Idle Worship

The Super Bowl this year was a tale of two quarterbacks: Tom Brady and Nick Foles. Both were extraordinary: Brady was the league MVP; Foles, the Super Bowl MVP. Each brought a religious fervor to his play, but I will pass on Brady’s and recommend you catch Foles’.

We don’t often see examples of blatant idolatry. Brady is a remarkable athlete with a zeal for his sport that is second to none, but he has literally (and for once you may take literally literally) turned his devotion to football into his religion.

Now, Texans know something about the temptation to making football their real religion. Friday Night Lights. The hole in the roof of the old Cowboys’ stadium so that God could watch heaven’s favorite team play. But we always knew there was something more to faithful faith than fervent fandom. This is different.

Brady has written a book that outlines the lifestyle of a disciple. The TB12 Method is the athlete’s bible of physical and mental fitness that promises peak performance in return for total dedication. In the first episode of a TV documentary on this, titled Tom vs. Time, the 40-year-old Brady challenges his challengers: “If you’re going to compete against me, you better be willing to give up your life, because I’m giving up mine.”

Jesus: “If any would be my disciples, let them deny themselves, take up their cross and follow me.” Taking up your cross is tantamount to giving up your life. But for what?

In ancient agrarian religions, devotees sacrificed to the gods in hopes of fertility and harvest. Prosperity religion — whether ancient or modern — is transactional: Give a worthy sacrifice to a god and in return the god will give worldly success.

Religions derived from Abraham — whether Judaism, Christianity or Islam — operate differently. These covenantal religions, rightly conceived, are relational rather than transactional. Spiritual sacrifice is the giving up of self-centeredness for God-centeredness. And God-centeredness is proven by neighbor-love. Success is measured in the wellbeing of the weak and vulnerable, the poor and marginalized. True religion is not about building human empires — whether political, economic or athletic.

Nick Foles’ Christianity is rooted in the alchemy of human weakness and divine strength. It keeps ambition grounded. It attends to the plight of others. It sees personal failure, not just personal success, as a gateway to lasting glory.

“Failure is a part of life,” Foles said after the Super Bowl. “It’s a part of building character and growing. … We are all human, and we all have weaknesses. … I’m not perfect. I’m not Superman. … I still have daily struggles. And that’s where my faith comes in.”

Idolatry substitutes a created god for the Creator God. More than affront to the Divine honor, the problem is eternally practical: If you turn football (or work, or even family) into your ultimate reality, the end zone is still a cemetery. We are wise to worship a God who can raise us up after our final fall.

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