God and the Seattle Seahawks

MAY/JUNE 2014: ESSAY

by Matthew Kaemingk

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. When I claim to be a rabid fan, I mean what I say. Consider the following evidence of my semineurotic 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 off ensive guard position.

While I am 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, uncultured, 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 refl ect on the coaching and drafting philosophy of Pete Carroll, the coach of the Seahawks. In the second section, I will refl ect theologically on the fan culture of the Seahawks. In the following propositions, my words of praise for football, the Seahawks and Pete Carroll might seem eff usive at times. 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 Carroll and a Theology of Fun
Angels can fl y because they take themselves lightly.
—G.K. Chesterton
If 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, “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.

Of course, his players are 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, Carroll is the leader of 53 young men who were created in the image of a playful God. He has tapped into the created human need for play.

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.
—Richard Mouw, theologian

Kam “Bam-Bam” Chancellor is a 6-foot-3-inch, 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 Carroll saw potential in the hard-hitting Virginia Tech safety, and over the course of two years Carroll brought out that potency and developed him into what can only be described as the central “deathbacker” 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 simply to nap in the garden and suck on its fruits. God wanted the garden (and its inhabitants) to grow, unfold, develop, learn and flourish. Mouw says, “God likes it when people cultivate the sorts of capacities and abilities that he has invested in the creation.”

Whether Carroll knows it or not, whenever he nurtures a quarterback who is “too short,” a corner who is “too tall,” a defensive end who 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 [his] uniqueness and discover what [he] brings 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 Carroll is a Christian is immaterial, because he understands something 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; Carroll takes those 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. Carroll says, “We’re looking for unique qualities that separate players from other players. And then we try to accentuate that weakness and make them special.”

Dave Wyman is right. The Seattle Seahawks might be “the weirdest looking team in NFL history.” 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 been his ability not simply to find unique talents but to bring those unique characters together into a common community with a common vision and a common purpose.

Developing deep Christian community in the Pacific Northwest can be extremely difficult. Cascadia is a culture of deep individualism. Cascadians consider themselves unique and autonomous individuals. They are extremely wary of thick communities that might stifle their individual freedom, gifts and desires. Because of that wariness, they 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 who readily accept the false choice and opt for a lonely individuality.

While there are important differences and caveats to be noted, the Seattle Seahawks offer an excellent example of overcoming this modern dichotomy. Their team is made up of unique individuals who can flourish only when they are brought together. Dave Wyman calls the Seahawks the “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 castoffs called to a higher common purpose?

The “deep individualism” dogma found in the Pacific Northwest claims that human beings can only be their true selves when they are free from communal restraint. 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 guards and throwing out the rulebook on quarterbacks under six 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 every one, it is the same God at work. Now to each one, the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good.
—1 Corinthians 12
Proposition 4: Fan Worship in the Clink Cathedral
[Quarterback} RUSSELL WILSON was found wrapped in swaddling clothes in the third round. 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 fans dedicated to their quarterback)
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

A significant, 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—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 than 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, 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 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, poring 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. With 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 outstretched, 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.

DISEMBEDDED RELIGION

As a fan of the Seattle Seahawks and as 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 Seahawks as nothing more than plain and simple idolatry. Another reaction would be to protest that Seahawk games are just that—games. 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 indicates 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 their 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 antiinstitutional 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 wooded mountains, Cascadians seek out rich and evocative aesthetic moments 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 CenturyLink Field and on the north face of Mt. Rainier, it appears that the declaration that Cascadia has “outgrown religion” is 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. 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
Matthew Kaemingk is executive director of the Institute for Theology and Northwest Culture and editor-in-chief of Christ & Cascadia at Fuller Theological Seminary’s Seattle campus. This article first appeared on christandcascadia.com on Jan. 7.