The Long Obedience of Sunderland A.F.C.
Devastation can occur in an instant, while redemption is a long and arduous journey. This truism not only provides the philosophical backdrop of the Netflix docuseries Sunderland ‘Til I Die, but it is also what makes the show compelling and relatable to viewers, regardless of whether they are soccer fans. My wife and I were not soccer fans or supporters of any English football club before watching the show. We are now.
Within the first five minutes of the first episode, we learned that English Football is organized by tiers, and each season the top teams in each league are promoted to a higher tiered league. The teams at the bottom are relegated to a lower tier. The Premier League is the top tier league, where Sunderland A.F.C. has been and believes they are supposed to be. Since the club’s founding in the 1880s, they have won six top division titles, making them one of England’s most successful clubs. Yet, Sunderland was downgraded from the Premier League at the end of the 2017 season.
As the series begins, the coaches, the players, the general manager, and the fans alike are trying to figure out how to fix what went wrong. In hiring new coaches, bringing in new players, implementing new playing strategies, and adjusting organizational philosophies, the club seeks to regain their prestige. The hope is that if the club could just try a little harder and if the players are just a little more motivated, they can get back to the Premier League where they belong. Nothing seems to work. By season two, it is clear that relegation from the Premier League was only a wake-up call. The brutal reality is that the club has been dysfunctional for some time. Poor management has undermined all facets of the organization, and the path back to being a consistently competitive top tier team seems nearly impossible.Repentance…involves the patient awareness of how we are losing battles to our sinful nature and are in continual need of God’s forgiveness and the gracious transformative work of the Holy Spirit.
Yet, Sunderland ‘Til I Die is a story about hope, albeit realistic and measured. Much of the show’s charm is in how it captures the scrappy optimism of Sunderland city, a community accustomed to loss and ruin. At one point, Sunderland was one of the most prolific shipyards in the world. At the midpoint of the nineteenth century, they were responsible for almost one-third of the ships built in the United Kingdom. Sadly, as the industry declined, along with coal mining, Sunderland struggled with generational economic woes stemming from staggering unemployment. As one Sunderland supporter explains, “Everybody in Sunderland has got a relation who’s either worked in the shipyards or worked in the [coal mines], everybody, and unfortunately those jobs have gone. Not many people have had it easy in Sunderland. It is a hard place.” Yet, despite the community’s hardships and the many times the club failed, they never give up on them. Sunderland is their home, and Sunderland A.F.C. is their team.
As a viewer, it is easy to root for Sunderland. Considering the team’s legacy, it seems wrong that they’ve been relegated, and one hopes they can make a comeback. This is part of what makes the story relatable. When things go wrong, it’s typical to want and look for quick fixes. This applies to our faith as well. The late pastor and theologian Eugene Peterson focuses on the phenomenon in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. He writes,
Everyone is in a hurry. The persons whom I lead in worship, among whom I counsel, visit, pray, preach and teach, want shortcuts. They want me to help them fill out the form that will get them instant credit (in eternity). They are impatient for results. They have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points.
The good news of Christ is a balm for the ills of our lives, but many of the results are rarely immediate. Even if you believe that justification occurs the instant an individual says the “Sinner’s Prayer,” thereby declaring their belief in the divinity and Lordship of Jesus (Romans 10:9), sanctification is still a long journey, often characterized by incremental degrees of renewal and peaks and valleys of progress. In other words, while the forgiveness of sin may be immediate, fixing the actual chaos and ruin of sin is a lifetime endeavor. Committing our life to Christ is only the beginning of the journey of addressing the sin that plagues us throughout life. This is the inspiration for the title of Peterson’s book. It comes from a phrase used by the nineteenth-century philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, ironically a fierce critic of Christianity. As Peterson explains,
Nietzsche, who saw this area of spiritual truth at least with great clarity, wrote, “The essential thing ‘in heaven and earth’ is . . . that there should be long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results, and has always resulted in the long run, something which has made life worth living.”
Of course, there can be periods of our life where we experience rapid spiritual growth. However, it is far more common that God’s transformative work in our life becomes evident through long, slow obedience.
Imagining one’s life as a specifically directed long obedience is only one reason why the Christian faith is an oddity, if not an absurdity, amongst our broader modern culture. The subtitle for Peter’s book is “Discipleship in an Instant Society,” amazingly written in the early 1980s. Our cultural yearning for instant results has seemingly only intensified in the intervening decades. The internet has only contributed to our inundation of promises for quick fixes to all of our ailments. Peterson wrote his book long before we became obsessed with life-hacks, human optimization influencers, and wellness gurus.
Moreover, we can’t escape what Peterson calls “instant society” merely by guarding ourselves against secular culture. Christian culture is not often much better. A great example of how the values of instant society have permeated Christian culture is in the massively popular movie Facing the Giants. In the film, the Christian football coach’s life is a failure on many counts. However, once he reaches rock bottom, he picks up his Bible, walks into a forest, and tells God that he’s going to commit his life to Him. From there, his football team wins their remaining games and makes the playoffs; someone buys him a brand new truck, and his wife becomes pregnant after years battling infertility. Similar stories and ideas abound in Christian media. Popular books on Christian spirituality are often only self-help books guised in biblical language, promising fast results and quick fixes. Yet, adopting new spiritual practices and habituating an abiding prayer-life are long-term commitments that take patience and discipline. There are failures involved. How often do people set out to read the Bible cover to cover and fail to make it through the Pentateuch before abandoning the task altogether? The long obedience of faith is neither quick nor perfectly linear. We can expect to have to restart and try again when we fail. It’s a lifelong struggle.
Throughout Sunderland’ Til I Die, the club burns through new coaches, players, and strategies attempting easy tweaks and quick fixes. But there is no single problem keeping them from winning. Similarly, no simple panacea is guaranteed to make your life better or fix your sin problem. The hope for Sunderland finally comes when the new ownership realizes that to turn the ship around, they first have to focus on the mundane organizational and financial issues. They also recognize that the road back is likely to be a long one. The spiritual analog to this would be repentance, which itself is also a life-long practice of renewal and recommitment. It involves the patient awareness of how we lose battles to our sinful nature and are in continual need of God’s forgiveness and the gracious transformative work of the Holy Spirit.
Peterson’s description of sanctification is not only long obedience but, as he says, it’s in the “same direction.” In other words, the pilgrimage of the Christian life is directed towards a specific purpose. For the Sunderland football club, it may seem like their aim is to win. However, in the context of the club’s relationship to the unique history of the city of Sunderland, it’s clear that winning is actually a means to a higher goal. This purpose is portrayed beautifully by the show’s unique theme song, written and performed by the Sunderland native Marty Longstaff, also known as The Lake Poets. To his grandfather, he sings,
On the river where they used to build the boats
By the harbor wall, the place you loved the most
I can see you there alone but oh, you know
I’ll be there soon
All your life you worked your fingers to the bone
You worked hard for every little thing you owned
That you gave away for years if you’d known
They’d be calling out
But if you could see me now
If you could see me now
I hope that I’m making you proud
I hope that I’m making you proud
The theme reiterates the idea that redemption for the club is not just about winning. The club’s goal is to honor the city, making their hardworking ancestors proud. Likewise, the purpose for Christians is not merely to “be better.” The life of a Christian is all about one day standing in front of our Maker and Heavenly Father, and after our long obedience, by His grace, we will hear his sweet voice saying, “Good job, good and faithful servant. I’m proud of you.”
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