My friend Matthew Kaemingk is a theologian and a sports fan. His guest post today shows us how these two worlds intersect if we’re looking for Christ in culture. You can find more of his writings at Christ and Cascadia. Enjoy!
“If we would know ourselves, [as] the ancient Temple at Delphi advises, the study of sports in all its connections to the rest of art and life would seem to be an ideal quest for understanding of self and the world.” Simon Kuper, athletic anthropologist
I am a rabid fan of the Seattle Seahawks. I am also a Christian theologian. It appears that Christ & Cascadia might just be the only “place” where I can bring these two disparate aspects of my life together.
When I claim to be a “rabid fan,” I mean what I say. Consider the following evidence of my semi-neurotic devotion. While studying theology in Amsterdam I would regularly wake up in the middle of the night to watch Seahawk games (pre and post-game shows as well). I regularly frequent no less than four Seahawk blogs (Hawkblogger, Field Gulls, Seahawks Draft Blog, and Seahawks Addicts). I have engaged in more than one extended debate with friends and family over who should start at the left offensive guard position.
Being active in the worlds of Christian theology and American football I have always felt a subtle pressure to keep these interests separate. My fellow theologians do not usually welcome extended discussions of football. Many find the game violent, stupid, frivolous, un-cultured, un-Christian, and/or corrupt. Likewise Seahawk bloggers typically maintain strict “no religion” restrictions on their discussion boards (as if discussing religion would endanger the genteel and civilized dialogue of a sports blog).
What follows is a series of “propositions” on the connections between my faith and Seahawk football. In this first section I reflect on the coaching and drafting philosophy of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seattle Seahawks. In the second section, coming out soon, I will reflect theologically on the fan culture of the Seattle Seahawks (the 12th man). If the Seahawks continue to win in the playoffs, I might just write a third section.
In the following propositions my words of praise for football, the Seahawks, and Pete Carroll may at times seem effusive. My apologies. I am fully aware of the many valid criticisms that have been leveled against all three. My argument here is not that Seahawk football is perfect or divine (far from it). Nor am I arguing that Christians should skip or move Sunday worship to watch it. My argument is that Seahawk football is theologically interesting. What does that mean? Read on.
Proposition #1 – Pete Carrol and a Theology of Fun
“Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.” G.K. Chesterton
“I’ve got to find a way to make it into the game that they love.” Pete Carroll
“Seriousness is not a virtue. It would be a heresy, but a much more sensible heresy, to say that seriousness is a vice, It is really a natural trend or lapse into taking one’s self gravely, because it is the easiest thing to do. It is much easier to write a good Times leading article than a good joke in Punch. For solemnity flows out of men naturally, but laughter is a leap. It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light. Satan fell by the force of gravity…” G.K. Chesterton
“[I]f we’re not having a good time doing it, then I’m screwing it up.” Pete Carroll
G.K. Chesterton is known as one of Christendom’s most playful theologians. A gifted philosopher, novelist, debater, and columnist, Chesterton never took himself too seriously. If there was such a thing, Chesterton most certainly had the spiritual gift of levity. Chesterton argues again and again that human beings were not made to take themselves so seriously. He argues that “Pride is the downward drag of all things into an easy solemnity. One ‘settles down’ into a sort of selfish seriousness; but one has to rise to a gay self-forgetfulness.”
Coach Pete Carroll recognizes the central importance of play to the flourishing of the human person. His football practices regularly feature hip hop music, practical jokes, comedians, weird games and quirky competitions. While most football coaches are known for yelling and negative reinforcement, Carroll is known for a positive and playful approach to the game of football.
His players are, of course, well aware that Carroll expects high effort, competition, and intense focus on the practice field. That said, Carroll places a high importance on finding and cultivating players who genuinely love the game of football. Carroll is always cognizant of the ultimate reason why his players started playing the game in the first place—play.
Whether he recognizes the divine source of playfulness or not, Pete Carroll is the leader of 53 young men who were created in the image of a playful God. Carroll has tapped into the created human need for play. “You watch [coach Carroll] for any length of time during the season, and you realize the thing you see him do more than anything else is throwing the football. He throws it before practice. He throws it after practice… He throws it around during meetings. You suspect, before he goes to sleep at night, he sits up in bed tossing a football in the air.” Steve Bischeff, Carroll biographer
“…for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” G.K. Chesterton
Proposition # 2 Pete Carroll and a Theology of Creative Competition.
“Competition to me is not about beating your opponent. It is about doing your best; it is about striving to reach your potential.” Pete Carroll
“Competition” is a bad word in some circles, but I am convinced that a certain kind of competition can be a way of fulfilling God’s creating purposes. Here is an interesting question, for example: Might Adam and Eve have played chess in their unfallen condition? I like to think that it would have been a good way to spend some of their time in the Garden. As human creatures whose chief aim it was to glorify God and to enjoy him forever, I think they could have competed in a way that pleased their Maker. Playing chess would have been a way of matching wits, of accepting the mutual challenge to devise winning strategies. As unfallen persons, they would not want to humiliate each other–instead they would want to use the abilities of the other person as a challenge to cultivate their own capacity for problem-solving.” Richard Mouw, theologian.
Kam “Bam-Bam” Chancellor is a 6’3 230 pound strong safety who has always loved to smack opposing receivers in the chest. That said, “Bam-Bam” was not always adept at actually covering wide receivers down the field. But Pete Carroll saw potential in the hard-hitting Virginia Tech safety and over the course of two years Carroll brought that potency out and developed him into what can only be described as the central “death-backer” in Seattle’s infamous “legion of boom.”
The theologian Richard Mouw argues that God actively plants in creation (and in all people) certain potencies, gifts, and talents. These gifts, like seeds, lie dormant waiting for the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve to cultivate, grow, and develop them. God did not want humanity to simply nap in the garden and suck on its fruits. God wanted the garden (and its inhabitants) to grow, unfold, develop, learn, and flourish. According to Mouw, “God likes it when people cultivate the sorts of capacities and abilities that he has invested in the creation.”
Whether Pete Carroll knows it or not, whenever he nurtures a quarterback that is “too short,” a corner that is “too tall,” a defensive end that is “too slow,” or successfully switches a lineman from defense to offense he is cultivating divinely-given gifts that have been planted in players by the God of the universe.
On Sunday mornings Christians gather to purposefully worship and glorify their Creator through prayer and song.
On Sunday afternoons (whether they recognize it or not) the Seattle Seahawks gather to glorify their Creator through the competitive development of the gifts God has given them.
“The Glory of God is humanity fully alive” – St Irenaeus
Proposition #3 – Pete Carroll and a Theology of Community and Individuality
“We have an approach to help each guy be the very best he can possibly be. We’ll take a very precise look at each guy and find out their uniqueness and discover what they bring that’s special, then fit it into our football team.” Pete Carroll
The Church “is not a collective where the individual is of no importance… in the life of the Christian community each individual is indispensable to that of the whole.” Karl Barth, theologian
The Seattle Seahawks are “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.” • A 6-4 cornerback whose knees seem to bend in all four directions; • A monstrosity of a man who looks out of place at defensive end; • A linebacker whose arms and legs are so long it seems he might never get himself underneath a blocker; • An offensive guard who was playing defensive tackle this time last year … in college; • Oh, and a quarterback who makes Doug Flutie look like an NBA center.” Dave Wyman, Seahawks reporter
Whether or not Pete Carroll is a Christian is immaterial, Carroll understands something very important about what it means to be human and what it means to be a member of a flourishing community.
Strong communities require a diverse cast of characters, gifts, and abilities. Coach Carroll takes unique talents and rare gifts and creatively appropriates those gifts towards the flourishing of the team. The NFL is full of athletic potential. What makes Carroll successful is his ability to move players from a state of unique potential to a state of unique production. According to Carroll, “We’re looking for unique qualities that separate players from other players,” Carroll said. “And then we try to accentuate that weakness and make them special.”
Dave Wyman is right. The Seattle Seahawks might be the “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.” Pete Carroll has indeed assembled an odd and motley crew of characters. He is adept at finding talents that are either unrecognized or underappreciated by other teams. The key to his success, however, has not simply been his ability to find unique talents but to bring those unique characters together into a common community with a common vision and a common purpose.
As has been discussed a number of times in Christ & Cascadia, developing deep Christian community in the Pacific Northwest can be extremely difficult. Cascadia is a culture of deep individualism. Cascadians consider themselves unique, special, and autonomous individuals. They are extremely wary of thick communities that might stifle their individual freedom, gifts, and desires. Cascadians look at the Christian church as a place where their liberty, creativity, and individuality will be threatened.
Cascadians are tragic victims of the false modern dichotomy of individuality and community. Cascadians readily accept the false choice and opt for a lonely individuality.
While there are important differences and caveats to be made, the Seattle Seahawks offer an excellent example of overcoming this modern dichotomy. Their team is made up of unique individuals who can only flourish when they are brought together.
Dave Wyman calls the Seahawks an “Island of Misfit Toys.” Is there a better name for the church? Are we not, after all, a motley collection of weird, gifted, and broken cast-offs called to a higher common purpose?
The dogma of “deep individualism” found in the Pacific Northwest claims that human beings can only be their “true selves” when they are “free” from communal restraint. Pete Carroll and the apostle Paul demonstrate that the opposite is true. We can only become our “true selves” in community. “This whole [Seahawk] experiment may work and it may not. Either way, I admire it. It’s not safe. It’s not what everyone else is doing. It’s bold, ballsy, and iconoclastic… But if it works out the way I think it will, you may see teams scouring the country for big, lanky corners, converting mediocre defensive tackles to offensive guard and throwing out the rulebook on quarterbacks under 6-feet tall” Dave Wyman, Seahawks Reporter
“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit distributes them. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but in all of them and in everyone it is the same God at work. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.” Apostle Paul, I Corinthians 12
Enjoy the Game!!