An Excerpt from Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports
…[S]ports can show us what is truest about us— and such a revelation of our nature, our distortion, and our promise is nothing short of apocalyptic.
As a theologian, this is where I cannot help but fix my gaze—behind the veil of human distortion, squinting and straining to catch a glimpse of something divine. Theology searches for God’s fingerprints in human life, knowing that we can never satisfy this hunger we have for certainty, for answers to life’s deepest questions.
Sports may seem trivial to some, but when taken in total they capture our imagination and elicit our deepest emotional outpourings much more than any religion does. Thanking Jesus for touchdowns as well as our deepest longing for our team to succeed are ripe for theological inquiry. Indeed these deeply complicated dynamics of human life in our American culture (and beyond) are apocalyptic—truth-bearing and truth-telling. But theology is not simply about finding answers. Theology is practicing ways to see the threads of redemption in life; theology is a redemptive practice.
As it stands in our contemporary context, sports and our deepest beliefs are not always integrated in a life-giving way. The connection between the divine and sport can seem to cluster as polar opposites—it’s either touchdowns for Jesus or God has nothing to do with sports at all. And the question of where or whether God fits into sports rarely explores the meatier issues that are tangled up in this object of so much human energy—like gender, race, and fanaticism. Not only do sports offer a chance to explore divine power and our human condition, but they also hold a mirror up to us about our most tenacious and dangerous distortions.
This theological project is a search for the redemptive capacity of sports by way of naming its demons. Indeed when we particularly begin to excavate what is beneath the surface of the spectacle of big-time sports, we can see some of humanity’s most robust demons exercising their power. Because sports offer such access to these distortions it also provides us with a chance to call them out and take a closer look. Sports give us a chance to not just blindly exercise these demons, but to exorcise them. This exorcism’s purpose is redemption. Unveiling, naming, and exorcising the demonic distortions that big-time sports embody creates an opportunity to practice new habits, new ways of engaging in the communities that sports help to form. And these new practices have the capacity to be life-enhancing, expansive, and even healing to the larger world.
This unveiling may show us more about what is possible in our collective lives together. This exploration may help us to see divine activity in a new way. Is there a mirror held up to us from sports that can help us be who we were created to be in a way that truly elicits our better angels? This question presses on me as a theologian with pronounced intensity because of the unique situation in which I live. I am a theologian and an ordained Presbyterian minister and I am married to a professional football coach. I am also a former competitive athlete. My husband has been in coaching for most of the years of our relationship. He spent twelve seasons (the first twelve years of our marriage) coaching in the National Football League (NFL). He has been one of the youngest offensive coordinators ever to call a game in the NFL. He has also coached at a number of universities. Our family has moved from Tennessee, to North Carolina, to Chicago, to Tampa, to Oakland, back to North Carolina again, and now to West Lafayette, Indiana, for this vocation of his. In the midst of these places we’ve called home I have been ordained to the ministry, completed a PhD in Religious Studies, and served different churches in various capacities. Our marriage seems peculiar to many people. And while our marriage makes sense to the two of us, we have yet to meet another theologian married to a football coach.
…And with a NCAA football investigation at the University of North Carolina (UNC) our lives took another turn as well. That experience in particular deeply informs the work of this book and, in some cases, the different direction that it has taken from when the idea for writing it was first born. Our experience at UNC lifted the veil on tenacious layers of many of the issues I had already planned to explore in this book. The apocalypse, however, in some cases has meant seeing some things anew in ways that deeply grieve us. Indeed, in many ways, our experience at UNC has changed how we locate ourselves in the world of sports. What happened there makes this work all the more difficult to do and, at the same time, impossible not to do.