A few weeks ago I went to my first NFL game. It was a doozy: the Denver Broncos versus the Green Bay Packers at Sports Authority Field in Denver.
In just about any way you want to quantify it, the entire experience was bigger than life—from pregame festivities to the happy ending (well, for Denver fans, anyway). Skilled skydivers floated through the dark night sky trailing sparks like comets coming in for a landing on the field. The Broncos ran onto the field through the mouth of a giant inflatable Bronco to the amped-up power chords of Fall Out Boy’s song “Phoenix,” then through pillars spouting flames (the heat of which I could feel several hundred feet away). At the time, both teams were 6-0, and it felt like the clash of two gridiron superpowers. Throughout what turned out to be a fairly lopsided victory for the Broncos, the crowd screamed unceasingly on what seemed like every down. I’ve been to a lot of football games (mostly college contests) in my life, but I’d never had a chance to participate in the spectacle of a modern NFL game.
It was a privilege I had to pay a pretty penny for, something I could probably “afford” about once every 20 years or so. But after experiencing it, I could understand why so many people would pay so much to watch something that is, technically, “just a game.” It was a four-hour immersion in a non-stop adrenaline rush with more than 76,000 other true believers.
While I suspect most fans would balk at the idea that a Broncos-Packers game was akin to a religious experience, I’d argue that it reflected many aspects of unadulterated adoration.
One of those elements is transcendence, the longing to be a part of and to experience something larger than ourselves. And in a culture that increasingly seeks to satisfy those God-given longings for a transcendence in something other than God, it’s not hard to see how something like watching a game with many thousands of other fans seems, at least momentarily, like a satisfying substitute.
Nor is that the only such substitute. In myriad ways, our popular entertainment culture serves up a plethora of would-be transcendent experiences to try to fill that ache for meaning and purpose inside. Rock concerts punch exactly the same buttons as an NFL game does: images and sounds and music that engulf an arena or stadium, the spectacle of huge video screens combined with lasers and lights and pyrotechnics, the gathered faithful singing their hearts out.
Then there are movies. While perhaps a bit less spectacular than a concert or a sporting event, movies still promise to transport us out of our mundane, normal, sometimes boring, sometimes disappointing lives into realms of heroism and wonder, meaning and overwhelming emotion. In just a few weeks, for example, many of us who first experienced George Lucas’ galaxy far, far away will eagerly line up to introduce our children to what we (desperately!) hope will be a similar experience when Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens once again (hopefully!) awakens something deeply nostalgic in our hearts.
My point in writing this is not to say that going to, enjoying and even participating in a football game, a rock concert or a movie is a bad or sinful thing. But I think we’d do well to understand that part of what makes these experiences so powerful is that urge to participate in something transcendent. To paraphrase an old movie title, we’re desperately seeking transcendence, whether we realize it or not. And at times, it’s easier than perhaps we’d like to admit for these sorts of experiences to become substitutes for seeking and experiencing our magnificent, transcendent God in relationship with Him.
We’re hardwired for transcendence. We’re made to worship. We’re going to worship something, somewhere, somehow. And if we’re not seeking to worship the God who created us, we quite naturally seek to fill that void with the best substitute experiences the world can offer.
If you have a relationship with God, I’d encourage you to spend some time reflecting on how you experience His transcendent, bigger-than-life nature. Where are you overwhelmed by His goodness, His character, His awesomeness? Does it come in silence and prayer? Singing hymns or praise songs with fellow believers in church? Experiencing His amazing creation? Something else entirely? When we understand the ways we best tend to experience His transcendent nature, I think it becomes easier to prioritize the pursuit of such times and experiences with Him.
And when we do that, we’re better able to enjoy the “big” things the world has to offer us without succumbing to the temptation to ascribe too much meaning to them.