|Apr/May 2007 Salon|
Not far from where I live is a Jewish radio station that broadcasts on two or three different frequencies in low-power AM: It's message: Moshiach (the Messiah) is coming or, as some seem to believe, has already come.
Why do I listen? Because Radio Moshiach provides a window into what early Christianity—a Jewish sect—early Mormonism, or any new messianic religion is like. The parallels are so close, in fact, that the hosts of one show had to deny they are aping Christians when they use words like "second coming," referring to their rebbe-messiah's return from his only-apparent death (or his possible reincarnation of King David).
And then there's the Superbowl. I actually followed the local teams this year, not just to get through the four months until spring training begins, but with real interest in the fates of the surprising Jets and their underachieving crosstown rivals—Tiki Barber's last season; the broad shadow of Peyton Manning under which his brother Eli, the Giants' QB, had to play; Chad Pennington's remarkable march to post-season play after such low expectations for his team.
But New York football is a different animal from what goes on in the rest of the country. And the Superbowl is to Giants Stadium (or whatever it's called these days) as the Hasidic Alte Rebbe is to the Man on the Cross. Watching that broadcast from Dolphin Stadium reminded me how alienated I am not just from the America that treats even its high school football and basketball players like celebrities but expects its professional athletes and coaches to profess their religious belief (assuming it's Christian) every time they hit a home run, score a touchdown or someone just puts a microphone in front of them.
The Superbowl is more than a championship sports event like the World Series or the US Open. It's a national revival meeting of American culture, a celebration of strategy and tactics combined with brute forced wedded to a godliness that makes that force inevitably triumphant, at least on the gridiron. Add in the spectacle of halftime—this year Prince in a production meant to shock and awe even without HDTV—and you have the complete package: Jesus, the game, and rock 'n roll.
Watching and listening afterward to Colts coach Tony Dungy give all the credit to the Lord, in response to the inevitable question about how it felt to be the first black head coach to win a Superbowl (Dungy downplayed his race and said he was a Christian before everything else), made me feel closer to the Hasids in Brooklyn than to my fellow Christians in Miami and the rest of the country.
Who are these people? If this is America, where do I live? I don't just mean culturally—everyone knows New York is offshore to the real America, "everyone" including many New Yorkers, a large proportion of whom derive like myself from somewhere on the mainland. I mean by my questions something broader than a cultural difference. I feel like I'm living in a different time or dimension from the nation represented in that rain-drenched stadium. And when Tony Dungy professed his belief that God had deliberately made things difficult so the ultimate achievement would be better valued, I didn't feel superior or scornful of his profession of faith, I felt left out. If a descendant of American slaves can value his Christianity above everything else, even above centuries of oppression and continuing discrimination, who am I to hold him up to scorn?
When I say I feel closer to the Hasids I hear on the radio, what I mean is that their introverted preoccupations and hair-splitting theology is familiar to me from my own religious upbringing. But I listen to their millennial discussions with more of an anthropological than a religious interest. Superbowl XLI is another matter. I have no point of reference there. Despite my own Christian exposure, I may as well be a Jew myself, or a Hindu.
After the release of the Americans taken hostage by the Iranians following the overthrow of the Shah in 1979, I heard one of them say that he was envious of the faith that sustained his Christian fellow-hostages. He didn't convert as a result, any more than I expect to become a born-again Evangelical. But maybe what I felt when I listened to those professions of faith at the Superbowl XLI trophy presentation is akin to what that man experienced as he watched his fellow captives praying and singing together.
And maybe the Hasids and the Superbowl Christians have more in common with each other than either of them does with me. They are both rock-sure about their God and their relationship to him, while I live in a state of perpetual interrogation, like one of those cartoon characters with a balloon over his head containing nothing but a question mark. I used to feel guilty about this. Real people, grownups, know what they believe. Indecision is callow, puerile, an excuse for not wanting to do the hard right thing. But I have come, slowly, to accept that question mark. And, the more I see the sort of people who are sure about things, to take a qualified pride in it.
But I still regard Coach Dungy and the Hasids with a kind of envy. How reassuring it must be to know that Jesus is your personal savior or that Moshiach is coming soon, maybe already has come. How everything else in one's life, all the petty day-to-day cares like getting one's teeth fixed or dying must fall into place once you have a foundation like that established. Indecision is anxiety. Alienation is anxiety. Why do I choose to be left out? I can even see that it's not important what you believe—Christ, Moshiach, Allah. Religion is just the gateway to something deeper, a truth that satisfies and orients, a peace we all long for.
Very seductive. Until Superbowl Sunday reminds me it is not a coincidence that the great religious passion of those football-crazy small towns from coast to coast is coextensive with a deep faith in American might. Isn't Coach Dungy a kind of general for whom victory represents divine approbation and defeat a sign of unworthiness? He may be black, he may have come to glory the hard way tested in the crucible of divine wisdom, but he is also America—even more so than the teary, more disreputable white man he works for. He is America triumphant, under God, and—he tells us himself—through God. He is what we are all meant to be if we get on side and do God's will, not just in sports or work but as a nation.
And for one brief moment on that victory stage at Superbowl XLI, that's what we were. Not the perpetrators of murderous wars or the inept managers of our own people, but agents of the Lord God who smiles down on our victory and assures us we will all ultimately be well if we keep faith with him.
I see children swallowed up by mudslides, millions more dead each year of malaria or orphaned by AIDS. But my fellow countrymen see God rewarding a godly man's years of struggle. It's not a matter of the "problem of evil," the paradox of a loving deity standing by while the innocent are tormented and die. What disturbs me about Superbowl Sunday is how much it reminds me of the Jim Jones affair—the preacher who talked his congregation into drinking poisoned Kool-Aid so they could all go to heaven together. Poisoned Kool-Aid is what George Bush, Dick Cheney and Colin Powell fed us and we consumed so trustingly—just as surely as the fools of Jonestown swallowed that sweet, deadly drink. Poisoned Kool-Aid is what political, religious and other authorities specialize in.
So, count me out. If being alienated and anxious is the price I pay for not putting my brain into permanent escrow, so be it. If President Bush and Pope Ratzinger are going to heaven, I'll go somewhere else, thank you—anywhere else—or no place at all.