Congratulations to Louisville, winners of the NCAA tournament, and the team I picked to win in my tournament bracket! Unlike Louisville though, I only came in third in my pool for picking who would advance throughout the annual collegiate basketball tournament. Third out of six participants. Some bracket I picked, huh? it’s just me, but this year in particular, it felt like the trend of “bracketizing” things left the sports world and entered pop culture big time. Are you a fan of public radio programming? A Southern Cali public radio station put all your favorite programs on a bracket. Needless to say, This American Life won, and if you’re wondering how or why, we’ve got a book that’ll help you understand. Are you a fan of TV? Hulu ran their own bracket of “best Hulu shows” with Entertainment Weekly Magazine, which pitted fans and viewers of shows like Game of Thrones, Parks and Rec, and Breaking Bad against one another. My favorite show, Community, won that bracket. Do you keep track of economics, business practices, or have beef with a mega-corporation?  Vote in The Consumerist Blog’s “Worst Corporation in America” bracket, where companies like Bank of America, BP, and Comcast vie for top spot for customer ire. The video game company EA was slapped with that dubious title this year. The Washington Redskins even held a “draft class” bracket, where uber fans picked between the best draft classes in franchise history. Did you run into any other brackets like these back in March?  I’ve got a few more I could list, but I think you get the point, and the popularity of pop-bracketology this year caused me to ask the question “why are these brackets so popular,” and I can’t say I’ve nailed down the answer yet.

Perhaps this non-tournament pop-bracketology is a byproduct of the law-saturated judging-machine human heart. I won’t protest that it feels good to write down every “evil” corporation on paper and figure out which among them is the worst- after all, if I’m not one of the bracketed contestants, I get to play the role of judge and jury. Whether you’re bracketing for best or worse, the fact that we’re ranking (and perhaps rationalizing and defending said ranking ala the comments section!) is at some level an exercise in judgment, control, and law. “Which one of these challengers best lives up to my expectations?” “Which one of these offenders fails to meet my expectations?” To be the final arbiter on such matters is to have power, a power that’s closely linked to control and immunity from return judgment. Think how much fun it might be to be movie critic or newspaper food critic–it’s the same idea. this pop-bracketology is as much about validation as it is truth. A fake-letter began circulating the internet after the Consumerist Bracket named EA “The Worst Corporation in America” that sheds some light on the problem of bracketology-by-democracy. The fake letter questioned the designation “Worst Corporation,” asking “[Is EA] really worse than the company that spilled 300,000 gallons of oil in the middle of Arkansas?  Or the company that cost American taxpayers billions of dollars in mortgage fraud?” A fair point, considering EA’s economic sins were poor customer service and designing video games to eek out a maximum profit. Who’s really to say that Community was better than Game of Thrones, or that This American Life was better than the Splendid Table? (That is my opinion though!) Bracketology, then, becomes less about truth and more about validation. When I voted to help Community win the Hulu bracket, I felt validated: “yes, the show that I love is also the show that won, therefor I too am a winner.”  This is certainly more pronounced in the fandom of the NCAA brackets, but it exists in the pop-bracketology world too.  Why would someone like me vote for This American Life to be the best show on public radio? Because if the thing I love is a winner, than perhaps that victory shall be imputed to my identity for choosing the winner beforehand. Not in a “Louisville is the best team, so I pick it to win” sort of victory, but a “I’m a diehard Louisville fan, and I pick them to win because of my affinity for the program.” (Side note: my dark horse VCU-wins-it-all bracket underperformed again this year).

Either way, I know the possibility of finding myself on a bracket is personally terrifying. If we ever bracket “the best posts of Mockingbird” or “best pastors in Morgantown WV,” I’m running for the hills. It’s the same reason why professors at my alma mater approach with fear and foreboding. A friend of mine once told me a female friend of his had listed on paper all the eligible bachelors in her life, and in a separate column listed everything she wanted in a husband. As she compared the bachelors, she found my friend to be her top bracket choice for a spouse. Needless to say, the ensuing relationship didn’t go so well. The level of judgment, identity formation, validation, and energy that goes into this pop-bracketing is exhausting–I didn’t even know there were that many draft classes from the Washington Redskins to rank, despite being a fan since infancy! And yet, is my fandom in question because I don’t have a favorite draft class? Ugh, how confusing (and scary)!

I once overheard a pastor wisely suggest that competition was simply overcoming sloth via pride. While I don’t think the NCAA tournament fits that bill, the whole concept of the bracketed life goes hand in hand with these themes of judgment, identity construction, and control. In contrast, of course, is the gospel, where in the eyes of Jesus there are no brackets. Imagine a Jacob’s ladder bracket, where biblical characters were ranked in terms of their “holiness” (I’d hate to be on Jesus’s end of that bracket!), and only those in the sweet sixteen would receive any blessing or recognition from the divine?  It seems almost as silly as having a church-wide ranking for favorite bible verse. Brackets are not how Jesus operates, thanks be to God.

This is actually one of the reasons I stick around the church–it’s the one place where I’m not on a bracket all the time. I just accepted a job offer that took me almost 8 months to land, and the process was one giant bracket with critics looking over each candidate’s qualities to pick who they thought would be the best. I have single friends, like the aforementioned guy friend, who are subjected to the “potential mate” bracket all the time, looking for someone who’ll pick them as their number one. You might know somebody in a bracket contest with their siblings to see who’d come out on top in their parents eyes. This is the style of bracketology that can ruin lives and set the identity search back a decade or so.

The gospel is freedom from all bracketology–thanks be to God– though most of these pop-culture brackets are good harmless fun. So when I fill out next year’s march madness brackets, and I pick Fresh Air over This American Life, VCU over Marquette, or Community over The Walking Dead, I know Jesus won’t be changing his bracket because of it.