Sporting Chance

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I didn’t watch the SuperBowl last weekend. In fact, I haven’t had television service for over two decades now. I don’t really miss it too much since I don’t have time to watch TV (the commuting life leaves time only for sleeping and working, except on weekends). Still, for special events, I think, it might be nice to see things live. (My wife raises this point every time the Olympics roll around. I seem to recall them being every four years, but now it seems they’re seasonal, and about twice as frequent. Could it be that advertising revenues are really that important? Maybe I missed that, not having television…) Even when I have managed, over the last couple of decades, to pull the SuperBowl onto a fuzzy, snowy screen, it was for one major reason—the commercials. I wonder what that says about a society? I now spend precious weekend time watching commercials on YouTube, sometimes having to watch a commercial for the privilege of watching a commercial. The substance without the fluff of the actual entertainment.

So it was that I saw the Mophie commercial about the apocalypse (here’s the link, in case you’re as entertainment-challenged as I am). So as the world comes to an end, the weather goes even more wonky than we’ve already made it go, Fortean fish fall from the sky, dogs walk their owners and priests steal plasma television sets. Then the punchline, God’s cell phone dies and the end of the world ends. It isn’t the shock of seeing an African-American God—Morgan Freeman led the way there with Bruce Almighty—but rather the technique, the divine delivery, if you will, that is the shock. Not even God is anything without his cell. (I wonder when we’ll see a Latino woman as God? Dogma came close, but not quite.) Is the smartphone really not the deity here?

God, it seems, has become a null concept. I don’t mean because of different racial or gender presentations, but I do mean that the concept itself is completely up for grabs. God, according to Anselm of Canterbury, is that being greater than which nothing can be conceived. In fact, God seems to be that which people worship, more of a Tillichian ultimate concern. A wired world should, in theory, be a world headed toward peace and equality. If we know what’s going on everywhere, shouldn’t we be doing our best to ensure that it is fair and just? The truth of the matter gives the lie to such optimistic musings. I would hate to confess just how much my phone bill is every month. Even without the “triple play” (no television) it is the biggest expense after college tuition and rent. And it goes on, in saecula saeculorum. When I pull out my smartphone, I gaze upon the face of the Almighty. And perhaps that’s a good thing, because how else would I entertain myself without television?


Backyard Archaeology

Among safe topics for discussion among strangers and casual acquaintances, the weather tops the list. It affects each and every one of us continually, and there’s nothing we can do about it. The ideal neutral subject. In fact, however, the weather is highly freighted with religious thinking, deeply sublimated. If you listen closely, you will hear it. Well, this year, at least in the northeast of the United States, winter has been the topic. We still have snow on the ground in New Jersey, and it has been here continually since January. The thaw has begun, however, and when I went to fetch the paper I noticed a newly melted item on the lawn—an archaic newspaper. Obviously the paper-deliverer missed the front steps that day, and by the time I stepped outside it had already been buried. Curious, I brought it inside to get a first-hand look at the past. It was the Monday, February 3 paper. The day after the Super Bowl. Apparently nothing much else was happening in the world a month ago. I don’t even know who played in the game.

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Religion and sports have a long pedigree. One of the first books I signed up at Routledge was on religion and sports in American culture. Routledge decided to sack me before the book was published, so I haven’t had the opportunity to see it yet. Nevertheless, it is clear that the meaning once provided by the strong arm of the Lord is now covered by the stronger arm of the athlete. I’ve watched in fascination as reporters question the players after the game, panning for bits of wisdom as if they might actually get us up off the couch and lead us to a few minutes of physical glory. Instead cliches trickle out: “we saw what needed to be done and did it.” “I took it to the next level.” “First of all, I want to thank Jesus.” Each one like a nugget of pure gold. I still don’t even know who was playing.

On my kitchen table, however, sits a soggy newspaper with the answers to that. The news is old news. And damp. We’ve had an entire Olympics since then, and war seems to be breaking out in the Crimea. Wait a minute, what century is this again? It seems that no matter how old the news is, it still isn’t old enough. One of the oldest news flashes received by humankind, if the Mesopotamians are to be believed, is that there is a huge flood coming. I turn on my browser and lo, a flood indeed! Noah will be released later this month. Posters began to appear in Manhattan as soon as the Super Bowl cleared out. Move on to the next big thing. And, unbeknownst to me, a newspaper laid buried beneath the snow, containing all the information I needed to know. I’m still wondering how that flood turned out.


Under Fire

The tragedy that has been unfolding in the Ukraine has brought to light some unlikely heroes. A story on NBC last week showcased, albeit briefly, priests on the front lines. In a world where joining the clergy is often a way to avoid the dark and dreary reality of war and want, it is strangely heartening to see (in this case) men of the cloth willing to walk into danger. These are people who truly do believe. Sometimes it is easy, sitting safely behind a computer monitor in a relatively quiet neighborhood, to believe that the world is a peaceful place. Even a walk through the “cleaned up” parts of Manhattan will reveal, however, that human need is very real and omnipresent. Perhaps it is just the times when I’m out—it is winter after all, and we do value our comfort—but I seldom see clearly identifiable clergy on the streets of Manhattan unless they are trying to convert. The homeless almost always are sitting alone. The chill this winter has been almost Siberian. Where do the helpless turn?

Seminary is not the training ground for combat. At least not in the way that armed conflict brings. As a student and teacher in a seminary setting, I was constantly watching for signs of hope. It takes a truly remarkable individual to engage in caring for those who need it. Far too often “minister” is a job, with benefits, because that is the only way to get along in a world enamored of capitalism. That clerical shirt can be quite costly—who wants to sully it with human need? The world inside the church is often artificial. If the people are not inspired to go out and help, then we’ve just wasted another hour in a feel-good social gathering. We’ve learned to tune out the bitter lessons of life. Yes, there are war zones. Some with real guns and the dead we see in photographs used to be people just like us. Who cares for them? A cassock can cost upward of 600 dollars. How many warm meals would that buy for the woman sitting on the sidewalk with a baby on her lap and a handwritten sign on cardboard in front of her nearly empty paper cup?

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Too often religions become ingrown. The job of missionaries is to convert, not to comfort. We would like to crawl into a world where people are safe and happy, but the moment we wander outdoors—and the mall doesn’t count—we find a different reality at work. It is difficult for me to read about current events. The Olympics are not the only reality of the world of the former Soviet Union. There are others who will never be recognized with gold, silver, or bronze, They may walk into the crossfire holding aloft a brass cross to indicate that they are there to try to help. No great cheer arises, no great ceremony for torches that have fictionally burned since ancient times. There is a fire here, however. It is the fire of human warmth. In this long winter, it is an honest flame of hope.