Day 20: But the Final is on a Sunday

All men are like grass
and their glory is like the flowers of the field.
The grass withers and the flowers fall
because the breath of God
blows on them.

-Isaiah 40:6-7 (gender exclusivity preserved for irony)

After a social media argument in which I wrote a small theological treatise encouraging pastors to watch the World Cup instead of going to church, on Sunday I took a deep breath and wondered if I’d taken this metaphor a little too far. Does the World Cup really have theological significance I have assigned it? Should I, as an ordained, retired pastor in Mennonite Church USA, take the dignity of my office just a little more seriously? 

My goal, in each of these posts, has been to collapse time and story: to put us more fully in the biblical story by putting us more fully in the present moment. For many people, the Bible is so distant that it is best understood through a mediating metaphor. That can be football or the Chronicles of Narnia or the Marvel cinematic universe. A mediating metaphor collapses the distance between our story and Jesus’ story. The World Cup is part of a healthy theological imagination. It’s what theologians call the hermeneutical bridge.

If the FIFA World Cup took place on the fourth Sunday of Advent every year, I would be singing a different song (well, I’d still be singing the Magnificat, I’d just be singing in a different place). But the World Cup just once in our lifetimes is being played on the fourth Sunday of Advent, and two or three billion humans will watch it. It is literally the most human thing you can do this year, beyond universal biological functions. And all humans are like grass; their glory withers and the flowers fall and most poetry doesn’t translate.

Metaphor won’t yield rich theology on its own. Exegesis, historical study, and other tools also matter. 

But the ancient flowers have withered, and so we search for the flowers that bloom in the present moment. Mediating metaphors. Things that collapse the distance between ourselves and the biblical story, that allow us to encounter King Herod and Zechariah and Mary in our daily lives, as much people we know as celebrities or social media influencers. The Bible matters to our life to the degree we understand the people to be full, moral characters whose choices are like our own.

Not everyone should skip church for the World Cup. It’s not a particularly moral choice, nor an educational one. It is, simply, a choice of meaning-making and metaphor. Those for whom soccer is a mediating metaphor will find the story of Christ within the story of this game. If the World Cup is something that has significance for you, it will have theological significance. If the World Cup is not something that has significance for you, may you find theological significance in your deeply held passions and practices.

This is not a hermeneutical bridge, this is just a bridge where things look different on one side than the other, but no matter which side you stand on you are in the same place, on the same bridge.

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