Friday, January 28, 2011

The Cult that Unites Us

I am more of a baseball guy than a football guy, but a season like this one makes rabid Packers fans of all of us. We have friends in Milwaukee whose ignorance of football is nearly complete; they have but the vaguest understanding of the rules of the game, and are clueless about the various positions played on offense and defense. Yet during the Ravens game, while eating in a very good restaurant, Anne was following the score on her phone, whooping whenever the Packers scored. “I’ve been programmed!” she said. “I have been indoctrinated into a cult!” The wonder is that it required eight years of living in Wisconsin before she realized the obvious.

Being members of a cult leads us to engage in superstitions behaviors. For the last three games I have worn my “1996 NFC Champions” sweatshirt, and that shirt clearly affected the outcome of the Bears game in particular. Since I wore that shirt for the Packers’ victory in Superbowl XXXI, I certainly need to wear it for this year’s game, right? But I will be flying home from a meeting in Mississippi during the Superbowl (bad planning on my part, I know), and a part of me wonders if wearing it while not watching the game could backfire. As a pastor and theologian, I reject superstition and magical thinking of all kinds. Except when the Packers are in the Superbowl.

Then there is the curious case of the makeshift shrine at the Festival Foods near our home. On a whim, the produce manager made a Packers logo out of green and yellow peppers two days before the NFC championship game. Customers came flocking to take pictures of it, and it went viral on Facebook. Now they have no choice: it must stay in place through the Superbowl, which means regularly replenishing the peppers. Many famous religious shrines were likewise first erected in a moment of spontaneous gratitude or hope, but all those of which I am aware were constructed of more durable materials.

Most religions require their followers to engage in disciplined practices (like wearing a 15-year-old sweatshirt) and hold certain places to be sacred (like the Festival produce section). But, you may ask, do most religions not also honor venerated figures who represent wisdom and truth? For that we have St. Vince, whose words are likely being read from at least as many pulpits as the words of St. Paul. Paul may have taken the Gospel to all the world, including Rome, but he never made it to the Superbowl.

My friends in Milwaukee are Jewish and I am a Christian, so the Packers cult is clearly interfaith. Many, including myself, lament the division and conflict between the world’s great religious traditions. Perhaps we have found the solution: Christian, Jew, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist – all are welcome to gather in the produce section to affirm our common bond and proclaim our mutual loyalty to the green and gold. What’s not to like about a cult that includes foam cheesheads and nachos?

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