Grand Final Week: Footy and Faith
I’m a Collingwood fan. That surprises many and shocks a few. I have all my teeth, a tertiary degree and do not own a pair of ugg boots. Furthermore, I do not think that any of the aforementioned characteristics make me an atypical supporter. I’m pretty happy that my team has made the Grand Final. For reasons passing understanding I am going to be in far western Queensland for the game, but as the brother in the MGL who was lucky(!) enough to watch the game with me on Friday night will testify, I don’t need to be at the MCG to make a fair bit of noise when the ‘Pies are playing. To be honest, I think we’re up against it next weekend, but then I also think that we don’t do well when we’re favourites. So I’m happy with the underdog tag for next Saturday.
Non-Victorian readers may not believe me, but it really is hard to appreciate just how seriously people take it down here unless you live in Melbourne. And there are some, probably many in the churches who deride the obsession with footy as an idolatrous substitute for faith. They’re probably right. There’s no doubt in my mind that the footy is a secular liturgy. The commentators resort to clichés when they describe the ‘G as a sporting cathedral, the fans converge on the ground like Sunday morning worshipers in suburban parishes, and the game itself is a delicate combination of ritual and pageantry that rival a high Mass in terms of spectacle. And for many, the devotion and adoration for their team, maybe even for the game itself, is surely a substitute for worship of God. The rabid fans who paint their bodies black and white or blue and white next weekend are proof that the the human being is truly homo liturgicus: we make liturgies, rituals in our lives, even when we don’t intend to. The world is not divided into those who worship the divine as they best understand it and those who don’t, into theists of all stripes on the one hand and atheists on the other. We are all worshipers. What distinguishes us is not if we worship or not but what we worship. And in a world where many regard God as far beyond their reach, the Pies or the Cats or some other team will sadly do for some as the focus of their devotion.
Any other week of the year, I would quite possibly be waxing far more lyrically about this, and of the pretty poor substitute that a footy team (even the Magpies!) is for the Lord of all Creation. And for the record, I really do think it is a tragedy when people’s ultimate sense of happiness ebbs and flows with the fortunes of their team. But it’s Grand Final Week, and my team are going to run out on Saturday. So without rejecting the argument above, let me offer a different take on footy and faith.
Some of you will remember the movie Chariots of Fire which tells the story of the sprinter Eric Liddell’s attempt to win gold at the Paris Olympics. Liddell was a missionary, and refused to run on Sunday because he didn’t want to break the Sabbath. My favourite moment in the movie is when his sister, a devout if slightly puritanical woman, asks why he is pursuing his Olympic dream. She reminds him that his calling is to go to China, and tells him that she cannot understand why he is wasting his time with running when it is clear what his real mission in life is. Liddell responds by saying to her that he knows that God has made him to be a missionary. He then pauses and says, ‘but he [God] has also made me fast. And when I run, I feel his pleasure’. To believe that a human being excelling physically, or more accurately, that human beings excelling physically together in extraordinary displays of synchronicity that we usually simply call teamwork, gives glory to God ought not be a stretch for the believer. Footy is really a riff on Irenaeus’ much quoted dictum that ‘the glory of God is the human being fully alive’. Think about it. This isn’t about winning; it is about being in what psychologists call ‘the flow’, experiencing the intrinsic joy and even rapture of excellence. Witness Buddy Franklin’s goal last Friday that nearly won the Hawks the match. As a Pies fan I might have been horrified, but as a lover of the game I could not but be in awe. And on a warm September afternoon, as the pill is sent up and down the ground at breakneck speed and as the sheer athleticism of the players leaves us spectators breathless, is this not a scene of great beauty? Couldn’t it be a glimpse of glory? Am I going too far when I suggest that Augustine might have been thinking of footy when he recognised that all created things can be reduced to idols or elevated to sacramental signs of God’s presence? Perhaps, but only just. After all, it is Grand Final week, and my team are running out this Saturday. Carn the ‘Pies.
Posted on September 25, 2011, in Culture and tagged AFL, Augustine, Chariots of Fire, Collingwood, football, idolatry, Irenaeus, liturgy, sacramental worldview, worship. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.