Should Christians Abandon Football?

The ‘Big Game’ (is that copyrighted?) is this Sunday. Most of my neighbors seem excited that the Carolina Panthers might win a championship. Though I suspect if the Panthers win that Carolinians will go back to focusing on ACC basketball and college football recruiting season.

A year ago around the time of Super Bowl 49 I had an existential crisis of sorts when I read Against Football by Steve Almond. The book was flawed at points, but it gave me a different filter to view the game that bonded me to my dad. I also watched PBS’ documentary League of Denial which was even more persuasive than Almond’s book. Almost every source I go to on this subject of the dangers of football seem to flash in neon lights “Abandon ship!”

football pic

I still watched football this past season, though not as much as usual or with as much passion. My church is doing a party for the game this Sunday. However, what worries me is how flippant Christians are when they are asked whether our commitment to this sport should be reevaluated.

To aid my own thinking and the thinking of others, I’ve outlined three means of ethical evaluation that are in the Christian tradition to evaluate the game of football.

1. Exegetical

What does the Bible say? That seems to be a simple question, but even those with an exegetical approach to Christian ethics know it aint that easy. John Frame, John Jefferson Davis, Wayne Grudem, and others espouse a “The Bible tells us so” approach. The most sophisticated form seems to be that of Frame with his perspectivalist hermeneutic.

According to Frame, we must ask three questions: What does the Bible teach? (Normative)  What contextual factors should be considered? (situational) What personal factors must be considered? (existential)

Regarding the normative question, the Bible doesn’t explicitly address whether football is immoral or not. Athletic competition seems to be, in general, a positive calling according to Scripture (2 Tim 2:5; Phil 3:14; 1 Cor 9:24-25; Heb 12:1; 1 Tim 4:8). Though, we should not necessarily believe that the Bible affirms every sport as a holy vocation as not all vocations are holy (e.g. prostitution). It is possible some sports by their nature are inherently sinful.

There are civil laws and principles about the protection of human life, though we can’t go much further as the Bible doesn’t get into things like whether the mere risk of injury makes a sport sinful. Running gives the risk of injury, but the Scripture passages above affirm running as a sport.

The situational perspective may shed light on issues like youth sports, brain injuries, etc. It’s possible that tackle football might be better suited for high school age and above but not for those younger due to the increased space between a youth’s brain and cranium, increasing likeliness of head trauma. So, the situational perspective might bring reform to youth football as well as to particular rules in the game of football.

The existential perspective is one which we have seen recently in former players (e.g. Antwaan Randle El, Patrick Willis, Chris Borland). The concern for being present with future family members while risking one’s health for a particular job is one that must be weighed and prayed through. There are a number of dangerous jobs (firemen, policemen, etc) that don’t seem inherently sinful, but it may be sinful for an individual to take on one of those jobs if there is a lack of faith and peace about it. A young family might be a good reason to retire early or to find a different career for a football player.

Overall, there seems to be no definitive case against football from the traditional, evangelical method of Christian ethics. The goal for a football player is to apply 1 Corinthians 10:31 and bring glory to God in their calling.

2. Narratival

The narratival method is not a singular way of determining Christian ethics but is rather a family of perspectives. Whether it is William J Webb’s “Redemptive-Movement” model or Kevin Vanhoozer’s “Theology as Theodrama” analogy or N.T. Wright’s 5 story act proposal, the basic idea is that the Bible is first and foremost a story with a plot, characters, and a telos.

Without getting into the nuances and differences of the theologians cited above, the basic thrust of the narratival method is that we are called to plot our place in the Plot of redemptive history. Currently, we dwell in between Christ’s two advents. The world is fallen, but the new creation has dawned in Christ and is growing brighter and brighter as the old creation grows dimmer the closer we arrive to the consummation. This isn’t a postmillennial optimism, but it is an optimism none the less. The reality of putting away childish things (1 Cor 13:11-12), seeing swords beaten into plowshares (Isaiah 2:4), and wiping away tears from our eyes (Revelation 7:16-17) since the new creation is both already (2 Cor 5:17) but not yet (Revelation 21-22).

From the narratival ethic, it may be that football is not inherently sinful, but it doesn’t ‘fit’ with God’s vision of human flourishing and where he is taking us in the story. The sadness and brokenness inherent in football, and probably the sport itself, needs to evaporate over time as the coming of Jesus gets closer. It’s hard to imagine such violence in God’s new creational paradigm.

3. Creational

This third and final perspective is made known by Al Wolters and his Dutch Reformed tradition where there is a high view of the original creation and its abiding validity for today. Walters wrote the well-received book Creation Regained  where he introduces concepts such as “structure” and “direction” as helpful guides for Christian ethics. According to Wolters, the Bible teaches that the structure or normatively of God’s good creation continues to abide while the direction of that structure is what is corrupted. Other Reformed theologians use the term common grace to communicate this truth.

Yet, there is debate as to whether the ‘structure’ in football is athletic performance itself or whether football has a basic skeleton which is the structure. In other words, is football as a sport able to be ‘redeemed’ if it is redirected (i.e. making the game safer, increasing technology for protecting players, eliminating materialism and corruption from the game, etc), or is athletic competition to be redeemed if we eliminate corrupt, violent sports such as boxing, mixed martial arts, football, etc?

In the end, none of these three methods of deciphering a Christian ethical stance on football is sufficient to give us confidence. All three are useful and may illuminate the issue at hand for us to examine with Scripture and the tradition of the church.

Personally, I am conflicted. I’ve done enough reading to make me wonder whether our society thirty to forty years from now will look back on our football culture an think we were barbaric for endangering the lives of millions of young people. Yet, it is possible the science and technology aspects will come back and make football a safe sport (or that head trauma from football isn’t as serious as previously thought). I can easily see the game becoming more safe to the extent that a typical NFL game will look more like the Pro Bowl and less like an AFC North rivalry game.

Even aside from the safety issue, there is enough reason for Christians to at least be wary of football and less enthusiastic about it than our neighbors. The disruption of the Sabbath, the idolatry of youth sports leagues (just see the documentary Trophy Kids), rugged greed, etc. should make the church more aware of how the liturgy of American sports are doing more to shape Christians than the historic liturgy of the church (cf. James K.A. Smith).

The “Understanding” of Discipleship

Discipleship can be a buzz word in the church and various church planting movements. Mike Breen wisely pointed out that the so-called missional church movement will fail if we fail to multiply disciples. Yet, the next problem up is making discipleship the latest buzz word and seeing the evangelical-industrial machine pump out curriculums from the latest celebrity pastors.

The church today needs to return to the Acts 2:42-47 model for making disciples, but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a couple of imaginative helps along the way. One help I found last year on Youtube from the Smarter Every Day channel. In this particular episode, Destin Sandlin does an experiment to figure out how his brain functions when it has to master a new skill.

Destin takes a bicycle and has some welders tweek it so that turning the steering one way now makes the front wheel go in the opposite direction.

Destin figured this simple change would take some getting used to but that if his brain knew this change then it would’t take long to master this new bicycle.

After eight months of trying to ride this bike up and down his driveway, it ‘clicked’ for Destin. His brain ‘figured it out’ and he began to ride this bicycle as if it was normal.

Destin would take this bicycle around the country and challenge folks to ride this bike ten feet and earn $200. No one could ride it even a couple of feet.

While in Amsterdam some months later (where there are more bikes than people), Destin went back to the normal bike after spending twenty minutes for his brain to retrain itself.

This experiment didn’t end with Destin. It took his six-year-old son only two weeks to figure out how to ride this backwards bike, demonstrating the plasticity of a child’s brain compared to an adult’s.

Destin gives three concluding points at the end of this fascinating video that seem to directly tie into discipleship.

1. Welders are smarter than engineers.
2. Knowledge does not equal understanding.
3. Truth is truth.

If welders are local pastor-directors who reshape particular Christians into disciples who are on the Way as opposed to engineers who are specialized curriculum and celebrity pastors who seem to have ‘made it’ on a grander scale, then welders are smarter than engineers. Discipleship begins in the local space and place, not a podcast or conference.

Discipleship isn’t mere head knowledge. It is wisdom (understanding). It is those moments for when it ‘clicks’ for Christians that the way of Jesus looks this way and not that way (Psalm 1).

The model of Acts 2:42-47 is time-tested and true. Even when it doesn’t look spectacular or true, it is true. God works through his Word, sacraments, prayer, and people.

My calling as a pastor is to help the issues of discipleship ‘click’ for my people. It may take months for some and weeks for others. But the Holy Spirit will make it click for all.

Wonder vs Doubt

I attended a Christian liberal arts college in a small town with a 600 student enrollment. Overall, I enjoyed these four years as the Christian faith became broader and deeper to me. It also allowed me four years to wrestle with aspects of skepticism, especially as a philosophy major.

Yet, one of the best contributions of my liberal arts education is a three worded dictum from my best friend who summarized the Christian tradition as that of “Wonder versus Doubt”.

The point of my friend is that we all have the volitional ability (before seriously engaging with Christianity and this world) to presuppose Wonder or Doubt. We may either engage this world with hopeful and hope-filled curiosity as to how the story will be told, or we may see this place as a mere jumble of molecules clanging together that give the appearance of truth, goodness, and beauty but without the reality.

Wonder doesn’t dispel sorrow, questioning, depression, mental illness, or poverty. It doesn’t put a bandaid on one’s problems, but it does provide the starting point for navigating the brokenness of the cosmos so that there is still apparent beauty in the brokenness.

Doubt can’t even make sense of brokenness. Doubt is the twenty-year-old student who drops and ‘f bomb’ every other sentence and has no connection to anything larger than him or herself. It is nihilism in its most depressing state.

We can’t ‘prove’ that wonder is better than doubt. There is no logical syllogism which would make it certain and indubitable that wonder is the way to go. This passion/heart-level starting point has more to do with the human person as imaginer, not just a mere thinker.

While I do think there are plenty of good reasons to believe that Christianity is true, it is Blaise Pascal who accurately summarizes the predicament, “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of.”

I’ve lost a father. My wife has had health problems. I am sorrowful in planting and pastoring a church full of broken people. I have experienced vocational crisis. Yet, Wonder has saved me every time. As a Pastor, it is my calling to proclaim Wonder over Doubt. (Not that we don’t wrestle with doubts, but Wonder must overcome Doubt.)

This is the task in dialoguing with my non-Christian neighbors. We are engaged, ultimately, in a debate of Wonder versus Doubt. The Dutch philosopher Cornelius Van Til showed that the actuality of debate seems to give Wonder the victory, but my vocation as a disciple-maker and neighbor is to aid my friends to ‘see’ Wonder and not just prove it to them.

“Neither Jew nor Gentile”: What Could and Should Occur in the Current Star Wars Trilogy

As my church flock, wife, and friends know, I am in full on homer mode for Star Wars. The Force Awakens can do no wrong, and I am checking Reddit Star Wars Leaks every day to figure out what the next movie might have in store.

Okay, it isn’t that bad. But I have done some internal theorizing over what this new trilogy might hold in store for our particular galaxy.

First off, let me quickly defend TFA from the charges that it is merely a repristintation of A New Hope and that it doesn’t ‘take any chances’. Regarding the remake charge, Chris Taylor has a nice write-up showing that TFA is has appropriate continuity and discontinuity with A New Hope.

Regarding risk-taking, ANH hardly took any risks. Actually, ANH is a fairly simple plot that, in many ways, is a stand-alone film. Apart from Darth Vader escaping after the destruction of the Death Star, there is no reason for a sequel. It all wraps up rather nicely with no hint of a trilogy.

Counter that with TFA which seems more like Lost than ANH. Has any other Star Wars movie left the audience with more unanswered questions and mysteries than TFA? Who is Snoke? Why did Kylo Ren turn to the dark side? What did Han and Leia do to screw up their son? What make Luke go awol? What is Luke’s intention in exile? Why is Rey a super Force freak? Who are her parents and why did they abandon her? What is the state of the galaxy after the destruction of the Senate and a bulk of the First Order? What is Maz Kanata’s role?

TFA has this new trilogy feeling more like Lost than some riskless remake. But I digress.

What do I hope the new trilogy will explore and finally resolve for Star Wars fans? The nature and balance of the Force.

The Force is a character in Star Wars. It is involved in most major scenes and plot twists, even if it goes unmentioned. The Force is used to bring peace and wreak havoc on the galaxy, and it itself experiences peace and havoc. This is where the whole ‘balance’ discussion/prophecy comes into play.

Regarding the prophecy of the chosen one to bring balance to the Force, Star Wars fans are in two basic camps. The first camp sees the Force as primarily Eastern in that the light and dark side are two equally necessary components of the Force. The chosen one, Anakin Skywalker, was to destroy both Jedi and Sith so as to restore the balance. Not one side is good or bad. They are different but necessary aspects to the Force and its role in the galaxy.

The second camp sees the SW galaxy as upholding some absolute ideals of right and wrong. And the light side upholds what is true and good while the dark side distorts and manipulates. To bring balance to the Force, the dark side needs to be extinguished.

I tend to side with the second camp in terms of how the seven SW movies have been told so far. It is difficult for me to imagine that the creative minds behind the seven films want us to be Manichaeans and equally appreciate both Palpatine and Yoda.

When Obi-Wan Kenobi is about to battle Anakin Skywalker on Mustafar, Kenobi is the voice of reason and the voice we should listen to. “The Emperor is evil,” and to doubt that means that one is “truly lost”. We are supposed to mourn what has become of Anakin and not cheer that the Sith have balanced things out with the Jedi. It is not cool that Anakin/Vader kills younglings to balance the Force. The killing of these younglings caused a disturbance in the Force that Yoda felt.

Also, the story of Anakin Skywalker is not a journey to kill both the Jedi and Sith and balance out the Force. The story of Anakin is about his redemption. He is the chosen one, but even the chosen one needed redemption.

So, that is why I believe the Force is less ‘Eastern’ and a bit more dogmatic. It’s possible Lucas and others were purely Eastern in their conception and writing about the Force. If so, then these movies are very incoherent in portraying a moralistic Manicheanism. (Though, it should be noted that relativism is never lived out consistently.)

I believe the Force will play a major role in the trilogy and that the subtitle to Episode 7 is just the beginning. Like the Island in Lost, the finale of this trilogy will circle around back to the Force and its ultimate intention for the galaxy.

What is that intention? I believe Rey (and to a certain extent, Luke) is the key.

Obviously, the mystery surrounding Rey is twofold: Why is she powerful in the Force (enough to outwit and defeat Kylo Ren), and Who are her parents? These two questions are even possibly related.

I do not believe that Luke is Rey’s father. In fact, I don’t think Luke is related to Rey in any way. The main argument against this is how obvious it would be. J.J Abrams and company don’t like to be obvious when it comes to creating a story. There are twists, turns, and (sleight-of-hand) tricks. Again, see Lost.

So, what would be a unique and satisfying twist to Rey and her relationship with he Force?

My theory as to what could (and should) happen is that Rey is born of normal parents that are unknown to us. In fact, they might be scoundrels who left a daughter they never wanted just for a pay day (hence why she is left with Unkar).

She may or may not be a padawan of Luke. I’ll say that she is but that her memory was wiped (Jedi mind trick, of course).

Okay, why this route? Isn’t it anti-climactic?

No. It is a beautiful story.

Again, let’s return to Lost. The two most ‘special’ characters in the series who exhibited a unique communion with the Island were Walt and Locke. For six seasons, fans asked, “Why are Walt and Locke so special?” We tried to find specific answers. What was the answer? Ben Linus tells Locke in the finale, “Because you are, John!”

Walt and Locke were special…just because they were.

Yes, a young black kid who was estranged from his father and just lost his mother has something in common with a invalid middle-aged man who has been rejected over and over again by everyone he loves. They are both special.

There is beauty in plot twist.

The original promise to Abraham in Genesis 12:3 was that Abraham and his posterity were special, but one day God would spread that specialness to all the families of the earth. Paul summarizes this gospel fulfillment in Galatians 3:28, “There is neither male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free. For you are all one in Christ.”

The inclusivity of all of humanity into the most amazing relationship and power in the cosmos is the essence of the gospel. God has turned himself outward so as to embrace us into his divine family.

The Force has awakened. It hasn’t just awakened in Luke, who is a sort of Force royalty. The Force has been passed down to those with Force royal bloodlines. The Skywalkers have dominated intergalactic politics and life for several decades now. Anakin was the creation of the Force itself, and Luke is his offspring. They are the celebrities that many emulate and long to be.

Jedi used to be recruited and trained at an early age by the elite users of the Force, the Jedi Council. To get past a certain age meant that one could not be trained in the Force.

Now, the Force is being awakened in people like Rey. She is a nobody with nothing special to her background. But she is special. Why? Well, because she is. And perhaps the Force needs to branch out in non-traditional ways so as to achieve its full balance, which is to penetrate and live in the entire galaxy, not just an elite group of Force users.

The Jedi were great, and I think the Jedi will and should have an important place in the galaxy as elite Force users. But as the prequels showed us, they have may blindspots. Their arrogance did blind them. (Palpatine was right.) While it is true that fear, anger, and hate can lead to the dark side, these emotions in and of themselves aren’t committed to the dark side. Maybe the Force desires a balance of all of our emotions, not the light and the dark side.

The Christian faith would have one embrace the entirety of human emotions. Yet, we are called to be holy in all emotions, even anger and fear. God experiences all the emotions we experience, but he doesn’t sin. Read the Psalms and one will see the full range of human emotion expressed in these inspired songs of worship.

The original trilogy makes this point in Return of the Jedi when Kenobi is insistent that Luke needs to kill his own father. Luke, because of his attachment and emotional connect to his father, says he can redeem his father but never kill him. This draws the ire of Kenobi. Yet, in the end, Luke is vindicated while Kenobi realizes the error of his narrow philosophy of the Force.

The light side of the Force is best channeled and revealed to everyone when we embrace all of our emotions and resist the dark side (just like Luke at the end of ROTJ). At the end of TFA, Rey seems to tap into this truth as she resists the dark side and uses the full range of her emotion to defeat Kylo Ren.

Luke may have realized when training Rey that he needs to rethink the Jedi philosophy and see the Force awakened in a commoner who might lead others to have the Force flow through them.

The Force will be all and in all. The citizens of the galaxy will do even greater things through the Force than what we have seen prior. And Rey…yes, Rey…is the key. Why? Because after being chosen by the Force, she let it in.

 

The Beauty of Jesus at Christmas

In looking at the truth and goodness of Jesus, I would not have thought of Jesus as exemplifying beauty a few years ago.  But, since coming on staff at a church plant which has emphasized truth, goodness, and beauty as core values, I have seen how Jesus and the story of Advent embody beauty.  Indeed, it may be the beauty of Jesus which is most neglected yet may be the most compelling to my religious and irreligious millennial peers,

While I can’t discuss a philosophy of aesthetics in this post, I will assume that three things display beauty in this world, and that Jesus at his first Advent exemplifies these qualities of beauty.  First, beauty is paradoxical.  Second it is dark.  Third, it is hopeful.  I will paste stanzas from Advent hymns that communicate these points.

The Paradox of Beauty

Once did the skies before Thee bow;
A virgin’s arms contain Thee now,
While angels, who in Thee rejoice,
Now listen for Thine infant voice.

See Him in a manger laid,
Whom the choirs of angels praise;
Mary, Joseph, lend your aid,
While our hearts in love we raise.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel

Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;

Who is this so weak and helpless, Child of lowly Hebrew maid,
Rudely in a stable sheltered, coldly in a manger laid?
’Tis the Lord of all creation, Who this wondrous path hath trod;
He is God from everlasting, and to everlasting God.

The Darkness of Beauty

Lo! He comes with clouds descending,
Once for favored sinners slain;
Thousand thousand saints attending,
Swell the triumph of His train:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;

He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free
Thine own from Satan’s tyranny
From depths of Hell Thy people save
And give them victory o’er the grave

Who is this, a Man of sorrows, walking sadly life’s hard way,
Homeless, weary, sighing, weeping, over sin and Satan’s sway?
’Tis our God, our glorious Savior, Who above the starry sky
Now for us a place prepareth, where no tear can dim the eye.

Who is this? Behold Him shedding drops of blood upon the ground!
Who is this, despised, rejected, mocked, insulted, beaten, bound?
’Tis our God, Who gifts and graces on His church now poureth down;
Who shall smite in righteous judgment all His foes beneath His throne.

Who is this that hangeth dying while the rude world scoffs and scorns,
Numbered with the malefactors, torn with nails, and crowned with thorns?
’Tis the God Who ever liveth, ’mid the shining ones on high,
In the glorious golden city, reigning everlastingly.

The Hope of Beauty

Saints before the altar bending,
Watching long in hope and fear,
Suddenly the Lord, descending,
In His temple shall appear

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray

Peace on earth and mercy mild
God and sinners reconciled”
Joyful, all ye nations rise
Join the triumph of the skies

O come, Thou Day-Spring, come and cheer
Our spirits by Thine advent here
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night
And death’s dark shadows put to flight.

Long lay the world in sin and error pining.
Till He appeared and the Spirit felt its worth.
A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices,
For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Truly He taught us to love one another,
His law is love and His gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break, for the slave is our brother.
And in his name all oppression shall cease.

A final thought.  The story of Advent, the story of the gospel, is the only story in human history where God dies for his enemies.  In that gospel/Advent fact alone is paradox, darkness, and hope.  In that gospelicious truth and goodness there is the exemplification of beauty – a beauty that is not found in any other religion narrative, philosophy, or worldview.

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