Some Christians in America Must Enjoy Getting Played

Some Christians in America Must Enjoy Getting Played

The point is: he's always in plain view.

Did you think your song and dance and your superstition would help you, Eli? I am the Third Revelation! I am who the Lord has chosen!
— Daniel Plainview to Eli Sunday, in "There Will Be Blood"

Recently I fell into reading a wonderfully interesting New York Times sports-page feature on the Oklahoma City Thunder's unique NBA branding: the team includes an invocation as part of its pregame presentation. I thought, Daniel Plainview is surely behind this—you know, he of the insatiable, capitalist hunger for the righteousness of oil in P.T. Anderson's arresting film There Will Be Blood (2007).

Of course, the Thunder's branding is unique only in the sense that few professional sports franchises across North America do it: that is, have an institutionalized pregame invocation. It is not at all unique in the sense that commerce and Christianity, especially their intertwining in the US, have had quite a nice go of it, relationally, for some time. Valparaiso University professor Heath Carter captures the arrangement, vividly: "In the United States, contemporary Christianities rarely challenge the economic status quo. On the contrary, they typically celebrate the ever more elusive and yet no less alluring 'American Dream.'"

Can I get a witness? Probably not. And that's the point.

An invocation before a recent Oklahoma City Thunder basketball game. (Garett Fisbeck for The New York Times)

Now, people will say, ‘That Shinn is sly as a fox.’ Well, that wasn’t the motivation. But it helped. It’s common sense. So why not?
— George Shinn, former owner of the NBA's Charlotte/New Orleans Hornets

As the story goes, the prayer tradition before NBA games in Oklahoma City derived from an original pact Shinn made, with God, before being awarded the Charlotte Hornets franchise in the late 1980s. According to the Times' Andrew Keh: "Shinn said the invocation became a strong marketing tool in Charlotte. He said it was not his primary aim to use prayer to sell tickets, but he nevertheless viewed it as a welcome byproduct." I suppose it doesn't take a cynic—just something more than a simpleton—to see that there's really no way to take these words at face value.

I imagine that this awfully convenient arrangement between sport and faith could make Daniel Plainview grin, uncontrollably. I see him dreaming of another oil pipeline, reaching for another whiskey, and looking around for the firebrand preacher Eli Sunday. Albeit psychologically traumatic, maybe Plainview could even be inspired to say the Sinner's Prayer (again) or get baptized (again).

Here's the electrifying scene in the film in which Plainview emerges from the cold splash of cleansing waters audaciously saying "There's a pipeline" as Eli's church, unaware in several senses, sings "There's wonderful power in the blood."

Not dissimilar, in Oklahoma City, there will be prayer. And there will be a pipeline of ticket sales.

Daniel Plainview (right), as the long arm of commerce, putting Eli Sunday's Christianity in its place.

Perhaps with Tim Tebow doing his take-a-knee and leading the full-on charge, I can hear conservative evangelicals mounting up, "You can take prayer out of our schools, but you can never take it out of the NBA" [said with a Braveheart-type scream]. On the flip side, one has to readily notice at a Thunder game: Prayer as a precursor to gawking at beautiful women gyrating in short-shorts might necessarily mean that this consecrated relationship is mostly, if not entirely, for pragmatic reasons.

If America has indeed gone post-Christendom, as some insist, you sure as hell can't see it from Oklahoma City. Which is one of the glaring reminders of an article and story like this: The rise of "the religious nones" walks hand-in-hand with the constituency of "highly religious America," a landscape where Christianity maintains a still-prominent place as sponsor to many aspects of the national culture, including but not limited to good, old-fashioned material prosperity.

Being interpreted through Daniel Plainview, this means: Economic self-interest will drink Christianity's milkshake any day of the week—it doesn't have to like the flavor one bit. Which being interpreted, further, means: Some Christians in America must enjoy getting played.


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