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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.

6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Thanks for the, Cathal Kelly reference. I always appreciated his coverage of the Blue Jay’s, years ago. A sports reporter capable of insight beyond paid propaganda is a rare commodity these days. Sadly that might be true of all types of reporting….I digress.

    Didn’t watch the game and by all accounts seem to be the better for it. A manufactured expression of the religious impulse holds little sway over me these days.

    I think the better, Pauline approach might be to forget the, “Athen’s” or the, “Rome’s” or the USA’s, of the world and concentrate on shoring up faith in the smaller communities where it already exists. A, “Corinthians” approach if you will.

    The kingdoms of the world and those who lead them are pathologically incapable of Christ. There is no salvation in their political systems or their economies. For those who understand truth, the separation of church and state is an essential pre-requisite if the church is to be expanded and saved, not the other way round.

    Irrespective of their priorities, their worship or their cultures, we remain faithful to Christ. Loving God, self and one another….even them who oppose us.

    Ours isn’t the way of fame, money or Superbowl trophies. Ours is the way of the cross.

    February 4, 2020
    • You may be right, Paul. Perhaps the time for making tenuous connections with forms of faith that exist (recognized or not, misguided and confused or not) in the broader culture is fading, and energies should be spent, rather, on strengthening Christian faith where it is found.

      I, for one, still think there is value in pointing out the forms of religiosity that exist in a culture desperately trying to convince (and congratulate) itself about how irreligious it is. Perhaps I even take a kind of perverse pleasure in it 🙂

      February 6, 2020
  2. Paul Johnston #

    I’m not sure about the value of the action, as correct as I think you are in pointing it out. The days of moral reasoning convincing a person their pre-existing perspective is worthy of reconsideration, seem behind us. Certainly, on social media, most people converse only insofar as they need to in order to determine whether you belong to their tribe or not and respond with derision or agreement, depending on their assessment. Something about, “withdrawing your peace and shaking the dust from your sandals” makes sense to me.

    “Perverse pleasure” needs to be considered. Often in my life, I have responded to irrationality, determined hypocrisy and self-interest masquerading as a common good, with sarcasm, contempt and an air of superiority. Both with my own behaviors and the behaviors of others. Be careful, while it may not be apparent in our writing, most of us self censure, it might be the first response of the heart.

    The devil may or may not have them that act so but he certainly has me based on my hostile reactions and judgments.

    I don’t mean to sound callously indifferent, in denial or ignorant but there is only so much time given in life and there is much about God, myself and others that needs my attention, my love, and my service.

    Do good where we can and where we can’t, let it be for others to choose and decide. Consequences lie in our choices. I am responsible for mine, you are responsible for yours, they are responsible for theirs.

    May God be with us always and may He give us the courage and wisdom to, “love tenderly, act justly and walk humbly with our Lord.”

    His peace be with us, always.

    February 8, 2020
  3. I am saddened(but not shocked) to learn today that yet another of my personal “idols” has fallen victim to being Human.

    https://nationalpost.com/news/jordan-petersons-year-of-absolute-hell-professor-forced-to-retreat-from-public-life-because-of-tranquilizer-addiction

    February 11, 2020
    • Yes, I heard about this. Strange, sad news.

      February 12, 2020
    • Paul Johnston #

      Real courage, always comes with a price.

      February 12, 2020

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