Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Philippians 3: God and High School Football

When Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1801 referring to the "wall of separation between church and state" (in a letter posted here), he could never have foreseen that his argument would someday affect Georgia high school football. But in yet another sign that the apocalypse is near ...

Shortly after 9/11, the Lakeview Fort Oglethorpe High School cheerleaders began painting Bible verses on a big roll of paper through which football players smashed at the beginning of games. For nearly a decade, the practice raised no eyebrows in this majority Christian community of 7000.

However, as the L.A. Times reports, even a Liberty University student could see that the signs clearly violated the Constitution's Establishment Clause prohibiting state sponsorship of religion. (LU was founded by uber-conservative evangelical Christian Jerry Falwell.) That student--also a parent of an LFO high schooler--recently contacted the school's superintendent, who then banned the practice.

Not surprisingly, her decision has enraged cultural conservatives who see the ban as an infringement on their religious liberties. I disagree, but rather than wade into the church-state muck, I'd like to make another argument against the LFO boosters' practice: it's bloody ridiculous, and kind of offensive!

First off, I can imagine a time not long ago when the very act of painting Bible verses on pieces of large paper--and then having a herd of ill-smelling post-adolescent boys tear through it--would have been understood as blasphemous to a fault. Is this really a good way to show Christian devotion?

Second, many of the verses were so bland that they were barely recognizable as Biblical prose. I mean, do you really need a boring verse from Ezra--"We will support you, so take courage and do it" (10:4)--to say "Go team"? I much prefer the following, from the vastly underappreciated 2000 cheer film Bring It On: "I said brrr, it's cold in here; there must be some Clovers in the atmosphere."

Other verses just didn't make sense. Take the Philippians quote shown on the sign above: "I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me in Christ Jesus" (3:14). God has called you in Christ Jesus to beat Allatoona High? Really?

Further, though I haven't been able to track down the team's win-loss record over the last eight years, most sources report that they've been mediocre at best. Hence, if Bible verses get you, say, a .500 record, couldn't the cheerleaders just as easily emblazon "CHANCE" on a big banner? Or "COIN TOSS"?

Personally, I'd put a quote from the American intellectual Ralph Waldo Emerson on my banner: "I would write on the lintels of the doorpost, Whim. I hope it is somewhat better than whim at last, but we cannot spend the day in explanation." But I obviously didn't play football.

(Full disclosure, though: the team was 4-1 through five games this year before the ban came into effect, so maybe God was biding his time before jumping on the LFO bandwagon.)

In any case, the L.A. Times goes on to quote a local hairdresser, who says that this whole kerfuffle isn't just about Christian expression--it's about religious expression more generally. "If they wanted to put a big Buddha doll up there, I'd say let 'em do it."

Really? Well, I first laugh envisioning a football team trying to plough through a big Buddha only to bounce painfully off his huge golden belly. Then I want to take the hairdresser up on her offer.

For the next LFO football game, why not use a scripture from another tradition? How about, just for fun, the opening lines of the Tao te Ching? "The tao that can be told is not the eternal Tao." That'll show those jerks from Allatoona.

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