October 21, 2009

Fantasy Football Affections

"You stir us up to take delight in your praise; for you have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you." - Augustine of Hippo

Fantasy football has become a cultural phenomenon in this country. Recent estimates suggest around 27 million Americans play fantasy sports in an industry that has grown over 20 percent in each of the last four years. As someone who has played every fantasy NFL season since I was a freshman in college 10 years ago, I guess you could say I'm a poster child for its appeal. From my perspective, online fantasy sports (when played in moderation of course) provide a more efficient and flexible way to remain engaged as a sports fan without having to watch hours of live games on TV that inevitably eat into one's precious weekend and family time. There may be other ways to rationalize this peculiar behavior, but that's the best excuse I've come up with so far. What a time-saver!

This fantasy football season (which is just about half-over) my 2 teams are heading in opposite directions. In our league of church friends, my squad known as Flea Flicker is currently in first place (5-1), but in another group composed primarily of Wheaton alumni, my languishing Y.A. Tittlers are 9th out of 10 teams (2-4). It's essentially an imaginary roller-coaster with (virtually) no bearing on reality.

When I first began gathering names for our annual church league a couple months ago, it wasn't hard to find other fans who check scores online or in Monday morning's paper. But I was surprised when one of my friends, a devout football enthusiast who follows the NFL very closely, told me he didn't want to join. When I tried to reassure him that managing one's team can take as little as 5 minutes per week and does not involve any money, my friend still declined. I mentioned that he already knew most of other guys in our league and would probably fare well against the casual competition, but he still wouldn't bite. He told me he'd rather abstain than worry about constantly tweaking his make-believe collection of real-life athletes. When he insisted he'd be utterly consumed by it if he joined, I finally backed off.

Looking back on the conversation, I respect my friend's courage and self-awareness in declining my invitation, an offer that must have been tempting for a well-informed football fan like himself. It's not that I believe fantasy sports are an inherently sinful cultural artifact any more than Facebook, Twitter or even the internet itself. But as 21st century Christians living in a society saturated by personalized technology and customized entertainment, we are inundated with products and services relentlessly vying for our time, attention and ultimately our affections.

In a recent interview with Leadership Journal's Skye Jethani, Reformed pastor Matt Chandler describes the sanctification process beginning with two questions:

"What stirs your affections for Jesus Christ? And what robs you of those affections? Many of the things that stifle growth are morally neutral. They’re not bad things. Facebook is not bad. Television and movies are not bad. I enjoy TV, but it doesn’t take long for me to begin to find humorous on TV what the Lord finds heartbreaking.
"The same goes for following sports. It’s not wrong, but if I start watching sports, I begin to care too much. I get stupid. If 19-year-old boys are ruining your day because of what they do with a ball, that’s a problem. These things rob my affections for Christ. I want to fill my life with things that stir my affections for him."
For some, playing frivolous fantasy sports, maintaining a blog or purchasing an iPhone will not consume us or rob our affections for Christ. For others like my spiritually mindful friend, it might. In either case, followers of Jesus must continually remain aware of the ways in which our affections and allegiances can be easily diverted by technological novelties as innocuous as imaginary football.

On the other hand, I don't believe fantasy football can be categorically dismissed as beyond redemption or antithetical to the Christian life. When done in the context of real-world friendships, it can be a healthy form of "male bonding" rather than an anti-social pursuit of superficial bragging rights or anonymous mind-numbing entertainment. This might be a stretch, but I'd like to suggest the joy of recreational competition, strategy and victory can even stir our affections for the One who satisfies like no other. On the subject of earthly pleasures, C.S. Lewis offered a balanced approach:
"If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world. If none of my earthly pleasures satisfy it, that does not prove that the universe is a fraud. Probably earthly pleasures were never meant to satisfy it, but only to arouse it, to suggest the real thing. If that is so, I must take care, on the one hand, never to despise, or be unthankful for, these earthly blessings, and on the other, never to mistake them for the something else of which they are only a kind of copy, or echo, or mirage." (emphasis mine)
So yes, let us joyfully and soberly compete for the fading glory of fantasy football trophies. Let us enjoy the suspense and unpredictability of being sports fans. Let us marvel at comeback victories and rare upsets by the underdog. But let us not confuse these God-given blessings with the "real thing" who is Christ himself. He alone is our solid Rock in whom all things hold together. He alone is the true Bread and Living Water who satisfies our restless souls.

May our affections be stirred.

October 8, 2009

Evangelicals In Hawaii: How Are We Different?

Here's a question I've been thinking about recently:

How is evangelical Christianity in Hawaii different from evangelical Christianity in the rest of the U.S.?

That's an easy one. We eat more SPAM here.

Some other possible answers:

1) The high cost of land and limited open space have prompted many churches (including a few megachurches) to meet in auditoriums, theaters, school cafeterias, golf courses and other non-traditional settings.

2) Since any travel out of state requires flying 2500+ miles, we are less likely to participate in popular Christian conferences, conventions, music festivals and other parachurch gatherings than our mainland counterparts. While I'm not too upset about missing Point of Grace (or Whitecross) live in concert, it would be nice if it didn't cost $1000 in airfare, room and board just to attend the nearest theology conference.

3) Hawaii lacks a fully-accredited theological seminary and often "imports" pastors who are (initially) unfamiliar with the nuances of Hawaii's multicultural landscape where Caucasians are in the minority. We probably also lose a fair number of homegrown future pastors who move away for college or seminary but do not return to the islands.

4) For better or worse, we don't seem as picky about denominational and theological particulars around here. Most evangelicals in Hawaii identify more with their specific congregation than the denomination to which it belongs. For example, does the 'typical' churchgoer know the difference between the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)? On the mainland, this is a monumental divide meriting follow-up questions like, "What kind of Presbyterian are you?" (or Baptist, Methodist etc.) In Hawaii, we're more likely to "peg" someone by where they attend church, if at all. Only oddball church geeks like me will actually pry into your denominational background.

5) While Christians in Hawaii experience ripple effects of broader trends in American ecclesiology (such as mainline Protestant decline and the rise of multi-site megachurches), our local denominational landscape is very unique. Hawaii's two most prominent denominations are the United Church of Christ (128 churches including Central Union, Makiki Christian and First Chinese among others) and the International Church of the Foursquare Gospel (49 churches including New Hope Christian Fellowship and Hope Chapel among others). I'm not aware of any other state where the UCC and Foursquare (or vice versa) are the two biggest Protestant bodies. Some of the rapidly growing denominations on the mainland like the PCA (3 churches in Hawaii), Evangelical Covenant Church (1 church) and the Anglican Mission in the Americas (no churches) have yet to make a huge impact in the 50th state.

6) Many of the cultural differences between Hawaii and the mainland affect the way we "do church." There is a greater representation of Asians and Pacific Islanders living in Hawaii, but less Latinos and African Americans. We tend to dress more casually and eat more rice/less potatoes than our mainland friends. We tend to prefer reggae over country music on the radio. We baptize people in the ocean and hold wedding receptions at hotels. I don't remember doing too much of that when I lived in Illinois.

I'm sure there are other differences between Hawaii's churches and those on the mainland. Any thoughts? What could we add to the list?

October 1, 2009

Now That's A Bookstore!

Powell's City of Books in downtown Portland, Oregon, the world's largest bookstore.