"I believe in the Church of Baseball. I've tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I've worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I heard that, I gave Jesus a chance. But it just didn't work out between us. The Lord laid too much guilt on me. I prefer metaphysics to theology. You see, there's no guilt in baseball, and it's never boring..." Annie Savoy (from the movie Bull Durham).
In yesterday's Washington Post, columnist Marc Fisher wrote about the "unsavory mix of peanuts, cracker jacks and Jesus" at the Washington Nationals ballpark. He was specifically criticizing the initiative of a Christian marketing company to have "Faith nights" at major and minor league baseball games. The Washington Nationals will have their "Faith Night" on August 5th when the Nats play the St. Louis Cardinals, and for an extra $10 Christian fans will be able to hear a concert by the band MercyMe and meet Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber from Veggie Tales.
Fisher's criticism of Faith Night was that it was exclusive to people of other faiths and that baseball is, in itself, a kind of religion (that's when he quoted the character Annie Savoy from the movie Bull Durham). The organizers of the event claim that it's no different from Realtors' Night, Disco Night, 4-H Night or Hispanic Heritage Night at the ballpark and that no one should take offense because all are welcome to come (or not). Of course, part of what is driving this critique has to do with the history of the Nats and their involvement with an evangelical chaplain program, Baseball Chapel, and the message that some of their chaplains were preaching about the eternal damnation of people of other faiths.
Now I am as PC as the next person, and I hear and understand these critiques about Christian exclusivity, and, honestly, I don't really buy it. Not when it comes to Faith Night anyway (the Baseball Chapel thing is a different story). That's not was offends me about "Faith Night." What really offends me is the idea that Christianity is something to be marketed in the first place. That our faith should be packaged and sold, promoted by animated characters, and that there's a group out there telling baseball execs that they should hold Christian Faith Nights because they can deliver "5,000-15,000 more in ticket sales" by holding a Christian rock concert at the ballpark. What would Jesus think about all this, do you suppose?
This week's Gospel lesson from the Revised Common Lectionary is from Luke 9:51-62. In it Jesus is heading toward Jerusalem where he will face his trial and execution, and he's talking with the disciples about what it means to follow him. And as usual, they don't get it. When some other folks come along and also want to follow Jesus he says: "Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head." To another he said, "Follow me." But he said, "Lord, first let me go and bury my father." But Jesus said to him, "Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God." Another said, "I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home." Jesus said to him, "No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God."
I could be wrong (it's happened before) but I don't think Jesus is saying here that we should use baseball games as a way to bring people to Christ. I think he's saying that our Christian faith calls us to a life of worship and devotion, of sacrifice and service, of humility and compassion. Our faith is a way of life, not a product to be bought and sold, and exchanged when it doesn't meet our needs any more. And I think there's a very fine line between evangelism and "marketing," between being relevant and selling out. A Christian "faith night" at a baseball game should be different from Realtor's Night. Maybe instead of buying peanuts and cracker jacks, we could take up a collection to feed the hungry children of Washington, DC? Or organize people to walk from the ballpark to the Capitol to draw attention to the suffering of God's people in Darfur? Those might be more authentic ways to combine Christianity and a large secular sporting event.
Coincidentally, Marcus and I have tickets to this game on August 5th. Not because it's Faith Night, but because Marcus also worships the St. Louis Cardinals. We're going to worship at the Church of Baseball. But I'll let you know if we run into Bob the Tomato.