A Tour of the Temple
Ok, I watched the Super Bowl yesterday. And, like most Monday mornings after the big game each year, I find myself wondering why, exactly, I do this. I am a casual fan at best. I prefer European football where they at least run around for a full ninety minutes, instead of producing about twelve minutes of actual action surrounded by hours of advertising and people plotting the next move through headsets. And there are certainly no shortage of reasons not to support the NFL (this piece from the New York Times highlights a few). It is not even remotely difficult to make a good case for refusing to support the violence, the misogyny, the hyperbole, the indecent expense of it all.
In the end, I watched for the same reason that many watch. The Super Bowl is a spectacle. And, like most spectacles, it tells some important truths about who we are. Cathal Kelly alluded to one of these truths in his article in the Globe and Mail this morning, calling the Super Bowl “this one day to bring a fractured nation together for worship.” Kelly probably wasn’t intending that the word “worship” be interpreted literally, but he may have spoken more truly than he realized.
Last week, I attended a denominational pastors’ gathering where we spent a bit of time reflecting on Acts 17:22-28. It’s the well-known story of Paul’s sermon to the Athenians on Mars Hill, used by countless preachers to make the point that we should always be trying to contextualize our presentation of the gospel, to start with existing understandings of God, to honour the faith that is already present, to work with the “materials at hand,” as it were. Paul doesn’t take a wrecking ball to everything the Athenians believe but starts where they are, calling attention to what they’re already doing and what it might say.
People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. Paul probably intended this is a compliment and it would have been received as such. Today, this would almost certainly not be the case. Nobody wants to be seen as “religious.” The word is more frequently used as an insult or an anachronism. We are spiritual but not religious (or so we think). Or we don’t even bother with the pretense of spirituality, imagining that we are rational, scientific creatures who have no need for primitive practices like worship with all the speculative beliefs it entails. We do not bow down.
Or do we? I wonder what Paul might say if he were wandering around the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, FL on Feb 2, 2020. People of America (and beyond), I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I saw desperate attempts to fend off death with an idolization of violence, power, youth, money, sex (nothing particularly new here: Mars, Mammon, Aphrodite…). I saw a hunger for transcendence in the euphoric spectacle of your entertainment. I saw the depth of your desire for community in the shared collective experience that your worship is designed to engender. I even saw a hunger for justice, goodness, and truth in the endless moralizing vignettes and heroic narratives created for public consumption, in the critiques of unjust political practices offered up by your high priestesses and worship attendants. Some of your worship points in good directions. Let me tell you about the God your worship is inadvertently pointing towards, the God in whom we all live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).
Super Bowl Sunday does indeed reveal the scope and substance of our piety. Paul lamented that the Athenians were ignorant as to the object of their worship. I suspect that today he would be puzzled at our ignorance that worship is in fact what we are engaged in.
The people of Athens listened with bemused interest in Paul’s exegesis of their worship objects and practices. In the end, they sneered at his suggestion that a rethinking and reorienting of worship was necessary, that God would one day “judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed” and that this man had been raised from the dead. They preferred their gods and their worship to the unimpressive foolishness that Paul presumed to replace them with.
In many ways, we have not stopped sneering.