In their case the god of this world [the Devil] has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the likeness of God. (2 Corinthians 4:4)
I don’t watch professional sports these days, as their main appeal was always as a refuge, a “safe space” if you will, away from unpleasant things like politics. Sadly, politics have invaded and ruined sports as completely as they have so many other things in our society. Nonetheless, a quick glance at the Major League Baseball standings the other day brought to mind an old blog post I published a few years back about the odd place the Devil’s image plays in our culture. What does that have to do with baseball? Read on to find out.
This is not actually about sports, by the way. It starts, in fact, over a quarter century ago at a staff meeting for a high school newspaper of which I was faculty moderator. One student, seemingly out of blue, remarked “When you think about it, why would you want Satan as a mascot?” He had been leafing through a book of clip-art (do such things exist anymore?) when, in the mascot section, he came across several pages of containing images of “devils”. I had never thought about it in those terms before, but he had a point: why in heaven’s name would you want the Prince of Darkness as your mascot? I’ve never since been able to consider devil logos as innocent and harmless.
Now, there are many folks out there who will say that I’m making a big deal out of nothing. As Catholics, however, we should know better: we of all people should understand the power of images. After all, what is the point of the great art, stained glass windows, cathedrals and Gregorian chant, the whole “smells and bells” routine? Why else the traditional condemnation of “impure” images, and the stern warnings to steer clear of their dangers? We know from centuries of experience (and modern brain research confirms it) that images have a profound, often unconscious, impact on the psyche.
In the case of mascots the connection is explicit. They are the modern-day descendants of the ancient tribal totems, which were believed to confer their most prominent qualities (e.g., the bear’s strength, the wolf’s ferocity, etc.) on the people that had adopted them. While we no longer attribute numinous powers to them, groups still choose mascots (today mascots are often people as well as animals) because they represent certain desirable qualities that the group would like to associate with themselves, and that they would like their members to emulate. For example, American Indians have long been a popular mascot for athletic teams in the United States (or perhaps I should say, had been) because of their reputation as brave and tenacious warriors.
Images and logos on clothing serve a similar function for individuals: they depict things and ideas with which we want to associate ourselves, such as admired athletic teams and players, schools which we have attended, maybe a political message of some kind or some other symbol of personal importance (marijuana leaves are popular among a certain set). The point is that we wear images on our person to tell the world something about us (and, usually, to tell ourselves something about ourselves).
It was for this reason that my lovely bride was somewhat dismayed a few years ago when she went online to look for t-shirts for our children. She visited the site of a well-known retailer that she had often used before, but found that this time a wide array of children’s clothing was adorned with skulls and similarly macabre images. Now, I know that such images have been around for a long time, although usually displayed by a very narrow segment of the population; today they are becoming ever more pervasive, and less and less remarkable. What does it say about our culture that we seem to think nothing of decorating our children, even little girls, with images of death and corruption? What qualities are we holding up for emulation to these young people who are still forming their sense of self?
This is the bottom line: if we surround ourselves with ugliness and grotesquerie, we shouldn’t be surprised to find our world growing more ugly and grotesque; if we dress our children that way, why should we expect them to aspire to beauty and nobility? That’s no way to evangelize the world. We need to say “no!” to the Culture of Death, even in a matter as “trivial” as a Jolly Roger t-shirt. Don’t they always say “the Devil is in the details”? As St. Paul puts it:
Finally, brethren, what is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is gracious, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8)
Not only is that Holy Scripture, it’s plain common sense.
A final thought: In the first version of this post seven years ago I wrapped up with the story of the baseball team known as the Tampa Bay Rays (here’s the baseball connection for you sports fans out there). The Rays played for the first time in 1998. For their first ten years the name was actually the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (named after a fish, to be sure, not the Prince of Darkness himself). In those first ten seasons the team finished in last place nine times, second to last once. In 2008, the first season after the team had exorcised the word “Devil” from its name, they went to the World Series as American League champions. Coincidence, perhaps, but who knows?
Now, in the twelve years since that first World Series appearance the Rays have made the post-season five more times, including a second appearance in the World Series last year, where the Los Angeles Dodgers defeated them in six games. The team currently has the best record in the American League, and is stands a good chance to be in the Series again next month. The point is, since dropping the Devil, they have gone from consistentlybeing the worst team in baseball to one of the best. Do you suppose that if they moved across the bay and changed their name to the Saint Peterburg Rays they’d actually win the World Series?