Brazil’s faith in football: What happens after the apocalypse?

If you know anything about the sport the world calls “football,” then you know that an apocalyptic event took place yesterday in Brazil.

If you know anything at all about the host nation for the 2014 World Cup, then you know — everyone chant the mantra together — that football is the true religion of Brazil. Here is a typical blast of this faith language, drawn from today’s Los Angeles Times piece about Germany’s 7-1 shredding of what is left of this year’s battered Brazilian team.

It had been 64 years since Brazil staged a World Cup at home. And in a country so passionate about the sport it is worshipped like a religion, even now that 1950 final loss to Uruguay is remembered as a national tragedy.

This year’s team, though, was expected to erase that stain. And when the Brazilian government lavished a record $11.5 billion on the preparations for this World Cup, the pressure on the national team increased. A World Cup title was seen as the only way to justify the cost. So hundreds of fans began gathering daily outside the gates of the team’s training facility while hundreds more lined the roads when the team’s bus would pass.

All of them were seeking deliverance as much as they were a championship.

Finally, if you know anything about football in Brazil, if you have watched any of the national team’s matches over the past decade or more, then you know that many members of the team are outspoken Christians. In fact, several of the young superstars are part of the emerging face of born-again and Pentecostal Protestantism in this historically Catholic nation.

In a fine feature before the Germany match, BBC covered the essential facts and added some color, as well. The first statement is crucial:

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God, prayer and the winner of the Super Bowl


THIS WEEK, the question doesn’t come from a “Religion Q and A” reader but a headline in The Record, the daily newspaper in the New Jersey county that’s hosting a certain athletic event:

“Does God care who wins the Super Bowl?”

THE GUY (who lives in that county) ANSWERS:

You gotta be kidding.

Spiritual suffering, physical and mental illness, anxiety and loneliness, natural disasters, oppression, wars, terrorism, kidnapping, senseless murders, broken families, kids without dads, homelessness, addiction, materialism, privation, pestilence, prejudice, impossible decisions that must be made, and all manner of other woes and perplexities are abroad in the world. How could the Deity possibly be concerned about the outcome of a mere football game on Feb. 2, no matter how big the TV audience is?

Still. Though such claims of divine attention seem theologically suspect perhaps there’s more to be said about an underlying question: Is it proper to bother God with prayer about life’s trivialities like this? “Religion Q and A” wrestled with a few of the big issues concerning prayer in a Nov. 30, 2013 item, but what do religious figures think we’re supposed to do about “little” prayers?

Personal gridiron prayers are baked into American pop culture. In a January poll for the Public Religion Research Institute, 26 percent of Americans said they’ve prayed to God to help their favorite team, and 19 percent thought God actually plays a role in who wins.

For some reason, football fans report praying more often than those who follow other sports. Fully 48 percent of adults thought “athletes of faith are rewarded with good health and success.” On that question, agreement jumped to nearly two-thirds among white evangelicals and minority Protestants. If that’s automatically the case, the demonstrably devout Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow might be at MetLife Stadium with the Broncos, or might be hoping for future bowl appearances with the Jets or the Patriots, instead of analyzing college games on television.

Atheists smirk at the idea that God cares about who has the most points on the scoreboard. For instance, how might He decide which team to favor? On salon.com, Gary Labyrinthitis commented on prayers for one’s team to win: “There is something basically wrong with God deciding the outcome. It’s illegal to fix sports games … It diminishes the game if the outcome depends on to whom God throws the game. So why do we allow God to get away with it? And doesn’t this call into question God’s sense of fair play and honesty?”

And yet. The God depicted in the Bible is so intent on mundane matters that He numbers “the hairs of your head” (Luke 12:7). The Bible also urges, “In everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God.”

Everything? Really? Does this cover (actual examples from preachers) a broken toe, lost car keys, or the need for a parking space?

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What was the demon Adam Lanza locked in that hard drive?

From the beginning, there was a familiar moral tension at the heart of news coverage of the Sandy Hook Elementary School massacre. It’s hard to ponder such a hellish act without wanting to be able to name the demon, to link the actions of the young gunman to some kind of logical motive.

Was religion involved? Maybe. Maybe not.

Did faith play any role in the dramas inside the silent home in which Adam Lanza and his mother Nancy lived those final years of their lives? Her funeral was held in the First Congregational Church of Kingston, N.H., but that could have been a simple matter of convenience — choosing the historic church in the middle of the typical New England public square.

Was evil involved in this tragedy? Yes. But what kind? As I wrote early on, in a post here at GetReligion:

In most cases, debates about massacres of this kind devolve into discussions between gun-control liberals, gun-freedom libertarians and various kinds of cultural conservatives who see evidence of various forms of social decay — from violence in our movies, to splintered homes, to increasingly value-neutral schools, to first-person-shooter video games that resemble the programs our military leaders use to make soldiers more willing to pull triggers in combat. Then there are people like me whose beliefs fall in more than one of these camps.

At the very least, Newtown was another one of those stories that — logically enough — pushes people to ask that ancient/modern question: Where was God? As your GetReligionistas noted at the time, there is a theological name for that puzzle and, tragically, anyone who wants to cover the religion beat needs to know it:

the·od·i·cy noun …

: defense of God’s goodness and omnipotence in view of the existence of evil

The painful, dry New York Times report about the final Sandy Hook report makes it perfectly clear that the investigators have not been able to name that evil and they refused to speculate about Lanza’s motive, even though it it is clear that his actions were premeditated.

If there was a motive, it almost certainly was contained in one particular computer hard drive that Lanza destroyed, doing such a meticulous job that investigators were not able to recover the contents. The lede describes the key location in this story, which was the computer-driven Lanza’s darkened haven from the outside world:

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That holy ghost in Baylor head coach’s guilt and grief

Right now, Baylor University coach Art Briles is one of the hottest leaders in college football, the creator of the hottest offense in around. Last night, the No. 6 Bears clawed the No. 10 Oklahoma Sooners to the tune of 41-12, even while losing three of their top four players on offense to injuries of various kinds.

Yes, I am a Baylor alum, one who a decade-plus ago thought my alma mater faced certain gridiron doom if it stayed in the Big 12.

Crazy things are happening. GetReligion readers who follow sports will have noticed that.

Meanwhile, what can we make of ESPN’s important story about the amazing personal story behind Briles and his work? This feature includes some fine work, even if — surprise, surprise — it offers no major insights into the obvious faith issues at the heart of this story.

So what is the heart of this story of God, grief and eventual glory (in terms of success on the field)?

The first act of the drama is, of course, right at the top where it should be.

WACO, Texas – Reminders of the worst day of Baylor coach Art Briles’ life come every year like clockwork. There are a few dates on the calendar — his parents’ birthdays, their wedding day, holidays and, of course, the anniversary of their tragic deaths — that tug the painful memories from the back of his mind.

Briles, 57, has never forgotten how much his life changed on Oct. 16, 1976. Nearly four decades later, the deep emotional wounds still fester because he never allowed them to heal. How could they? Briles still shoulders much of the blame for the deaths of his parents, Dennis and Wanda, and his beloved aunt, Elsie “Tottie” Kittley, who was more like a grandmother to him.

“I think about them every day, every second,” Briles said, while sitting in his dark office last month. “I can sit here right now and know that tomorrow is the anniversary of it. It never leaves you.”

It was a car wreck on a Texas highway. His loved ones were driving a long way to the Cotton Bowl on the chance that the 20-year-old Briles would be able to play wide receiver for the Houston Cougars, after fighting hard to win a fight with an achy knee. They didn’t make it after a collision with an out-of-control tanker truck. It could have been worse: Briles’ girlfriend, and eventual wife, almost made the trip with them.

Frequent GetReligion readers can probably sense where this is going: theodicy.

So who or what is to blame? God, man or the sickness of a fallen creation?

Briles blamed himself, and still does. That brings us to the key moment in the ESPN piece:

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Should the press blame Catholic teachers for its ignorance?

One common complaint we hear from readers is that reporters, when caught messing up some key point of Roman Catholic doctrine, will claim that they are right because they were “raised Catholic” or “went to Catholic school.”

Frequently this response to messing up a story is made in private correspondence. But related to the BuzzFeed discovery of St. Augustine’s teachings we discussed on Sunday (“Political reporters learn about St. Augustine. Chaos ensues.“), I saw a great example in public. It’s worth looking at.

A full day after reporter Joel Gehrke gently corrected Andrew Kaczynski’s story premise, Kaczynski simply retweeted it out and doubled down on how right he was. Check it out via this fancy new Storify tool I’m using:

Isn’t that great? I mean, the condescension of that “my friend” line is just delicious in light of how many people are trying to tell Kaczynski about original sin — one of the more basic teachings of traditional Christianity.

It’s one thing to be ignorant of basic Christianity. It’s another thing to condescendingly rebuke the person correcting you because of your education.

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Political reporters learn about St. Augustine. Chaos ensues.

On Friday, Angus Dwyer wrote on Twitter:

You’ll never guess what uncontroversial Christian doctrine this Republican candidate and/or office-holder believes!

Yes, friends, it’s that time of month again, when political reporters discover Christian doctrine and write BuzzFeed-style pieces about how outrageous said doctrine is! This weekend’s example comes, conveniently enough, from BuzzFeed’s own Andrew Kaczynski:

Virginia Republican Lt. Governor candidate E.W. Jackson candidate said birth defects are caused by sin.

The headline and subhed:

Va. Republican Lt. Governor Candidate Said Birth Defects Were Caused By Sin 

“It is the principle of sin, rebellion against God and His truth which has brought about birth defects and other destructive natural occurrences.”

Is St. Augustine running for the Republican nomination to be Lt. Governor of Virginia? Because he wrote about this idea a long time ago! As reporter Joel Gehrke gently replied to Mr. Kaczynski:

Don’t most Christians think that the world would be perfect if not for sin?

Kaczynski then appealed to his 12 years of Catholic education to say he had never heard of such a notion. Gehrke provided links to Augustine.

It turns out all sorts of Christians teach and confess that evil is not the result of a loving God but, rather, sin. Just randomly from the Google, for instance, I found this passage on an Antiochian Orthodox Church web site explaining Holy Unction:

Sickness is the weakness of the body as a result of the sin of the world. Sickness is not the punishment from God of personal sinful behavior, per se. We all share in the consequences of sin in this world.

I hope no Orthodox Christians think about running for political office! BuzzFeed is on it!

I’m not saying Christian teaching on sin, sickness and death is easy for an uninformed person to understand. It’s not. It’s a topic that has been a challenge for Christians since Jesus first told questioners that a man’s birth defect was not the result of his sin or his parents, as had been held. He goes on to heal the defect and give everyone a larger lesson about everyone being born blind and defected.

I imagine that when some reporters read the Republican candidate’s words, they just assume the worst or even just assume that he was saying, contra what Jesus taught while performing miracles, that birth defects were caused by the personal sins of the involved parties. I haven’t read Jackson’s book, but you certainly would need far more than the passage quoted by BuzzFeed to accuse him of straying so far from traditional Christian teaching.

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God and faith in Oklahoma tornado coverage

In my first-person account of the Moore, Okla., tornado last week, I predicted that the faith and resiliency of the state’s residents would be a major theme in media coverage.

Sure enough, it has been.

I saw the devastation for the first time Sunday when I made my way to that side of Oklahoma City to work on a Christianity Today piece on the “Faith-Based FEMA”:

At the edge of the disaster zone — just across the street from the decimated Moore Medical Center — teens and adults in cowboy hats cook smoked sausages outside the Central Church of Christ.

This group of volunteers drove 430 miles from Denver City, Texas, southwest of Lubbock, to prepare meals for victims after last Monday’s EF5 tornado destroyed 1,200 homes and killed 24 people, including 10 children.

Inside the church, worshipers — many wearing bright orange “Disaster Assistance” T-shirts — at the Sunday service maneuver around ceiling-high stacks of emergency food and supply boxes delivered on a tractor-trailer by Nashville, Tennessee-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc.

The church’s marquee sign along Interstate 35 normally grabs drivers’ attention with catchy Bible verses and witty sayings.

But now it declares simply: “Disaster Relief Center.”

Even as President Barack Obama consoles victims and promises the government’s assistance “every step of the way,” the so-called “faith-based FEMA” is already out in force — from Mennonite Disaster Service chainsaw crews to Samaritan’s Purse debris cleanup teams to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance pastoral counselors.

On the Sunday after a major disaster, news organizations often send reporters to cover worship services. The challenge is turning such a predictable assignment into a truly insightful story. I’m not so sure the Los Angeles Times accomplished that feat in its report on Sunday’s services in Moore.

Here’s the lede of the L.A. Times’ story:

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Does the president, and the press, get theodicy?

There’s an old joke preachers tell about the man who was depressed and opened the Bible randomly to a page to see what God would say to him. He put his finger on a verse and read, “And Judas hung himself…” Horrified, he opened the Bible again at random and saw the phrase, “Go and do likewise.” Dejected, he opened the Bible one final time and came to the verse, “What you must do, do quickly.”

I was reminded of that story after reading about a lost Bible discovered in tornado debris last week in Shawnee, Okla. As a local NBC affiliate reported,

Storm chaser, Brandon Heiden, shot video of the storm as it pummelled [Lance] Carter’s home.

Heiden stopped for a moment to make sure everyone was ok, and found a Bible in the debris. He shot this picture, and hoped the owner would be re-united with the good book again someday.

Meanwhile, Gage Ross, a friend of the Carter family came by the property to help with the clean-up effort. Ross stumbled across that same family Bible; it was still open to the very same page, Isiah chapter 32 which reads, ”A man will be as a hiding place from the wind, and a cover from the tempest.”

“The Lord must be with us, I guess.” Ross remembers.

While the Bible only traveled about 100 feet (it belonged to a neighbor who lived on Mr. Carter’s property), the story made it all the way to the White House.

On Sunday, President Barack Obama visited Moore, Okla. to assess the damage done by the recent deadly tornado. According to the transcript of his speech, he said:

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