Football and Theology

Illustration by Ryan Miller

Awhile back the Catholic Bishop of Melbourne announced that secular songs would no longer be tolerated as part of funeral services. His ire aimed at rollicking football choruses and AC/DC’s battle hymn “Highway to Hell” that had become a customary refrain at some upscale Aussie funerals. Theologically to reference the AC/DC anthem is a tad bit negative but then it was the Catholic Church that did invent purgatory in the first place to help fill church coffers despite the insured was already dead.

What is at stake here has been in a state of controversy since Moses wrote the first five books of the Bible. Never mind Moses didn’t, besides there are two versions: Moses J and Moses I. Which has since and ever after been part of religion, whose version? Jewish? Christian? Muslim? And then there are the synods and sects.

As for the Bishop of Melbourne, who is to say how we bury our beloved dead? Beneath what banners, what chords and what guitar rips that are vital and real to our hearts? Beyond is the question of whose option is this, what is the goal of the hymn?

It should be fair to ask what music our souls belong to, and beyond, have the right to belong? Do we not hear in the carols of Christmas a diverse folk input? Tavern songs where many of them began, coopted to serve another marketplace. The church in its multiple guises and reformations has produced “industrial music,” pre-formed, pre-chewed, designed out-of-the-box to be theologically aligned.

Yet there is another musical current, equally as strong, equally urgent that isn’t exactly church music but still carries and motivates our souls. Paul Stookey of Peter, Paul and Mary has since the late 1960s married as many couples as has Mendelsohn’s march. “He is now to be among you at the calling of your hearts…whenever two or more of you are gathered in his name, there is love.” Not religious? Not sacred? Not transforming? I don’t think so.

What better to be said of the bonds of human love as penned by a balding folk musician seeded in the fertile ground of the Vietnam War? To suspect this tune will someday eclipse orthodoxy and join the canon of faith, the music of the tavern and the college campus has a pattern of ending up as our theology.

In Wisconsin there are weddings and funerals planned around Green Bay Packers’ colors, others to reference NASCAR, the New York Yankees, hunter orange; you can rent formal wear in camouflage; and in Iowa there is the color of certain tractors. Who’s to say this isn’t church? That our music, our team banners aren’t good enough to be theological? This is to miss the reality of the human spirit and its potential to crank up the volume. The church ostracizes this patent at its own peril. The altars of our belief are often homemade, to include the cowboy hat and the football. Mysticism isn’t preserved by the well-tended paths of scripture and the trace of holy smoke but instead the power of people to create their own angels.

I have watched funeral processions move away from the church in a caravan of hay wagons and tractors. I have seen bagpipes and kilts, pickup trucks, Harleys, stock cars, horses; I have yet to see a banjo band or French horns but hope someday to do so. The church hierarchy might have a say in this but I think it wiser to be quiet.

In the end it’s that old dilemma of the missionary, whether to teach the natives proper hymn singing or let them sing their own kind of noise. Theology has always had trouble learning how to do this, both fairly and humanly for the end goal of turning up the volume. It’s not easy being a bishop of the church and hear the anthem of the Grateful Dead lift against the rafters, to watch the coffin slide down the nave praising God in a rollicking football chorus. Theologically a mess, but wonderfully human.