Yesterday I traveled up to Seattle for a planning meeting for a conference that I’m involved in helping to put together called Feet to Faith. It’s designed to engage teenagers who follow Christ into many of the social justice issues that are typically under-emphasized (if not outright ignored) in the church. It’s in August at Seattle University, and I’ll have the privilege of helping to lead worship. At some point I’m probably going to blog about it, so stay tuned. I just had to throw in a quick plug while I was thinking about it.
Anyway, being in Seattle again got me in sort of a pensive mood. I love the city of Seattle, though mostly from a distance. My family lived in Seattle for about seven years before we eventually moved and settled in Portland, the city I consider to be my hometown. And I have a few relatives in Seattle, but far more in Portland so usually those relative travel south to see us, we don’t usually go up there. As a result, I enjoy a fondness for Seattle every time I’m there, but it’s less of a heartfelt connection and more of a vague sense of familiarity.
It’s probably a little like running into a wacky lady at IKEA who used to be married to your uncle when you were little. You remember enough to think she’s nice, but it’s not like you really know her.
Anyway, this trip happened to coincide with the posting of Bill Simmons latest Sports Guy mailbag, in which he gives voice to the legion of Seattle fans mourning the impending loss of their beloved NBA franchise, the SuperSonics. And as I read through this today, I couldn’t help wondering if there was some connection to the other phenomenon that’s been occupying my thoughts lately, the epic TV series “Lost.”
And now I’ve concluded… yes, there is.
But first, a quote.
Simmons runs this quote in his mailbag, from The New Yorker’s Roger Angell, in response to a famous home-run by Carlton Fisk in the 1975 World Series of baseball:
It is foolish and childish, on the face of it, to affiliate ourselves with anything so insignificant and patently contrived and commercially exploitive as a professional sports team, and the amused superiority and icy scorn that the non-fan directs at the sports nut (I know this look — I know it by heart) is understandable and almost unanswerable. Almost. What is left out of this calculation, it seems to me, is the business of caring — caring deeply and passionately, really caring — which is a capacity or an emotion that has almost gone out of our lives. And so it seems possible that we have come to a time when it no longer matters so much what the caring is about, how frail or foolish is the object of that concern, as long as the feeling itself can be saved. Naivete — the infantile and ignoble joy that sends a grown man or woman to dancing and shouting with joy in the middle of the night over the haphazardous flight of a distant ball — seems a small price to pay for such a gift.
I believe that the massive fandom that people often exhibit toward sports teams is rooted in humanity’s neverending search for significance and meaning. Simply stated, people want to care about such things, because that’s where they find hope and joy and excitement. For some, following their team is their only source of such fulfillment. Even in the face of free agency, naming-rights controversy, criminal misconduct, and other PR nightmares, their devotion to their teams is unflagging. Fans like these make easy targets for scorn, since the term “fan” is short for “fanatic” — but you don’t know what it’s like until you’re in the middle of it.
Which explains why sports programming is often called the original reality TV — because people respond to epic TV the same way. They love the recurring characters, the inherent drama, the people you love to watch and love to hate. And they can be fiercely possessive about it. My wife Holly used to watch soap operas in her younger days, and one day I asked her about it:
“How could you be so engrossed by other people’s relationships and problems when you don’t know them?”
“The same way you can follow the stats for bunch of men you don’t know who throw around a ball for a living.”
Ummm, yeah. Pretty similar when you put it like that.
So what happens to a fan base when it finds itself in the sports equivalent of The Twilight Zone? They become, in a word… lost.
There are many reasons for the show’s success (Mo Ryan of the Chicago Tribune has blogged about it quite extensively) but I think a large part of the appeal stems from the uniqueness of the premise. Like its reality-TV counterpart Survivor, Lost is able to draw a diverse audience because of its large, diverse cast of characters. Through the consistent use of flashback, each character’s back story, with its own plot and emotional arc, becomes another thread.
As you watch whole seasons, these threads are woven into the tapestry of mythology that defines the show. By watching a group of diverse characters undergo such a cataclysmic experience together, the viewer is drawn into a matrix of epic themes — good vs. evil, known vs. unknown, faith vs. science, the natural vs. the supernatural, manifest destiny vs. mother earth… and so on.
This is what drives that quest for meaning, among both the characters themselves and the viewers who vicariously live out their own struggles through these characters. They ask questions like:
Why am I here?
How have my experiences in life before this prepare me for life here?
Am I being punished for something I did before?
Who am I when I’m on this island?
Am I still fundamentally the same person I was before, or am I different now?
If the normal laws of society are no longer enforceable, are they still valuable?
How should I respond to conflict and hardship?
When is it okay to use violence as a means to an end?
And so on.
In addition to all the churning introspect, you as a viewer are ALSO trying to make sense of a pretty convoluted plot, full of flashbacks, plot holes, and (MINOR SPOILER ALERT) many layers of evil corporate conspiracy.
So while you watch, you do your best to make sense of things. You trust the show runner and the writing staff to give you answers, answers that are satisfying and make sense. If you watch long enough, this will happen. Most of the time.
But sometimes not. Sometimes the answers just don’t make sense, and so you wait for another show to explain the latest plot twist that feels ridiculous and inexplicable. You do this because the show has built up this emotional reservoir of trust, and if you have to dip into it from time to time, you figure it’s worth it in the long haul.
Lost is a show that demands a lot from its viewers, but somehow we hang in there anyway, waiting for the big payoff. We want to believe that it will all make sense in the end.
The only problem is, there is no guarantee this will happen.
Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof, talented as they are, are not omniscient. Even though I’m sure they have a rough outline of the entire series arc between them, people forget — they’re still essentially making it up as they go along. So for people like me, people who obsess about the tiniest details, mining every scene for potential nuggets of insight… not all of it’s going to make sense. It’s just not. There’s no guarantee that the big payoff will come, or that it will be all that we’ve come to expect.
And the same is true for Sonics fans, or Blazers fans, or fans of any sports team. There’s no guarantee that, given enough time, enough good personnel decisions, enough money, and enough community support, your team will ascend to the top and win a championship. Sometimes, it just doesn’t work out, and there’s nothing you can do about it.
(Cub fan, I’m talking to you here.)
Not only that, there’s no guarantee that your team will always be there for you. Times change, and teams move. It sucks when it happens, but it happens. (See: Charlotte Hornets, LA Rams, Hartford Whalers, and many, many others.)
So what’s the antidote? Is it all just a waste of time that we should do without? Should we just stop believing altogether?
Journey fans would say no…. and I agree. The answer is not to stop believing, not to stop looking for meaning, not to stop entrusting our faith.
It’s to make sure we’re investing and entrusting it in something worthwhile, something that will stand the test of time. Something that matters on an eternal scale.
This is why I choose to put my faith in God. Because I believe He is the only One that has the full truth, the only One who can help me make sense of things. What’s more, I choose to believe in Him even though I know that things don’t always make sense in the world. In the face of epic tragedy on a global scale, or festering disappointment on a personal level, I put my trust in God and what He says in His Word.
Edward Mote said it best:
My hope is built on nothing less,
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness
I dare not trust the sweetest frame
but wholly lean on Jesus’ name
When darkness veils His lovely face,
I rest on his unchanging grace
In every high and stormy gale,
my anchor holds within the veil
On Christ the solid rock I stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand
That old hymn is the truth that I cling to, because life is full of stuff that sucks, stuff that is inexplicably harrowing and cruel and nonsensical.
And don’t get me wrong.
If I sound all holier-than-thou, then forgive me, because that’s not how I’m trying to come off. Obviously, I like to watch Lost (otherwise I wouldn’t know so much about it) and I really dig NBA basketball (otherwise I wouldn’t write so much about it). But I choose to enjoy those things in a broader context of relying on God to satisfy my deepest needs for significance and meaning.
Some people go the other way. They choose not to trifle with unimportant things. Their time is consumed with Things That Really Matter. Feeding the hungry. Serving the poor. Fighting for justice. And sometimes people with this bent can be awfully smug toward us regular folks who enjoy sports and TV. Roger Angell called it “amused superiority and icy scorn.”
But those folks aren’t doing themselves any favors, because everyone goes through a crisis of faith at some point or another. Maybe it’s not because a heavily-favored team lost the Super Bowl, but because a heavily-funded federal agency failed to serve its most needy constituents during the worst natural disaster in U.S. history. Or maybe it’s because the inspirational story of a persecuted Jewish girl who outsmarted the Nazi and roamed among wolves in the wilderness… turned out to be fake. Or because the Air Force stopped awarding its most coveted defense contract to the northwest’s storied airplane builder, instead choosing a rival firm.
Either way, it hurts when something you thought was a sure thing turns out to be anything but.
But if you’re connected to the Lord of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, then that hurt is only temporary. Being connected to a God so much greater than yourself gives you the freedom to enjoy life, in all of its ephemeral frailty. It awakens you to a greater awareness of His kingdom, hidden from the natural mind but revealed in the spirit.
This is why I choose to enjoy great TV shows like Lost, because there’s something wonderful that happens when my imagination is engaged. I may lose myself in the moment, but I can always come back to the truth, that all is not Lost.
So that’s my advice to Sonics fans. Be passionate. Defend your team. Keep trying to keep your boys in Seattle where they belong.
But if it doesn’t work, remember that all is not lost.
Because even if you don’t have a connection to God, even if you don’t have any connections to Clay Bennett, or Howard Schultz, or Greg Nickels… you still have your memories.
And you’ll still have your WNBA team, right?
I’m Jelani Greenidge, thanks for mixin’ it up with me.