(RNS) Many approach filling out March Madness brackets with something like religious fervor.
But two sports fans have taken things a step further with long-running online competitions that put religion instead of hoops in the bracket.
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Both Lent Madness, a matchup of saints, and American Jesus Madness, a matchup of people and issues lifted from headlines and Christian culture, make sure the faithful don’t end up sitting on the sidelines during the monthlong NCAA men’s and women’s basketball tournaments.
Lent Madness got its start in 2010 on the blog of the Rev. Tim Schenck, rector of the Episcopal Parish of St. John the Evangelist in Hingham, Mass.
“I’m a big sports fan and obviously a big saint fan, and I thought, ‘OK, here we are during the season of Lent, and basketball fans are having all the fun. We Christians who are participating in the season of Lent are kind of doomed to give stuff up and rub dirt in our faces and do acts of penitence,'” Schenck said.
“I thought, ‘What if we combined the bracket concept with an online tool to learn and inspire people of faith?'”
Lent Madness has grown since, garnering more than 9,600 votes in its first matchup of 2017.
Schenck and the Rev. Scott Gunn of the Episcopal publisher, Forward Movement, now take suggestions for contestants during the Easter season and compile a bracket that pits 32 saints against each other to win the top prize: The Golden Halo. A team of bloggers then publishes brief biographies of the saints throughout the season of Lent on the Lent Madness website, and readers vote online for their favorites as they move through the Saintly 16, Elate 8 and Faithful 4 rounds.
(The actual NCAA tournaments feature twice as many entrants, 64, who are winnowed down through the rounds nicknamed the Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four.)
Those saints aren’t always Roman Catholic or Episcopal — they aren’t even always officially recognized as saints. Past winners include Lutheran pastor and author Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who died at the hands of the Nazis, and Charles Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement in the 18th century.
Some churches create Lent Madness pools and award the winnings to charity, Schenck said. Many participate in the website’s unusually uplifting comments section.
But, the rector said, he recognizes that a humorous saintly smackdown during the traditionally penitential season of Lent may not be for everyone.
“Ultimately, for me, it’s a way of rethinking Lent,” he said. “There should be great joy in a season that is specifically set aside to grow closer to Jesus, and that’s precisely what we’re doing through Lent Madness.”
American Jesus Madness
This year’s American Jesus Madness bracket was “maybe a little too easy” to put together, according to Nashville, Tenn., blogger Zack Hunt.
That’s because, Hunt said, it’s been the “epitome of the marriage of American Christianity and American politics.” And the bracket, named after a previous blog he ran with a fellow youth ministry veteran, pulls a number of people and issues from the “overarching theme” of American Christianity “to try to make a point while having fun.”
Some matchups come straight from the headlines: President Trump, who won 81 percent of the votes of white evangelical Christians, against “anything that’s even remotely Christian.” And “Christians supporting the refugee ban” against “Jesus The Refugee.” It also includes some jabs at Christian culture, like boycotts, missionaries and “volun-tourists.”
“I try to do a mix of the serious and the silly,” Hunt said. “The idea is to use the absurdity of this make-believe tournament to expose the absurdity of what is a lot of American Christianity.”
Hunt invited his blog readers, who he described as “fairly progressive, liberal Christians,” to submit completed brackets this week to compete for “eternal glory”; that is, a mention on the internet.
Those readers will vote online in five rounds, including the Salacious 16, Exquisite 8 and 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse. And he said they can vote however they want, whether it’s to make a point about the “most egregious example of American Christianity” or to throw their support behind the option they favor.
Jack Chick, the sin-and-salvation tract writer who died last year, won the first American Jesus Madness seven years ago, according to the blogger.
Hunt said he doesn’t mean to offend more conservative Christians with his bracket, but added: “If you can find a way to address serious things in a lighthearted way sometimes it opens up the door to important conversations — at least that’s my hope.”