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And All God’s People Said “War Eagle”

We approach God through his unmadeness. We are made, created. God is unmade. How can we attempt to know such a being?
Underworld, Don DeLillo

Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan
T.C. Nomel

God & Football: Faith and Fanaticism in the SEC
Chad Gibbs

Alabamians will get riled about politics, no doubt. All sorts of half-heard opinions will emerge from even the mildest non-partisan. But to get someone really riled, to get them hopping mad as my mom might say, start opining on God and football. That’s when the rubber of patience meets the road of go to hell in Alabama.

I’m not real sure what God is like. I like to think he’s a big god: infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, alpha, omega, never beta. And I like to think He doesn’t shoot craps on city street corners or juggle galaxies for guffaws. And I believe in free will and might even think there’s a sort of peripherally-glimpsed crystalline determinism at work. But I also think God is a god of the infinitesimal: waterbugs and catfish, Walmarts and convenient parking, walks and catnaps. Let’s say God is somehow more and less than we can possibly imagine.

Saying all that, can we even begin to know if God cares about football? And, assuming yes, does He care about Auburn football? If He “cares” about Auburn football, does that mean He shuns and smites Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and all the rest? Are we His chosen people? Or do His rays shine on barners and bammers equally? (If we are His chosen people, how offended is He that I referred to us as barners? Which is to say don’t get all panty-wadded. That’s just what those dumb dirty bammers want.)

There’s probably a bunch of different ways to attack the “Does God care about football?” conundrum, but here are two books attempting to answer that distinctly Southern concern, each in its own way. And hey, bonus: Both were written by Auburn fans.

Bammers are never silent for very long, but, beating them does, in some cases, at least dampen their rhetoric temporarily, and so we are right to pray for victory over them, so as to slow the proliferation of their harmful ideology.

Reading the Psalms as an Auburn Fan is exactly what the title suggests — a reading of the Psalms filtered through an unapologetic orange-and-navy-tinted viewpoint, specifically focused on Auburn’s last three football seasons. The depths of 2008 and the heartbreak of 2009 are contrasted with the joy of 2010. Nomel interprets the three seasons through three different sections of the Psalter he labels as Psalms of Lament, Psalms of Thanksgiving, and Psalms of Imprecation. In these three sections, he goes verse by verse through various Psalms, relating them to the ups and downs of Auburn football. For example, a section from a Psalm of Thanksgiving:

You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy,
that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
O LORD, my God, I will give you thanks forever.
— Psalms 30:11-12

Which Nomel relates to Auburn’s championship season. “In 2010, our wailing was indeed turned to dancing, just as our offense danced around defenders to astronomical production.” And so go the other sections in a similar manner. This ex post facto reading of the Bible through the narrow view of Auburn football 2008-2010 gets a bit tedious. In Psalms of Lament he compares the psalmist’s guilt and heavy burden to Alabama’s 2009 season, writing:

While we may not see Alabama’s 2009 BCS championship as due punishment for some sin on the part of the Auburn Family, we must nonetheless recognize that we are all guilty of sin (cf. Rom 3:23).

Sometimes, maybe even often, these comparisons seem slapdash. Taking words of despair and Godly-seeking written a couple thousand years back when and applying them to, say, Auburn losing to Alabama 36-0 reads ridiculous at times. Sometimes the seriousness of Nomel’s goal gets oppressive.

But, as the book progresses, the reader has a choice: to either accept the narrative Nomel has created and let him lead you on a very (very, very) Auburn-centric reading of scripture or to reject his conjectures and find it all frivolous. If the reader accepts Nomel’s reading of the Psalms as an Auburn fan the book becomes a fun sort of ride, and the reading becomes a game of seeing how Nomel will stretch certain lines to fit the 2008-10 seasons. He gets extra points for repeated creative rewording of the fanbase-wide despair of both 2008 and Bama’s 2009 BCS Championship.

Theological Football

Nomel, unlike Gibbs (see below), attempts to provide scriptural evidence of God’s football caring. He quotes scripture from Psalms, Ephesians, Proverbs, Job, and other books to support his claim. John Calvin, John Wesley, and Thomas Aquinas are also quoted. Nomel writes:

To say that God is unconcerned with the outcome of a football game is to say that there is something, anything, in his creation for he does not care. That is simply not the God that we know through the Bible.

He upholds the logic of God cares about everything in His creation, therefore God cares about football, therefore God cares about Auburn football. But then if we’re accepting that God cares about Auburn football, and if Nomel’s going to base an entire book around the idea of reading His word through an Auburn perspective, why does Auburn ever lose a game? “The reality is that the win or loss functioned as part of God’s will.” Don’t soft-pedal me now, T.C.

The Auburn fan in me wishes he would’ve switched to nukes and convinced me through tangential verses that God really is an Auburn fan. I wanted to see the light and be baptized in Toomer’s lemonade neath our dying trees. But alas. Perhaps an idea for his next book.

Bammers, Barners, and Communiss!

The first answer to this question that I considered was that a bammer is anyone who accepts and promotes the legitimacy of Alabama’s late-modern claim of 13 national championships. My preliminary research, however, failed to produce an example of an Alabama fan who does not meet this criterion. Of course, not finding an Alabama fan who does not meet a proposed criterion for being a bammer supports the proposal that all Alabama fans are bammers.

My Bama fan girlfriend asked what was so funny. I read the quoted passage aloud. “I’m going to burn that book. Come here. Give me the book. Don’t you run.” I scurried to the far side of the kitchen table. “I always knew you were a bammer.” We made five or six rotations around the oblong table before I broke off and juked behind a chair. “That book is poison. It must be burned.” She made a swipe over the chair and I hopped back. “That’s something a bammer would say.” She eventually tackled me onto the couch and pried the book from my hands. I was the only one laughing. I suggest Alabama fans suffering from high blood pressure and early-onset Harvey Updyke Syndrome avoid this book.

Jokes aside, what is a bammer? Mr. Nomel:

A bammer is anyone who by their words and actions affirm the vailidity of the “rightful place” mindset.

Nomel’s distaste for the “rightful place” mindset returns repeatedly throughout the book; the idea frames his readings of the Psalms dealing with the “wicked” and those who have done the Psalmist harm, just go back to the first quotation above when he writes of praying for victory “as to slow the proliferation of their harmful ideology.” The man has passion. So much so that is makes one think a group of Bama fans drowned his puppy or kicked his mother. Though I’d bet those of us Auburn men and women born in Alabama understand the feeling. No hate from here.

Alabama fans will call us barners and we’ll call them bammers forever, or we will until more clever and demeaning slang is invented. More depressing is the interfanbase use of bammer by Auburn fans. Attempt to use rational thought and logic, perhaps even questioning the rightness of an Auburn action? Bammer. Vaguely repulsed by the increasing incestual use of the term Auburn Family? Bammer. Hold Auburn and its people to a higher standard, a practice known as tough love or trying to improve? Bammer. Is your neighbor a Communist?

That last paragraph has nothing to do with Nomel or his book. He keeps with the traditional hate. We can all agree there. Screw those delusional bammers.

What I want is to be the kind of person who can enjoy college football without worshiping it, even though I’m not really sure what that means. I know I want to go to games, and I want to scream like a madman, and I want to celebrate victories like I somehow contributed. But I don’t want to wish death or worse on rival fans, and I don’t want to feel physically ill when my team disappoints — and I never, ever want a game to keep me from being the person God has called me to be.

God & Football doesn’t so much ask if God cares about football. The book is Gibbs’ exploration of if God cares if he, Gibbs, cares so much about football. And it’s also his search for fans throughout the SEC who have been able to place their relationship with God and their relationship with color schemes and education institutions in the proper perspective. And it’s a look at how neurotic and nuts college football fandom in the South really is. So it basically reads like the diary of a large portion of SEC football fans.

The book doesn’t work because it’s deeply insightful or full of spiritual truths. Gibbs isn’t going deep into scripture like Nomel. If Nomel’s a theologian, Gibbs is more of a sociologist. God & Football works because it’s funny and inviting and breezy without being vapid. It’s like reading a David Sedaris book if Sedaris grew up in Alabama, attended Auburn, wasn’t gay, and was focused more on church and God than trying to quit smoking.

Like Sedaris, Gibbs presents himself as a character to be laughed with and, sometimes, at. For these types of books — the non-fiction, rambling, essayistic sort — to be successful the writer-cum-narrator must have a strong personality, at once clever yet not too clever, because it’s always easier to laugh when the reader feels smarter and superior to the writer. David Foster Wallace said his on-page persona in his non-fiction pieces was always a little slower, a bit more gee-shucks and ahh-man than his actual self. Gibbs, whether consciously or not, succeeded in this with his book. If a writer can perfect that voice, and add the tics of his or her personality, the reader will follow just about anywhere.

“What you were describing as the Auburn family,” Jordan said, “is really what the church is supposed to look like.”

When I thought about it, he was right. In fact I think Auburn sometimes does a better job of being the church than the church does.

The meat of the book is Gibbs traveling from stadium to stadium and church to church, all 12 SEC schools getting their due representation (even Vandy, which is Week 1 actually). Through the 12 weeks of the 2009 season Gibbs spends a lot of time handwringing about how much he cares about Auburn football relative to how much time he spends thinking Godly thoughts. He suffers from a very Southern neurosis.

The journey, in theory, as presented by Gibbs, is supposed to end with a new found revelation about how football is just a game and God is eternal and what his main focus, all year, 365, even in the fall, should be about. And at points it looks like he (Book Gibbs, that is) might’ve reached the apex; he might finally have the “correct” balance. But then he, in his own eyes, regresses. But then he finishes strong.

Football is a horrible god. This one sentence sums up everything I learned in three months of traveling. . . . Sometimes I feel guilty, because in my mind I have constructed a god who fills the earth with wonderful things, only to become angry when we enjoy them. I should be thankful for football. Thankful I live in the American South, where I can enjoy the passion and pageantry of a game like no other. And thankful this game, fantastic as it is, is not my god.

One wonders how God & Football would differ if Gibbs chose 2010 instead of 2009.

(My Bama fan girlfriend would also like it to be known that she doesn’t believe Gibbs when he says he was a diehard Bama fan growing up. She refuses to believe one trip to Auburn weeks before school was set to start would convert a true crimson and white crusader. She also intimated that both Gibbs and Nomel can both burn in the place they both would very much like to avoid burning in.)

If you’ve stuck around this long, bless you. Both books succeed in their own way. Neither is the end all, be all account of God and football. But both give a more complete picture of the whole. And that’s about all anyone can ask out of a book, especially a book about God, maybe even more especially a book about this collective fever dream we call SEC football.

About Ben Bartley

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