Monday, September 07, 2015

Fandom and Faith

I get excited about the fall months for many reasons, among them being the return of college football. I've been especially excited for what Jim Harbaugh will bring to my favorite team, the Michigan Wolverines, after a decade of futility.

Leading up to the season, I thought a little about the parallels between sports fandom and a life of faith. You'd be surprised how often I'm able to find such parallels, actually. The way I see it, there are different ways of being a fan, as there are different ways of approaching how one believes and lives as a Christian. I shared some of this in a sermon not too long ago, but thought I'd flesh it out a little more here.

Here, then, are some of the ways one approaches being a sports fan and its faith equivalent.

Unquestioned loyalty - This is perhaps the most typical, or at least the ones most prominent in public settings. This sort of fan allows his or her favorite team largely to dictate decision-making and relationships. Events big and small are scheduled around game times. Scores get checked in the middle of weddings. Friendships and business relationships may end or at least be made very tentative if someone roots for the big rival: case in point, I once was told by a grown adult in complete seriousness that they weren't going to be my friend any more because I root for a rival team. If a player or coach has an off-the-field issue, it can be completely explained away and everyone else is taking what happened out of context. My team can do no wrong...ever.

What the faith version looks like: This type of faith dictates decision-making and relationships as well, but perhaps with a judgmental edge. Friendships and business relationships may also hinge on whether someone is a fellow believer, and even if one is a fellow Christian certain doctrinal beliefs will need to be similar enough. Everything the Bible says including the parts about genocide and slavery can be completely explained and the one looking for an issue just isn't reading it right. Likewise, much of what Christians have done over the centuries in the name of Jesus can be explained according to contextual knowledge of the era. There are degrees to this as with everything else, but the basic philosophy of unquestioned loyalty in any part of life is you don't ask questions.

Vague support or interest - This type of fandom basically says, "Well, I live in this region of the country, so sure, I guess I root for these people." Largely, this type of fan has other things to do, but they own a few items of apparel with the area team's logo on them. Interest heightens when they make the playoffs, but otherwise they'll catch a few games on TV and go about their life generally aware of the team's existence.

What the faith version looks like: "Well, my parents attend this church and I'm not Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu, so sure, I guess I'm a Christian." This person prefers Sunday brunch or grocery shopping, but they'll make a few services a year. Interest heightens around Christmas and Easter, but otherwise they'll attend every once in a while. Aside from being part of a formal faith gathering, maybe they like Jesus as a teacher or really do think he somehow reveals God, but what does that really have to do with me outside of my trying to just be a good person?

Outright rejection or apathy - This type of fan--or, really, non-fan--doesn't see the point in following sports. Some sports are incredibly violent and most are regularly plagued by scandal and corruption, or they see the way sports of all things can divide people, and they don't want to be associated with that in any fashion. They see nothing exciting or life-giving about sports and would rather pour their time and energy into literally anything else.

What the faith version looks like: Christian faith has been used for an incredible amount of violence, discrimination, and oppression since it began. Some high-profile Christian figures have been plagued by scandal and corruption, and many don't seem to practice what they preach. They see how religion of any kind can be divisive rather than uniting or loving. An increasing number of people see this and look elsewhere for spiritual growth, if they think it's important at all.

Mellow realism - This type of fan perhaps used to be an unquestioning loyalist, but then he or she had to live through some down years for their team. Whether this came in the form of losing seasons, regular controversies on or off the field, or a combination, this type of fan has learned to see his or her team in a more discerning, though no less devoted, light. They're able to recognize the bad while celebrating the good, shrug off differences in fandom in relationships, and while certain losses will still sting, they're able to move on more easily than others might.

What the faith version looks like: This person has been through some things. They've seen struggles and loss of various kinds. They know God is in there somewhere and are actively searching, but have long ago rejected the idea that God causes suffering for some unknown, sovereign reason. They've learned to see faith in a more discerning, though no less devoted, light. They balance scriptural claims, creeds, and doctrines with life experience and reason.

The relationships among these different sorts of fans could be explored as well. The unquestioned loyalist can find the mellow realist an annoying killjoy or might question their dedication: "you say you're a fan, but you aren't toeing the team's line the way you should." Likewise, the mellow realist can't understand how the unquestioned loyalist can be so willfully blind to certain flaws in what their team is doing: "why can't you just admit that our winning coach did something wrong?" Both might roll their eyes at the vague supporter: "you only show up during the special times." The rejector is still wondering why the other three even bother, and the unquestioned loyalist and mellow realist may try to psychoanalyze the rejector: "you must be hurt or mad at the team's owner for some reason. But there really is good in sports! You just have to see it!"

Hopefully you can see the parallels between fandom and faith in these relationships. I don't think I need to spell them out. As mentioned, there are other degrees of fandom, and degrees within degrees, as there are in one's approach to or commitment to any particular faith tradition. Each has positives and negatives; reasons for existing and also growing edges.

Where might you fall?

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