A while back, I renounced my fandom. I had grown tired of all that being a fan in today’s context entailed. No longer could one casually follow a hometown team. A true fan, a real fan, is one who hates all those who pose a threat to their team. But this hate is not reserved for the opposing teams. No, you must hate the fans of those teams as well. It is not simply enough to enjoy watching the Red Sox. You must hate the Yankees (and their fans). The True Blue fans of Kentucky Wildcat basketball must despise the University of Louisville and disparage their fans as half-wits or white trash (or both). It seems that in the world of fandom, love and hate go hand in hand.
Idolatry is not a word too many in our culture use on a daily basis. The word denotes little golden statues the likes that Indiana Jones crisscrossed the world in search of. In this civilized and enlightened world we live in, we have evolved beyond this belief that golden statues hold any power. A surface look at our culture would agree. Ornate Buddhist or Hindu temples do not dot our landscape as they do in Thailand or other Far Eastern countries. It would seem that our context is quite free from idols. Yet, to so narrowly define idols as little golden statues is to miss entirely what idols are and what idolatry looks like.
Understood correctly, an idol is anything or anyone who has attained god-like status in the heart of a person. When we displace the true God by things He made, this is idolatry and the object of our affections is an idol. Idols are our attempt to fill a longing to worship and longing for security, but at the same time retain control. We place present and future hopes and trust on an object or person rather than God. This is idolatry. And fandom wreaks of it.
It may seem a little far-fetched to call modern-day fandom idolatry. I mean, this is sports we are talking about here. Not religion. And yet, the language of fandom is dripping with religious symbols and concepts. Fans “worship” their team. They “idolize” coaches and players. Long-time coaches or super-star players attain “god-like” status. The list could go on. But even beyond the language of fandom is the behavior of fandom. Here, I think we see an even greater connection to “religious” activity. On game day, the fans gather in temple-like facilities, wearing the colors of their team. They sing the songs and chant the chants. When the team enters the arena, praise falls upon them with raucous cheers. Fans gather together with other fans to enjoy the camaraderie and talk endlessly about their team. You give tithes and offerings in exchange for a hot dog and a soda. Or perhaps you even get one of those foam fingers that declares the position of your team in your eyes. Attending a sporting event can be quite the religious experience. Especially when the team isn’t doing so well. Suddenly, a whole new religious dynamic enters the scene. Scapegoating.
Scapegoats find their origin in the book of Leviticus. In chapter 16, YHWH commands the people concerning a certain feast known as the Day of Atonement. In verses 20-22 we find the instructions regarding the scapegoat. The priest confesses all the sins of the people, all their vileness and impurity, over the goat. The goat is then led outside of the camp and set free in the wilderness. This animal bore the cost of Israel’s sin. It was cast outside the camp. And to be outside the camp was to be outside of God’s favor. To bear iniquity was to bear the wrath of God.
Several weeks ago, I watched the ESPN documentary called “Catching Hell” that took a look at scapegoating in sports. The film focused on probably the most recognizable sports scapegoat in all of history; Steve Bartman. The documentary was like a train wreck. The devastation was horrible, but I couldn’t change the channel. The short version of the story is this: The Chicago Cubs have not been the World Series in about 100 years. During the sixth game of the League Championship Series, the Cubs were only a few innings away from going to the World Series. In the top of the 8th inning, a ball was hit down the left field foul line and as usual, the fans in the vicinity stood for an attempt at a souvenir. One particular fan, Steve Bartman, got his hands on the ball, which prevented the Cubs’ left fielder from catching the ball for the second out of the inning. After that play, the Marlins went on to score eight runs to take the lead and win the game. As the game began to unravel, so did the sanity of the Cubs fans. Bartman received all the blame. It was his fault the Cubs were losing. The situation became so dire that Bartman required a security escort from his seat. As security took him away, other fans hurled insults and beer at the bewildered Bartman. The next day, the Cubs lost Game 7, ending their season and extending Cubs fans’ frustrations. In the days that followed the end of the series, Bartman began receiving death threats, so he went into hiding. Besides a short statement read by his brother, no media outlet has heard from Steve Bartman (despite numerous attempts to contact him). For all practical purposes, Steve Bartman is dead. The ability to lead a normal life died that chilly night in October when the Friendly Confines became anything but. He was led outside the camp, bearing the weight of a city’s sins and impurity; a weight he was never meant to carry. A weight that would only crush him.
It’s funny how we never blame our idols when they fall short of fulfilling our hopes and desires. It is always something or someone else who is as fault. Our hearts are so twisted and wicked that when the light exposes the inadequacy of our god, we blame the light for our god’s short-comings. We want what we want. And so we murder and destroy when we do not get it. Idolatry always ends in failure. It is a false hope. It is a vain search for vindication…for significance.
Have you ever noticed that fans use the word “we” a lot? I catch myself doing it sometimes. “We need to upgrade our outfield.” “We have the best starting five in the country.” “We better figure out how to stop that passing attack soon!” We…we…we…we. The fact that you plop your butt in a stadium seat or in front of a HDTV at BW3s does not make you a part of the team. John Calipari has absolutely no idea who you are. Neither does anyone on the UK basketball team. Your opinions are meaningless. Wearing the team colors and replica jerseys do not make you a part of the team. So why do we say “we” when talking about UK basketball? If we were sane people, we’d stop using “we” when it comes to sports. But idolatry has never been the bastion of sane-thinking people. And yet, there is something deeper going on with this corporate identity. We say “we” because we were made for “we.” God created us to desire membership in something bigger and more glorious than ourselves. Thus, fans speak in the corporate vernacular. Yet, sports cannot bear the crushing weight of our God-given desire for an ever-increasing glory. Our favorite team will always fall short. They will always disappoint. Even if they win it all, the exhilaration won’t last past your head hitting the pillow. Sports teams make for terrible gods.
Where sports fails, Jesus is more than sufficient. In sports, we must search in vain for a scapegoat that will restore our team to purity and victory. Jesus was the scapegoat who was led outside of the camp and bore our sins, making possible the satisfaction of the craving for a “we” to which we can belong. The Church is the “we” and if we only have eyes to see, glimpses of an ever-increasing glory will pierce the clouds and sustain us until the day we meet Jesus face to face. Then we will experience true freedom. Then we will find vindication. Then we will feel the full force of glory revealed and consummated. Then we will be the “we,” basking the glorious presence of our God and Father and the Lord Jesus Christ for ever and ever. No sports championship or title can compare.