At the recent major American sporting event, our society and the NFL busied themselves embracing contradictions. It wasn’t merely hypocrisy, but sustained dissonance chosen and celebrated. Supra-hypocrisy.
Amidst the parodies and jokes and unintelligible commercials, there were some nice human-interest ads, like the one about Katie Sowers. The NFL wished to celebrate how she broke a gender barrier in their sport. That’s a fine thing. Apparently, her players appreciate that she’s a good coach. Even better.
However, this was after the half-time show. For those who saw it, I hope you can erase most of the memory. For those of you who didn’t, don’t. Sixteen years after the uproar over a wardrobe malfunction, the league and, judging by major media outlets’ praise of a “sexy” “spectacular” show, society itself, have failed to learn much about how our treatment of sexuality affects our assessment of our own value as human beings. I stopped watching when Mrs. Lopez began her pole dance, but that was too late for the twerking and Ms. Mebarak-Ripoll’s lying hips. Later, I caught a glimpse of backup dancer outfits suggestive of sexual violence. The show was vile.
But making a moral judgment of condemnation is too easy. And I will note that my criticism has nothing to do with condemning “body positive” messages or “women’s empowerment.” Let’s think more deeply. Start with a little analysis, then examine the context, and finally realize that issues as seemingly-disparate as domestic violence, the official handling of C.T.E., human-trafficking, and media ad choices have the same evil behind them.
Analysis. The half-time show commodified sex, which always has the effect of objectifying those who appear to be offering their wares. If sex can be consumed through media, as if it is a product, then those who sell themselves in that package are also a commodity, bought and sold at the will of the consumer. The consumer of an item has control and power to use or discard what they have purchased. In this case, and in this mostly-patriarchal society, that means women. That in turn denigrates all human beings, born of women, as image bearers of God and therefore of value best measured by the life and death of God’s Son. Cheapness does not become us. We are not objects, but subjects, both in the sense of our subordinate relationship to our Sovereign Creator and in the sense that we do things as the Creator’s agents in the world.
Of course, I don’t expect the NFL to understand Biblical theology. On the other hand, surely some ombudsman somewhere has the integrity to consider the contexts for this show.
First, all four major American sports leagues are struggling with the problem of domestic violence. MLB and the NFL have defined policies, but the NHL is muddling along on a case-by-case basis. Both players and organizations can be penalized. For example, the Houston Astros are paying a literal price in part related to an employee trumpeting, to a female reporter, their signing of a player who served a 75-game suspension for domestic violence. Two of the roots of domestic violence are the objectification of women and the resultant bait of control. So the official policy of the NFL against domestic violence and the half-time performance are at odds, but the NFL wants to have its profitable performance and maintain its image at the same time.
Second, the sports world itself, and in particular the NFL, with its history of attempting to hide the problems of chronic traumatic encephalopathy in its own players, has a habit of commodifying and objectifying the bodies of its players. This part of the context is perfectly in concert with the ethos of the halftime show, yet players’ unions are pushing back about player safety. No doubt, however, no players’ union will see any danger in the link between one of their struggles and a scantily-clad half-time show.
Third, outside the stadium this year, as at every Super Bowl, the sex trade and human trafficking flourish. With thousands of strangers flowing into a community, there is great opportunity for business in the shadows. Trafficking is based on the objectification of human beings and the commodification of sex. It’s a crime outside the stadium, but we can present the same items inside the stadium and call it entertainment.
Oh, but human trafficking isn’t based on consent. That’s a key difference, perhaps. On the other hand, do human beings have the authority to choose to objectify ourselves or allow ourselves to be objectified? One’s answer to that question hinges on whether you believe we are responsible to anyone but ourselves, let alone a Creator. If we are merely autonomous individuals, two singers can dance however they choose, and for whatever price they can get, without conscience for the effects on others. And so can the “business people” of the night.
Fourth, and speaking of choice, in the lead up to the game, the Fox network played slippery with a Christian organization that wanted to air an advocacy ad featuring survivors of abortions. In does not appear that the organization missed the timeline or the submission standards for buying an ad slot, but nevertheless Fox sold their ad space to others. Recall that he Fox Corporation has had its own public issues with male chauvinism, gender-based discrimination, and sexual harassment. Meanwhile, part of the ad text was: “These are actual human beings who survived abortion procedures. … ‘Choice’ is not merely a word. ‘Choice’ is a person.” Yet amidst a spectacle of commodified sex and objectified bodies, is it any wonder that the lives women nurture in their wombs can also be commodified, and given over to choice?
And let us not forget the ad that did make the cut, that nice self-congratulatory NFL spot featuring the woman coach. Supra-hypocrisy.
But our society will tolerate it because we understand neither sexuality nor human value. We will persist in #MeToo while we feed the roots of abuse through so-called entertainment. We will see the national mall marched on by more tens of thousands of women, but confuse liberation with liberty of choice, while failing to hold men accountable for their choices. Nationally, our sons will batter and gaslight our daughters and show what we perceive as a stunning lack of remorse, but then we are exposed as self-deceived because those sons are telling society the truth about what we have taught them.
How long, O Lord?
Until what God made real in the first place becomes what is real in the last place.
A few positive points, though.
One, physical sexuality is a gift from our Creator. The Biblical book of Song of Songs affirms the basic goodness of sexuality (I prefer Calvin Seerveld’s reading of that book as a love triangle in which a maiden asserts her commitment to a country boy against the grasping lusts of the king. I also think chapter five gets pretty explicit. God is not a prude.). But this gift can also be rightly passed on to another in a specific relationship. Human beings are given authority by their Creator to bestow that gift in context of the covenant of marriage, so that the physical aspect of the relationship undergirds and strengthens other aspects of the relationship. Ultimately, the primary (not sole) goal of the marriage relationship is to direct the spouse forward in their path toward Christ. Sexuality can be an aid, but is not the end.
Because of that, two, sexuality is a temporary gift and has limits. Sanctification can be sought in context of many different kinds of relationships, and sexuality is not essential to that process. Come the Kingdom, the institution of marriage will pass away (Matthew 22:30) because our relationship with God will enter a new stage that renders other relationships shifted in significance. And the rightness of sexuality not being everything and forever will be perfectly clear when we experience knowing God face-to-face.
Three, human bodies are fundamentally good. God further values bodies enough to promise to raise them, knowing that we cannot be human as He intended it if we end up disembodied. The redemption of all creation must include physical restoration to fulfill its own promise. This future glorious renewal is hardly an excuse to devalue the present, however. The value we put in bodies now demonstrates the level of our faith in what is to come. God does not see you, nor your body, as merely disposable. A theological body-positivity is stronger than anything human beings can produce.
Four, as mentioned above, the value of human beings is set by the highest bidder, whose estimation finally exceeds other pretenders to the purchase. This is why evil, an essentially self-consumed thing, could not possibly have outbid God, who, in selflessness, gave Himself in the person of His Son. God decided we were worth it, and therefore we are. Again, cheapness does not become us.
So there is an alternative to the ethic of the half-time show: beginning the effort in the present to become all God meant us to be, body and soul, in the fullness of time when the showy dreams of faith are real. Confetti twinkles, sequins sparkle, but glory is brighter still.