Twenty years ago this month I had a public theological disagreement with Reggie White of the Green Bay Packers.
In addition to his significant role as defensive end for the Packers, who were soon to play in the Super Bowl, White was a Pentecostal preacher. Both of us — along with several other players and theologians — were interviewed for the Sports Illustrated cover story, “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?”
Several of my theologian friends took the negative position on this. One of them even doubted that God cared about the game at all, and a couple of others were wary of any suggestion that God had anything to do with deciding who wins.
Reggie White was a strong supporter of the idea of an active divine role in determining the outcome. What basis do the scholars have for thinking that God does not take sides? he asked. After all, he observed, “God intervened in David’s fight with Goliath.” And then there was the clear case of divine intervention “in Jesus’ victory over death.” And, the reporter who interviewed me told me, Reggie had even observed to him that God “doesn’t think much of losers.”
While I was not ready to endorse the idea that God actively determines whom the winner will be, I did not accept the view of those of my theological colleagues who insisted that God stays rather aloof from what goes on in football games. I said — and I still see it this way — that God cares much about how the game is actually played. And it is not simply about how the players treat one another as competitors. It’s also about the physical prowess that is on display in a well-played game.
My friend and colleague Lewis Smedes once mused about the range of things God enjoys: a well-written poem, a Bach concerto, a courageous act of justice. I would add to the list: an exciting football game. When a quarterback throws a long pass and a player down the field makes a spectacular catch, I imagine the Lord saying to himself: “Nicely done! This is one of the reasons why I created the human race!”
The Packers lost to the Broncos in that 1998 Super Bowl. John Elway, the Denver quarterback, completed some excellent passes in the game. I think God enjoyed watching those plays. And I don’t think he was disappointed with Reggie White for being on the losing team.
What all of this reinforces for me is the need to acknowledge the Creator’s interest in how the game gets played while not being a special fan of one of them. But we human creatures are not bound to that kind of neutrality.
Once, when I was on the editorial board of a small magazine of religious commentary, someone submitted for our consideration a piece criticizing all aspects of the Super Bowl from a theological perspective. It was, the writer argued, an “idolatrous” event, reinforcing sexism, consumerism, superpatriotism and the celebration of violence. Our board debated at length whether to run the piece. A few of us found it a bit overwrought, but in the end we published it.
After our meeting, I walked to the parking lot with one of my fellow editors. “Are you OK with the decision to publish that article?” I asked. “Yeah,” he responded. “I guess the writer made a few good points that we ought to take seriously.” Then he added this: “But if Dallas plays in the Super Bowl this year, I sure as heck hope they get beat!”
I think of his comment every year at Super Bowl time. Because I try to keep a proper theological perspective on the event, I am not wondering which team God favors more than the other. But since I am not God, I do have an interest in the outcome. And even though my own favorite team is not playing this year, I have some strong feelings about one of the teams that will be playing: I sure as heck hope that team gets beat. But if that team’s quarterback happens to throw a few completed passes, I will try to remind myself about what God enjoys.