The Super Bowl: Super Awesome or Super Idol?

For the second year in a row, the Super Bowl has set a record for American television viewing.

The Nielsen Co. said Monday that an estimated 111 million people watched the Green Bay Packers outlast the Pittsburgh Steelers in professional football’s ultimate game. That tops the 106.5 million who watched the 2010 game between New Orleans and Indianapolis.

The series finale of “M-A-S-H” had held the title of the most-watched TV show in the United States for 27 years. It is now No. 3.

What should we make of the Super Bowl?  Or perhaps more pointedly, what should we make of the massive ordeal it has become in America.  If 111 million people are watching, it’s clear that it’s a big deal.  Probably as many tune in for the commercials as for the game, not to mention the spectacle that the halftime show has become.  Isn’t this all idolatry?  Isn’t all this time, energy, and excitement devoted to this game amount to a massive waste of time?

Here is the issue with idolatry though–its a heart issue, and there are two types.  First there is the worship of graven images–this would amount to valuing anything above the Lord.  Second there is making an image of G0d (think golden calves) which amounts to making God out to be less than He is–Aaron said of the golden calves, “these are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt” (Ex. 32:4).  The latter type of idolatry is a bit easier to pinpoint as it diminishes or misrepresents God, the former has to do with how we spend our time, money, and energy and is harder to uncover (if we have made the SB an idol, it falls in the former category).

So are people too into the Super Bowl?  Yes probably.  Do I think its weird that churches schedule their events around it?  Yes, it is weird because after all what you have in the Super Bowl is a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around and hitting each other–if we are honest, it is a little weird that we get so excited about that.  Its also weird that such behavior draws such a massive audience (I am a football fan I just have to admit its strange that its as popular as it is).  Do I think churches are wrong to change their schedule for the Super Bowl?  No I don’t.  Meeting together for the preaching of God’s Word, prayer, and fellowship are required of every local church (Acts 6:4; Heb. 10:24-25).  So unless your church’s only meeting for preaching, prayer, and fellowship is on Sunday night during the Super Bowl, I don’t think you are in sin for rearranging your schedule for the big game.  There is no weekly quota of preaching, prayer, and biblical fellowship in the Bible, those things are certainly more important than watching a football game but a categorical labeling of a church that watches the Super Bowl in the place of some secondary church activity is judgmental and unbiblical.

So the question of whether we are too excited about the Super Bowl is hard to answer.  Some people probably are but then again some people have a fascination with cheeseburgers that borders on idolatry. We ought to be careful when using broad brush strokes to paint cultural events as sinful when its our individual relationship to those events that God cares about. Fighting sin on a cultural level is nigh on impossible.

There are some good things about the Super Bowl.  One is that it involves a sport that requires some level of physical fitness which is good (we might debate this with regard to linemen and whether they are healthy but that is another discussion).  Sports further promote team work, I happen to be a competitive soccer coach and I could share a great deal with you about the many benefits of team sports.

Additionally, I think the Super Bowl illustrates our desire for community and shared experiences which are God-given wirings.  Most people don’t watch the Super Bowl by themselves and while there are certainly more eternally valuable things for us to center ourselves around–the Super Bowl at the very least gives people an opportunity to spend time together and reveals how much people want to be in community.

So how should Christians feel about the Super Bowl?  I think that is up to the individual conscience.  I won’t be boycotting it any time soon as I don’t think its fair to those I want to impact for the kingdom to accuse them of idolatry when I cannot honestly tell you if they have misappropriated the event.  After all watching football is fun. I went to a Super Bowl party after teaching my community group Sunday night (we started watching from the beginning thanks to modern technology) and I had a great time despite how terrible the halftime show was!   So how should Christians feel about the Super Bowl?  I suppose the same way that we feel about everything else in the world–one foot in and one foot out (John 17:15-16).

P.S. Someone recently asked me what I thought of the halftime show and asked if I would consider writing about it.  I did, consider it that is, and I couldn’t come up with anything other than the halftime show greatly saddened me.  I saw someone on twitter write that they have never once wanted Kanye West to interrupt a performance more–I think I agree.  If the average person watched that and was impressed … that is bad news for humanity.

P.P.S. Others have asked me what I thought of the commercials.  I didn’t see all of them as we DVRed the game but Pop Matters has highlighted some of the better ones and Think Christian has thoughtfully discussed some others.  I will say that the single commercial that irritated me the most was the Eminem’s Chrysler commercial and the most delightful commercial was definitely the Volkswagon little Darth Vader commercial.

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  • The numbers are potentially a lot higher than 111 million. The Nielson ratings only count households. So 111 million households watched the Superbowl (out of an estimated 115.9 million households with televisions). It gives no indication of how many people were in each house, and it doesn’t take into account sports bars, restaurants, or casinos where people may have gathered to watch.

  • Are you sure about that Joseph–you may be I am not sure though. I think the 111 million figure represents the estimated number of people who watched based on the number of households watching the game. At least that is what the Yahoo News article I got this from says.

    If it really were 111 million households–that would be insane as there are roughly 300 million-ish people living in the U.S.. I could very well be wrong–just trying to make sense of this.

  • Kristi

    My church’s philosophy is that if our secular friends have a big party occasion, we Christians should be throwing the best party on the block. So our community groups threw superbowl parties and we invited some non-believing friends. Inviting them to share life with us is the beginning of opportunity for discipleship in Christ.

  • The streets were pretty much empty while the Super Bowl was going down. Restaurants were sad, lonely places. Michelle and I were on our way to teach a college group (wholly made up, apparently, of people who couldn’t care less about the Super Bowl) and stopped for a bite and while the tv was on showing the game and the two employees working were wearing their Green Bay gear, we were pretty much the only patrons.

    It certainly felt like almost the whole world was watching the game.

    Many of our congregation’s groups did put together their own little Super Bowl parties. I’m glad I had other things to do. That would have been the death of me.

  • I understand how you feel Seth, to quote myself, “what you have in the Super Bowl is a bunch of grown men throwing a ball around and hitting each other–if we are honest, it is a little weird that we get so excited about that.”

  • Kiel

    It’s a little weird to do a lot of things, like, I don’t know, play games where you control characters who kill other characters, often mercilessly and without much thought. But we do it. And we do it for a lot of the same reasons that people, much like myself, watch a lot of sports.

    It connects us and that’s something we all long for. The NFL, and sports in general, are a way that people throughout the globe connect with each other. The NFL is huge here, and it’s not even close to the kind of huge that soccer is in other countries. There’s something inside us that longs for connection, and I think one way we find it is through things like the Super Bowl. There’s nothing quite like seeing someone on the street wearing a jacket or shirt of your favorite team – a lot of times you don’t even have to say anything, it could be just a nod or a smile. Sometimes it sparks great conversations and the sharing of memories. Whatever the case, it always makes you feel connected with that person, even for just a moment.

    Yeah, things like football can become an idol, just like about anything else we could name and we have to be on guard and know ourselves well enough to know when we’re taking it too far. But overall, I think it’s a great thing to enjoy the Super Bowl (or any sporting event for that matter) with each other.

    My Dad and I don’t have a great relationship. He’s never said “I love you,” we don’t hug, we don’t share deep emotional conversations and tell each other our feelings. But the one way we do connect is through sports. I’ll never forget times like when he took me to see my favorite football player, John Elway, and the Broncos face the Chiefs (his favorite team). Or when he got tickets to take me to see Michael Jordan play or any of the other countless times we’ve cheered, booed, celebrated, or mourned together, all in the name of sports. It’s special to me and I think it is for a lot of people.

    I guess I say all of that to say – yeah, I think it’s more than just a bunch of grown men hitting each other. It is indeed that, but on a deeper level, for a lot of people, it’s a way that we connect with people – some of whom we can’t connect with any other way.

  • “Watching sports connects us and that’s something we all long for.”

    I suspect it alienates as much as it connects. It presents arbitrary boundaries to socialization. Those who are devoted fans of one team find themselves in bitter rivalry with any number of fans of other teams. Like what if you and your dad cheered for opposing competitors—that almost certainly wouldn’t work to draw you closer.

    Personally, sharing the human experience is enough of a connection for me to enjoy community with anyone I’d like to enjoy community with. I don’t need granfalloons to help me on my way.
    Note: a granfalloon “is a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless.” Thank you Kurt Vonnegut for your words of wisdom.

  • Kiel

    “Like what if you and your dad cheered for opposing competitors—that almost certainly wouldn’t work to draw you closer.”

    As I was saying above, we did. And it did. It’s the shared experience, it’s the opportunity to pass along memories and knowledge of a game, it’s conversations. Certainly a love of sports isn’t mandatory for a human being to have meaningful connections – far from it. But I don’t think that negates the fact that those who choose to have that shared experience and draw excitement and meaning from it aren’t really having that.

    I’m sure there are things that wouldn’t interest me that draw you to close connections with people, Seth. That’s part of the shared human experience. For me, and millions of others, sports one part of that shared human experience. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I connect with people in lots of other ways too, sports doesn’t define me or define all of my relationships, but it does play a part in some of them and in the case of my Dad, it’s a big part and I’m thankful to have at least that.

  • Fair enough. I’m glad you’ve got that with your dad.

  • @Kiel thanks for sharing that. To clarify–I intended this article to sorta say, “let’s not label the Super Bowl an idol” because I think that people need to address that personally before God and labeling it that is unhelpful–hopefully that was pretty clear in the article.

    That said. I did watch it and I am a football fan (though that has wanned since I started coaching soccer and you are right soccer fans are even crazier!). I was merely giving a nod to people like Seth who don’t “get” why football is so much fun to get involved in, but you are right, some of the ways in which we play games is also weird.

    I actually have had similar experiences going to Oklahoma Sooners games with my dad. I stayed home for most of college (went to a local school) and we had a terrible football team but my brother went to OU and my dad had season tickets–some of my fondest memories are times I made the trip to Norman with my dad to watch the Sooners play. Though my interests have changed some its still a source of converstation and something I enjoy sharing with my dad and my brother.

    So yeah I agree with you about how sports can bring us together and I gave a significant nod to that in the article:

    “I think the Super Bowl illustrates our desire for community and shared experiences which are God-given wirings. Most people don’t watch the Super Bowl by themselves and while there are certainly more eternally valuable things for us to center ourselves around–the Super Bowl at the very least gives people an opportunity to spend time together and reveals how much people want to be in community.”

    I think you illustrated that point well. I could say much more about the value of sports, but I will save it for another time. Anyway, thanks for your comment, I think it was helpful.

  • Kiel

    Drew, for the record I really enjoyed your thoughts on the subject and pretty much agreed with you. In the opening of my first post, I was just poking fun at the grown men throwing a ball around hitting each other line. Sometimes when I re-read what I’ve written on the internet I start thinking maybe my sarcastic sense of humor doesn’t translate well online. In fact, I’m sure it doesn’t. Anyway, great article!