Who would guess that a greater number of people attend church each week than football matches? We are encouraged to feel that being Christian – especially to the extent of committing to regular church attendance – is distinctly weird!
Yet, few people would argue the same of the hundreds of thousands of football fans who pay up to £100 for the pleasure and privilege of watching their team win or lose. And church is free! We are made to feel that we are distinctly different, often even that our beliefs are dogmatic, self-righteous, judgemental, anti-liberty and infantile.
However, at least those are the objections of people who care enough about religion to object to it, rather than the general indifference that seems to typify the wider approach. As Francis Spufford points out in ‘Unapologetic’, most people feel that we stand out “not in some respect-worthy or principled way…more in the way that some particularly styleless piece of dressing does, which makes the onlooker wince and look away”. But (and it bears repeating) there are more active Christians than active football fans. Clearly, faith in Jesus is not as unusual as we are occasionally led to believe. Why, in a modern world which seems to meet so many of our daily needs, where science seems to explain so much about our experiences, are so many people still led to God?
When it comes down to it, it’s about relationship. In essence, it is about making an emotional connection, not logically or philosophically explaining biology or physics or maths. That is not to say that apologetics are not important; we need to be able to understand and rationalise our beliefs, particularly in the face of secularism. An unthinking faith is not really a faith at all. However, as Spufford’s entire book is designed to point out, it is the emotional intelligibility of our faith which draws us in and keeps us from giving up.
Football fandom provides many of the same attractions as religion: community, a sense of belonging, cultural identity, a belief system of shared opinions etc. What no other collective experience can give us is the thing we need the most: the sense of total acceptance and forgiveness that comes from Jesus Christ. Often we humanly get the community stuff and the belief system stuff wrong or confused or become combative. Often we aren’t all chanting the same slogans or singing the same songs but, instead, bickering over whether the organ is the best example of worshipful experience or the guitar. But these human errors make the emotional coherence of the gospel more clear, not less. Of course we all need forgiveness; we can’t even agree on what style of music is ‘right’. Of course we all need forgiveness; we alienate people by our internal disagreements and disunity. Of course we all need forgiveness; we all still get things wrong. And only God can remedy this. Only Jesus says that everything can be mended.
As long as mankind lives, we will not be able to heal our own brokenness. Shakespeare in the late 16th century called it our “sin of self-love” which causes even the best of us to be selfish and self-seeking; William Golding in the mid-20th century called it “mankind’s essential illness”. In the 350 years between the two, despite our technological and scientific advances, our sense of our own inability to do right did not change. Nor will it. Only Jesus can heal our wounds.
Since this has become an unexpectedly literary blog, it will end with one of the greatest Christian poets of all time, John Donne, in his final verse of ‘A Hymn to God the Father’:
I have a sin of fear, that when I have spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by thyself, that at my death thy Son
Shall shine as he shines now, and heretofore;
And, having done that, thou hast done;
I fear no more.
Or, to stick with the football theme, in the words of Liverpool football club’s famous anthem: “You’ll never walk alone”!
For further reading, try ‘Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity still makes surprising emotional sense’ by Francis Spufford.