Prior to the beginning of 2017, I found my James Madison University (JMU) class ring. An expensive graduation gift from my parents, it had been MIA for nearly four years. To ensure that my ring wouldn’t get lost during the move to a new apartment, I had secured it in a safe place. The place was so safe and secure, I couldn’t remember where I had put it 😛
After four years, I had believed the ring to be permanently lost. To say that I was pleased to find it would have been an understatement. Furthermore, I couldn’t have found it at a more opportune time, as JMU’s football team was only weeks away from playing in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) Championship—on their way to becoming the 2016 FCS Champions. While I watched the championship game at a local sports bar, my JMU sweatshirt with purple accents, and my class ring identified which university’s team received my allegiance.
The JMU brand.
The class ring.
They’re all symbols of my affiliation with James Madison University.
Wanting to demonstrate my support for my alma mater’s football team, I dressed in a manner that would ensure that others would know my loyalties. I actively sought to express my association with the university.
While at the sports bar, I saw two other individuals wearing JMU apparel, watching the game. They were a couple who had both recently graduated from the university. I joined them. JMU convincingly won the championship game. Though we had never previously met, there was a sense of belonging—communitas—between us. There was a joy in watching the game with them–other Dukes. Because, before that game, and even if our Dukes had lost, we shared a positive and meaningful experience—that of attending JMU.
Though, not every individual that supports the team attended the school. Some fans are from the city in which JMU is located (Harrisonburg, VA). Other fans are Virginians who may be connected to the university through a relative. There are assuredly a variety of reasons for why individuals associate with the team, such as liking purple, the mascot, or—if fair weather fans—winners.
Associative network theory presents a conceptual model for memory that consists of nodes and interconnecting links. Nodes represent stored information or concepts; whereas, the links represent the strength of association between these nodes. Below is an example of a possible associative network using JMU football fandom as an example.
Of course, I—like many—associate myself to my alma mater with symbols (e.g. the ring) and behaviors that signal my association (e.g. positive WOM, watching games, etc.). My level of fandom for the team differs, however, to my love and associative identity with the university. And while the symbols that I occasionally adorn are representative of both (when that identity is salient), my behaviors more strongly associate me with the university than the football team.
During my time as an undergraduate student at JMU, I infrequently attended football games. The football program wasn’t particularly strong while I attended the school; though, it became highly competitive only a couple years after I graduated—winning its first FCS Championship in 2004. While I always wanted the football team to do well (as I would any of JMU’s athletic programs), seeing my university recognized as a strong institution that fostered the development of well-rounded individuals has always been more important to me.
The logic of using symbols and behaviors to establish an associative identity is true regarding anything to which we choose to associate. However, while the use of symbols shows a desire to be associated to someone or something, our behaviors show our relative commitment and loyalty to that person or object. In other words, our behaviors show how much a particular association influences our identity. That is why when people profess to being Christian, it is so important that they do more than adorn symbols, but that the associative behaviors (i.e. living a Christian life) are present too.
Wearing a cross does not make anyone a Christian. The associated behaviors—the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23; Romans 8:23)—must be present in Christians’ lives. These behaviors, in and of themselves, are not what ensures Christians of salvation. Behaviors do not ensure faith. Yet, the presence of the Holy Spirit in Christians’ lives through faith in Jesus will manifest itself visibly through their behaviors (Matthew 7:16).
Christians are called to be ambassadors of the faith, bringing the message of reconciliation with God through Christ to others (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). Therefore, when individuals self-identity as Christians—and, particularly when they profess to being Christians to those who are not—their behaviors serve as a representative introduction to Christ. Until non-believers actively engage to learn about Christ for themselves, their strongest “feelings” about the Lord will most likely be associated with those individuals in their lives that they know to be Christians. If considering the psychological underpinnings of social learning theory, those professed Christians are teaching non-believers what it is to be Christian and how to associate themselves with Christ. Therefore, when positioning themselves as modelers and teachers, Christians accept duties and responsibilities that come with a higher standard of personal accountability (James 3:1-2).
Furthermore, I would suggest that living the Christian life requires evangelization. Consequently, I would argue that to evangelize necessitates, whether formal or informal, some degree of teaching. In other words, to be a Christian—an actual follower of Christ—there isn’t the option of being a casual fan. While it doesn’t appear to represent the popular viewpoint in many “Christian” communities, scripture explicitly communicates that true followers are to hold one another accountable to the standards set forth by Christ (Proverbs 24:24-25; 27:5-6,17; Luke 17:3; Ephesians 4:1-5, 25; Hebrews 13:17-21; 10; 24-25; 1 Peter 4:10). Nothing less.
On January 6th of this new year (2018), the Dukes will attempt to repeat as FCS National Champions, defending its title against the team that had preceded them in winning that same title five times prior to theirs: the North Dakota State University (NDSU) Bisons. The championship will be held at Toyota Stadium in Frisco, TX. Though JMU’s fan tradition was allowed during last year’s Championship, a streamer ban has been instituted this time around.
JMU’s fans are unhappy about this development. One JMU alum when interviewed expressed her frustration, believing that the tradition is so institutionalized by the fan base, JMU’s fans will not know what to do when the Dukes score (which will likely be often).
“Do we throw our hands up in the air? What do other schools do when they cheer? I don’t even know how to celebrate without throwing a streamer. I can’t even imagine it. Sometimes you throw them before a touchdown even happens, prematurely. You see babies throwing streamers! I was in the suites this weekend, people throw streamers inside. It’s what we do.”
Throwing streamers at games for Dukes’ touchdowns is a socialized norm for Dukes’ fans. JMU and its fans have reached out to the NCAA and Toyota Stadium; encouraging them to drop the ban. If not, I would still expect to see streamers, because that is what JMU fans do…many will likely be willing to risk the consequences.
Similarly, what are those of us who profess to be Christians supposed to do? We are supposed to follow Christ. We are to possess a primary (and overarching) identity in Christ, nothing else. It’s who we are. How can we do differently? Yet, as a professed Christian, I have to challenge myself and others by asking how often our identities in other things (e.g. university or professional sport team fandom) supersede—or, at minimum, appear more resilient—than our Christian identities?
Jesus taught us what to do, and showed us how to do it; modeling a perfect, sinless life (1 Peter 1:19). He taught servant leadership (John 13:14). Through His earthly ministry, Jesus taught us how to love God and love our neighbors (Luke 10:27); clarifying who we are to consider our “neighbors” (Luke 10:29-37). We are to do the same (1 Corinthians 11:1). We are supposed to rebuke one another when we fail to meet these standards (as we all will), and forgive others when they respond with repentance (Luke 17:3).
We are supposed to obey our Lord, regardless of the consequences…
I look forward to rooting for my Dukes in the Championship. I will wear my purple. I will probably wear my class ring. There will likely be school emblems on my apparel while I watch the game, which I hope to watch with other Dukes’ fans (preferably alumni). I will not, however, be placing my eternal salvation in the game’s outcome. The core of my identity—my being and personage—is not built around JMU or its football team (though, yes, I expect them to win their second title in as many years).
And as much as I look forward to another Dukes’ championship, I look more forward to the kingdom of heaven; residing in the full presence of my Lord for eternity. While I often wear a cross, I don’t want it to be the external symbol of my faith to others. Rather, I desire that my actions represent my faith in Christ, and that I serve as a good ambassador for His kingdom. I desire to joyfully share the good news with others. Where JMU fans throw streamers in celebration of Dukes’ touchdowns, I desire to be in community with other believers, constantly praising and worshiping the unending glory of God throughout eternity. I desire to share in the only meaningful and guaranteed victory. The victory over death, allowing for perfect and eternal relationship; praying for others to share in this victory as well.