The following is part two in a series of reflections on faith and Seahawk football. Please see part one for an introduction to the purpose for the series
Proposition #4: Fan Worship in the Clink Cathedral
“[Quarterback] RUSSELL WILSON was found wrapped in swaddling clothes in the third round… It is said that when John Schneider reached out to select RUSSELL WILSON, a flock of doves landed on the fifty-yard line of CenturyLink field and a double rainbow stretched from the VMAC all the way to downtown Seattle. In the summer of 2012, RUSSELL WILSON blessed the Seattle Seahawks, The NFL, The 12th Man and The World with his ascension to the right hand of Pete Carroll.”
– Anonymous prophet of “Wilson-ism” (a mock religion among Seahawk fans dedicated to their quarterback Russell Wilson)
“We celebrate our football games… not simply because we enjoy these endeavors, but because we are creatures made to praise. This is a very important aspect of what it means to be human.”
– William Dyrness, theologian
Fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te (You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in thee.)
– St. Augustine
A significant and growing number of people living in the Pacific Northwest claim little or no interest in “organized religion.” Religion with all of its rituals and traditions, liturgies and structures, stories and saviors, hand waving and bowing all feels a bit too superstitious and old fashioned.
Many Cascadians claim to have risen above religion, grown out of it, become reasonable and rational. They’ve learned to “think for themselves.” They refuse to “follow the crowd.”
And yet, any trip to a Seahawks game at CenturyLink field (aka “The Clink”) reveals that Cascadians might be more “religious” then they would like to admit. In fact, one might even wager that a Sunday evening at the Clink is the largest and most significant liturgical event in the life of Seattle.
Consider the following: every Sunday like clockwork faithful Seahawk followers put on their special colored garments, paint their faces, file into the stadium, and take their assigned seats. The event begins with a series of announcements and processions, flags and songs, ceremonies and rituals. Young and old, black and white, men and women stand gather together and behold the contest as one. Stories and special rituals are passed on from generation to generation. Followers are instructed to stand, to keep silent, to remove their hats, to place their hands over their hearts. The space is filled with sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and actions that all evoke strong memories and emotions. Over time these practices take complete strangers and bind them together. Autonomous individuals claim in one voice, “I’m in.”
The followers gather together having spent the week studying articles and statistics, pouring over blogs and newspapers, and listening to radio experts discussing “what it all means” in preparation for Sunday.
As the game finally begins the people rise as one. In one communal voice they cheer in wonder at an incredible pass, they jeer the downfall of the opponent, they gasp at an injury, and they hope and pray for a final eruption of redemption. With hands out-stretched, bodies shaking, and vocal chords at their breaking point the followers give their all for the glory of their team.
In triumph, complete strangers, who would never meet eyes on the street, celebrate and hug one another like old friends. In defeat, complete strangers console one another. As the game comes to a close these strangers share stories of past Seahawk heroes and share rumors of heroes soon to emerge.
As a fan of the Seattle Seahawks and a Christian theologian what am I to make of all this?
One possible reaction would be to reject anyone and anything that has to do with the Seattle Seahawks as nothing more than plain and simple idolatry. Another reaction would be to protest that Seahawk games are just that, games. While there is something to be said for each of these reactions, neither one fully satisfies me. I think that there is something more complex (and more interesting) going on here.
While Cascadians insist that they are not at all interested in rituals and religion, the flourishing of Seahawks fandom appears to indicate otherwise. The stadium experience appears to indicate that Cascadians long to worship and that they long for community and connection. They long for stories and heroes, songs and rituals. They long to raise their hands, hearts, and voices. They long to be a part of some larger story, some larger experience, relationship, or spectacle. They long to escape the drone of the daily secular lives.
The Pacific Northwest has not “grown out” of religion, Cascadians have simply transferred their religiosity to what the sociologist Meerten Ter Borg calls “disembedded religion” or “secular spirituality.” Broken free from religious institutions, structures, rules, and creeds this “disembedded religion” is an anti-institutional form of spirituality that seeks powerful aesthetic experiences.
In many ways a Seahawks game resembles popular forms of nature spirituality found throughout Cascadia. Hiking in the woods Cascadians seek out rich and evocative aesthetic moments in the mountains in which they can feel a part of something larger than themselves. These people will spend large amounts of money, time, and study preparing themselves for exhilarating moments in which they are lifted out of their daily lives towards something greater. Whether it be a sunrise over the cascades, a sunset over the San Juan Islands, or a Marshawn Lynch touchdown they want something more.
In light of the devotion regularly displayed at Century Link Field and on the north face of Mt. Rainier, it appears that the declaration that Cascadia has “outgrown religion” may have been premature. Our religiosity has not been destroyed, but disembedded.
What the church will do with these phenomena remains an open question. Will it ignore these cultural yearnings? Will it reject them as simple idolatry? Or might there be a third way of engaging this culture that so longs for transcendence?
I will need to think about this some more. But in the meantime, “Go Hawks!”
“Play, recreation, and celebration are the most authentic forms of life precisely because, when we are playing, recreating, or celebrating, we are immersed in, or ‘fused’ with the action itself, and those other persons with whom we are participating. Thus, we are involved in and enjoying the living itself.” – Roberto Goizueta
Sport seduces the teeming ‘global village’; it is the new opiate of the masses; it is one of the great modern experiences… sport is a mirror… that reflection is sometimes bright, sometimes dark, sometimes distorted, sometimes magnified. This metaphorical mirror is a source of mass exhilaration and depression, security and insecurity, pride and humiliation, bonding and alienation. Sport, for many, has replaced religion as a source of emotional catharsis and spiritual passion… the story of modern sport is the story of the modern world … – J.A. Mangan and Boria Majumdar