. They showed no signs of shame or repentance when our coach called them bums. We found ourselves losing, though the statistics and even the scoreboard showed us winning. In the confusion our game plan went awry, and we didn’t know how to correct it without using strategy that would make bums of us. The battle went on and on without a timekeeper and with less and less hope of a final gun. Our own cheering section began rooting for the other side. Rookies refused to report to camp. An impossible situation.
And so, after a long afternoon’s journey into night, butting our heads against first one goalpost, then the other, we had to admit that the opponent wanted the game more than we did, that in fact they had more guts, and as the sensible team we were, we began to take ourselves out of the chaotic field “with honor.” We sent in a few expendable substitutes and agreed to keep supplying uniforms and paying rent on the stadium. We told the subs it was their game to win or lose, wished them luck, and got on the bus and left for the hotel. We just hadn’t played enough cricket to learn patience or enough soccer to be able to bring order out of chaos in medias res.
But we are still football people. Vietnam, embarrassing as it was, did nothing to diminish our faith in or devotion to the game. The ’Nam game was a fluke. We weren’t up for it. It had nothing to do with us as a team or with our rules or style’ of life. Rocky Bleier might be cut down in Vietnam, but back in the civilized world he could still lead the Steelers to the Superbowl. And now that it’s Monday morning and the sun is shining, things are looking up. It was just a bad game. Wait’ll next week.
Metaphors for the Faith
For years now, certain sages have been calling football America’s newest indigenous religion; and the more I watch it, the more I tend to agree. It certainly has all the trappings of a cult: colored banners, armies of good and evil, fanatic supporters, the cosmic sphere, even its own miniskirted vestal virgins to fan the flames. And far more important than these superficialities, it acts as a religion by teaching its followers how to order their personal and professional lives. For those who play, it is an educational act, an immersion in truth. For the rest of us, who are too small or too clumsy or too old to play and have to watch from the stands or before television screens, it is not unlike a Latin high mass performed by professionals for the edification and instruction of those deemed by the Heavenly Commissioner unworthy to participate personally.
Thoroughly American, it shows us American men, in its colorfully dramatic way, that in our drab lives we can best succeed by becoming expert specialists, by playing sensible odds, and most of all by occasionally running a gutsy risk of injury. The American dream, conceived by pioneers, redefined by immigrants, taught to the next generation by football, seems to be that by the age of 30 any young man, given lots of hard work and a little luck, can be both rich and crippled for life.
And even more authenticating is the fact that football’s teachings are borrowed from the “wisdom” of the ages and that it passes that wisdom on to a new age in a manner that the people of the new age can understand and accept. Thus the dream of today’s young American man, reared in the religion of the gridiron, is not very different from that of the young Roman legionnaire or the young medieval crusader or, more important, of the young European immigrant to the new world, his own ancestor. He believes that sacrifice and specialized daring lead to wealth and glory. He works for wealth and honor, the spoils of war.
Yet strange as it seems, though a new religious expression of some rather old verities has sprung up in our midst, no Christian theologian of any real merit has made any significant effort to make of football — and the wisdom it seeks to transmit — a metaphor for the faith. It has of course been said — as many said of Platonism and later Aristotelianism and more recently existentialism — that because football is not of truly Christian origin it is essentially irredeemable; it could not bear the weight of the gospel; it would by mere association pervert the Good News and make it Bad. But as Augustine, Aquinas and Tillich have demonstrated, those who said that of the other systems were wrong, and so too probably are those who say it of football. To tell the Story through the language and categories of football would in all likelihood be no less profitable than St. Paul’s attempt to liken the Christian disciple to a Roman soldier or the early missionaries’ attempt to portray Christ as a divine tribal chieftain or the rock generation’s creation of Jesus Christ Superstar.
Another typically American and equally barbaric cultural phenomenon once thought irredeemable, the western movie, has indeed provoked a new and intriguing and perhaps even legitimate Christian theological expression. Chaplain Wesley Seeliger of Texas A&M University, aroused and inspired by the “Gunsmoke” craze of the ‘60s, wrote a compelling little book called Western Theology (Forum, 1973) in which he showed how the American obsession with the 19th century trans-Mississippi west could be used as an occasion, and the western a medium, to teach the Christian faith. He made a plea for what he called pioneer religion — in which God the trail boss and Jesus the scout lead the church, a covered wagon always on the move, as the minister dishes up for the pioneers fresh meat brought in by the Holy Spirit — over settler religion in which God the mayor and Jesus the sheriff run the church as a courthouse and the minister-banker protects the interests of the religious establishment.
A bit campy, perhaps a touch heretical, but on the whole a refreshing and creative response to a phenomenon clearly understood by the masses yet considered by professional theologians too mundane to touch. A valiant effort. Unfortunately no one with Mr. Seeliger’s imagination has yet tackled football.
Winning with Jesus
Which is not to say that no one has tried. It’s just that those who have been willing to give it a try have either misunderstood the game or misinterpreted the faith. They have been a bit off-base or, I should say, offsides. Anyway, they have failed to score.
Arnold Mandell, who for two years held the unique office of psychiatrist to a professional football team, has found that the position a player fills on a squad is dictated as much by his personality as by his physical endowments. The most articulate and at the same time the most religious of all players, for example, the potential theologian of the team, is the quarterback. And so it would seem that from one of the many Fellowship of Christian Athletes passers, from a Staubach or a Tarkenton, one of those handsome guys who go around telling church camps how it feels to win with Jesus, would have come at least the raw materials and perhaps even the incipient form for a football theology. But in my vain search for such materials and forms, I have found among the golden boys a distressing theological superficiality. God is a great general manager. Jesus is a terrific coach. Life is a terrifically great game if you’re playing for Those Two. It’s OK to gamble on fourth and one, but don’t gamble with your soul. And that’s about it.
Perhaps this, can be explained by Mandell’s discovery that quarterbacks are the most intensely conservative members of the team, Joe Namath notwithstanding. They follow game plans. They do as they’re told. They don’t think daringly unless a daring play is sent in from the sidelines. They are settlers, not pioneers. They are uncreative.
What we probably need, if Mandell’s categories are accurate, is a theologically sophisticated wide receiver, the most daring man on the field. But wide receivers are loners, a bit paranoid, and they don’t like to talk in public about matters as intimate as religion. Besides, they’re usually the team bad boys, and theologians must be holy. Offensive linemen are holy, always ready with a smile, extroverted, protective of their fellow players — but not very penetrating: more bishops than theologians. Defensive players are penetrating but notoriously demonic, and they have all kinds of trouble constructing things. They’d much rather tear them down.
So the job has been left to a rather odd assortment of men, amateurs either at the game or the faith, who have tried with very little success to make sense of matters too deep for them.
Average Christian Carries the Ball
The first person I know of who made a stab at it — a pioneer in the truest sense — was a young entrepreneur from Waco, Texas, who in the early ‘50s put out a long-playing album that revolutionized American sermon illustrations. It was a dramatized allegory, complete with sound effects, of the football game of life. If I remember correctly, Average Christian carried the ball and Jesus the head coach picked him up after every nasty spill and encouraged him on to the eventual touchdown. All very emotional; all very profitable for the young entrepreneur. Simply a renovation of the old baseball game-of-life allegory, it hit the market at a time when football’s popularity was on the rise, and it proved a tremendous success. The young man made enough money to start his own recording and publishing company. He scored.
There was never any question as to where he got the idea. He had listened to a decade or more of Baylor University’s football-playing ministerial students. They were once legion, as they doubtless will be again now that Baylor is once again a power. They fanned out from Texas to every corner of the country bearing their various versions and interpretations of the game. Perhaps the most famous of these — a college All-American, a professional defensive lineman, a seminary graduate — was Bill Glass. He’s still around today, still playing to packed houses all over the nation.
Mr. Glass spoke to the Baptist World Congress in 1965, and his most memorable sermon illustration left the Americans in the audience laughing and the foreigners confused. He explained in great detail that just as a defensive player must get past a certain blocker to get to the quarterback, so must every man go through Jesus to get to God. I must confess I was as confused as the Africans and Russians. It made little sense unless Jesus is a barrier to be jumped or knocked down and God an opponent to be sacked.
But it all seemed clear enough to a good portion of the crowd. The meeting was, after all, held in Miami’s Orange Bowl. Perhaps those who laughed so heartily had heard such homilies before and grown accustomed to the logic. You can hear them at summer camps any year. They are usually handed out by religious athletes who — I’m guessing here — spent more college hours on the field than in the library. A paragraph from a recent Christian Athlete article by Kent Kramer amply demonstrates what I mean:
The Christian faith is not a rose garden. It’s something like third and two with Green Bay’s Dave Robinson as linebacker and the play coming over me at tight end. Man, you’ve got to fire up and help get that first down.
Footballing the Word
But pro linemen aren’t the only ones with the spunk to make fools of themselves. A few ministers have tried their hands at footballing the Word as well. Their motives are beyond reproach, their efforts courageous and sometimes even imaginative — but such strange results!
One pastor in British Columbia sent his bread-and-butter play in to the Christian Athlete. It appears to be a sermon outline. According to his diagram, the defensive line in the Christian’s life is made up of Fear, Sin, Satan, Despair, Worry and Separation. The linebackers are Sorrow, Tribulation and Unbelief. Deep backs are Darkness and Death. The offensive line is Love, Joy, Grace, Christ (?), Hope, Peace and Faith. The quarterback is Prayer, the blocking backs are Resurrection and Light, and the ball carrier is “You, the Redeemed.”
The pastor explained:
Jesus Christ is the center of this big play. He snaps the ball to Prayer and then brings down Satan. Prayer calls the signals, hands off to Redeemed and takes worry out of the play. Faith removes unbelief; Peace overcomes tribulation; Hope blocks despair; Grace covers sin; Joy erases sorrow; Love casts out fear; Light wipes out darkness; Resurrection overcomes the last enemy death; and Redeemed scores.
He adds: “Separation is no threat in this play.” The end zone is marked “Eternal Life.” A dark line marks Redeemed’s certain pathway there, untouched by a single hostile arm.
There are some interesting points in this little allegory. Christ as offensive center instead of coach or quarterback is brand-new so far as I know and should remain popular as long as Gerald Ford does. Mandell says in his study that ‘the offensive lineman, especially the center, is unselfish — sacrificial, even — but he is also terribly undramatic, as indeed Ford is (as Christ isn’t). On the whole, though, it all seems too easy. Every blocker gets his man. Every victim stays down instead of jumping back up to try again as fierce competitors are trained to do. No penalty calls halt the play, not even when Grace holds Sin until the play is past and Love uses his hands to cast out Fear. And while the point about Separation’s being no threat to Redeemed may be comforting to us all, it becomes allegorically suspect when it requires a defensive end to stand stock-still while across the field a cocky halfback threads his way through falling bodies to paydirt.
In its ease and smug self-assurance the whole business reminds one of a certain life insurance company’s recent TV ad in which a balding, middle-aged family man without pads runs behind one pro team of beefy huskies through another equally beefy bunch to the security of an end zone free of financial worries. We have to wonder how many new policies such sermons sell.
A Theology for Failure
And so it goes. Despite some admirable efforts — and some not so admirable — past attempts to make football a motif for the faith have fallen somewhere between faintly amusing and hilarious. Or, if you take them seriously, between vaguely threatening and downright sinister. They have all missed the mark by yards and yards. I have run across a few good ideas: one writer suggested celebrating communion by sharing your dog and suds with a bleacher-mate. But mostly it’s been one big goose egg.
And why? Is it because the football field is indeed an inappropriate arena for the Word? If so, then perhaps the society which it mirrors is too.
Is it that there is simply no one around who understands both the game and the faith? Perhaps that’s part of it. But surely there are enough intelligent Christians around, even among football fans, to have produced one decent apologist. Superstar stands waiting to be an inspiration.
Or does the problem go deeper? Could it be that the game is indeed a good motif, better than most for our day, but that no one has been willing to admit what it is really saying to us? So far we have looked for the new theology to come from winners: the successful football-playing preachers, the victorious products of the game, or theologians who are themselves successful in the modern game of life. Maybe it’s time we got our message from today’s Christ and his disciples.
If I read his story correctly, Christ was one who stood — and no doubt still stands — over against rather than in support of the game of his day. By the standards and rules of his time, he was a loser, and perhaps he still would be, still is. Yet through his “failure” he brought, and still brings, hope to all those knowingly or unknowingly victimized by the game. Even Superstar, glamorous as he was, didn’t get to ride the bus back to the studio. So how could Christ be coach of the year and his followers all-pro? Wouldn’t Christ and his disciples today be more like Rod Serling’s battered and self-sacrificing prizefighter in Requiem for a Heavyweight than like the quarterback of the Superbowl champs?
Maybe the real message of the game is being preached, but by a voice we don’t really want to hear. Perhaps it is saying that as in every other age Christ is the one who exposes the violence and exploitation of our crassly commercial game of life and through his subsequent rejection by the powers-that-be dramatically illustrates his message of freedom to those who couldn’t see or hear it any other way.
Maybe what our age and its game are finally forcing upon us is a Christ symbol modeled on that half of our population most visibly victimized by and hostile to the game, whether on TV, in the stadium, or in the marketplace.
Maybe it’s time for us to explore the implications of a female Christ.