JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It's a towering sight to behold, rows and rows of pews that rise up from the altar to form a 10,000-seat stadium of a church that's filled to the brim each week with true believers hanging on his every Sunday-sermon word.
"It's pretty scary," said Dr. Jerry Vines, the pastor of the mammoth, 25,000-member First Baptist Church that encompasses nine city blocks of Jacksonville's downtown. "Every time I step out to the pulpit I feel like a lamb led to slaughter."
This is the man in charge of the biggest church in the city hosting the biggest game, and he, a man of religion, isn't afraid to admit that, in this country, football has become something akin to a religion itself.
"Well," laughed Vines, a rabid University of Alabama fan, "it's pretty close."
That would make Super Bowl Sunday, which will take place in a temple named Alltel Stadium, less than a mile from First Baptist, the holiest of holy days.
So maybe there is little surprise that the two cultures – the religion of God and the religion of gridiron – would, on occasion, clash. There are too many people, too much passion and too much money on each side for it to not.
Many in America want to brush off the views of Christian cultural conservatives who dominate cities such as Jacksonville, but to stare up at all those seats (and this is hardly the only large church in town) is to understand they are doing so at their own ignorance. Five-figure crowds for Sunday service isn't some fringe group.
The most famous flare-up in the culture war occurred a year ago when Janet Jackson revealed one of her breasts in the internationally televised halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII to set off a debate that is still reverberating today.
"There will be no 'wardrobe malfunction,' " laughed Paul McCartney, this year's family-friendly halftime act, on Thursday. "I promise that."
So a year after that controversy, the NFL is sending out an aging Beatle who hasn't been controversial since the 1960s, which changes the principal but not the principles of what got us to this point.
What bothers people such as Vines and the millions like him is the culture of cross promotion that put Janet Jackson in the position to flash in the first place. It seems the marketers have taken over America and the once-definitive lines of entertainment – G-, PG-, R-rated, so to speak – have been obliterated in a harried grab for market share.
It is not that in some place, at some time, Janet Jackson is ripping her shirt off. It happens. The problem is it occurred in the middle of a football game you should be able to watch with your 6-year-old daughter and your 76-year-old grandmother.
"I don't know why anyone was surprised," said Vines on Thursday. "You hire MTV (to stage the halftime show) and you get what MTV does. Although apparently it was not evident to the NFL."
The fact that, nine months later, the Terrell Owens/Nicolette Sheridan affair went down makes you wonder if the NFL has figured it out (or cares to figure it out) yet, because you don't have to be the pastor of a giant church to wonder what "Desperate Housewives" has to do with football.
But that's modern American life, where sales overwhelm sense.
The halftime show of this year's NCAA championship game – the Orange Bowl – featured three uninspired performances by two fringe singers and one lip-syncher, while two magnificent college marching bands (Southern California and Oklahoma) looked on. The crowd reacted with thunderous boos to an out-of-place, low-quality show.
As bad as shows featuring ex-players in sherbet-colored suits screaming at each other about the game are, at least they make sense. But Ashlee Simpson at the Orange Bowl?
"My feeling is, get everything out of the way and kick the ball," Vines said.
With that he sighed.
"But I don't know if it can be avoided."
The capitalistic cat is long out of the bag here. Walking around conservative Jacksonville is to be besieged by promotion and advertising, much of it out of place.
This is the week Hollywood descended on Jacksonville. When Playboy and Maxim throw the best parties. Where girlie calendars promoting gambling web sites are freely handed out. Where liquor companies hire hot babes to simply walk around wearing tight T-shirts.
The television broadcast isn't much better. Even if McCartney keeps his shirt on, Cialis is running an advertisement which will cause millions of American parents to be questioned by their 8-year-olds about what exactly is "a four-hour erection."
Some say the parents should just deal with it. Others, such as Vines, say it is worth fighting back, worth questioning and worth holding ground and asking for better. After the last year of controversy, he actually feels momentum, ever so slightly, is on his side.
"There does seem to be a rising concern for matters which have to do with morals, which have to do with decency, obscenity, crudity and vulgarity," Vines said. "(It) seems to be causing more right thinking."
On Sunday, he'll fill his stadium in the morning and keep fighting his fight against the excess that has surrounded the city's bigger stadium that will be filled in the afternoon.
"We may see a turn back a little bit," Vines said, before pausing.
"How much farther can they go?"
He probably doesn't want to know.
- Jerry Vines
- Janet Jackson