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Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports

Shirl James Hoffman
Published by Baylor University Press in 2010

Born the son of a Baptist minister in western Pennsylvania, one of many parts of the country that takes very seriously its athletic competitions, Shirl Hoffman has grown up in and around sport. With his upbringing and later his work as a Professor of Exercise and Sport Science as well as the Director of the American Kinesiology Association, Hoffman is well suited to offer a critique concerning the marriage of the Christian faith and sport through multiple lenses. In his work Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, he asks the reader to take a hard look at the current state of sport, even sport in a “supposed” Christian context, and see how it might look within a “truly” Christian context.

Hoffman’s text is broken into 11 chapters, including an examination of the history of Christians and their interaction with sport dating back to the early Church in Greece and Rome through modern day. He concludes by offering six suggestions to help the reader think more intentionally about how sport or play might look different in Hoffman’s idea of a Christian context. The preface and introduction of this text offers some needed insight concerning the author and his position on the topic and should not be overlooked by the reader.

Chapters 1-5 offer a historical context for the interaction between Christianity and sport. Hoffman’s analysis begins in ancient Greece and Rome where the Christians of that day denounced a culture of sport, a culture that often led to their harm or death. In chapter 2, entitled “Proscribing, Controlling, and Justifying,” Hoffman explores how the early Church leaders viewed “play.” He states:

Commentators of the day struggled to distinguish between types of sports and games that could and could not be incorporated into the Christian life… Most sports fit within the range of “neutral” or “morally indifferent” activities whose sinfulness depended almost entirely on the intentions of the players or the circumstances surrounding their performance (67).

Hoffman then moves to the culture of sport and Christianity in more modern times from thelate 1800s to today. In this analysis, he offers many unusual commentaries from many out-spoken preachers denouncing the culture of sport. For example, in the chapter entitled “Bowling, Bicycles, and Other Snares,” Hoffman quotes J. Buckley (1967) who states:

Many [women] of good family become bold in feature bearing and gesture, and indulge freely in road badinage and slang. They sit in indelicate attitudes at curbstones, roadsides, and under trees, with young men; they drink and joke at drugstore counters; not a few have become typical hoydens and when not riding [bicycles], parade the streets in bicycle costume… Wives have taken the wheels against their husbands, and have neglected their family duties… The bicycle has figured in divorce cases without number (92).

Hoffman later states that rhetoric such as this was clearly hysterical. I agree. However, there are portions of Hoffman’s own critique that some may find hysterical: for example, Hoffman’s idea of nonrepresentational sport, which is another way of saying sporting contests without teams and the ability for fans to have a rooting interest. So I would caution Hoffman in his use of illustrations similar to J. Buckley’s.

Over the next few chapters, Hoffman analyzes modern evangelical thinking concerning sport, beginning by detailing “The Rise of Sport Evangelism” from Billy Sunday, the baseball-player-turned-preacher, to the connection between sport and behaviors seen as consistent with the Christian life, such as refraining from smoking, drinking, dancing, and carousing. He continues by examining how the Church exploited players, owners, and managers who refrained from such behaviors because of their influence over the common man. In his analysis of modern evangelical thinking concerning sport, Hoffman also examines the physicality of the majority of sports. According to the author, sports like boxing and football have become so mainstream in evangelical society that it no longer questions the potential harmful ramifications to the body. He includes more docile athletic contests like baseball where pitchers are asked to constantly engage in an unnatural arm motion. Professional and collegiate athletes go through surgery after surgery in order to continue to perform tasks that take a physical toll on their bodies. Hoffman asks the readers to consider our bodies as holy temples and whether activities in sports that tear down our temples are a good use of the bodies God has given us.

Within the next few chapters, Hoffman critiques the idea that sport is and can be used to build character, as we have all been led to believe for years. In this portion of the text, Hoffman gives example after example of the negative in sport. Next, he explores the idea of using sport as a tool of evangelism. In this he questions the notion of taking something secular and destructive like sport and turning it into a tool to bring people to Christ. He also considers if sport can be used as a tool of evangelism and what that would look like.

Concluding his work, Hoffman offers his thoughts on a transformation of sport within a Christian context for Christian institutions. He offers six suggestions for Christian institutions to consider in reframing their athletic programs. Ideas such as Christian institutions rethinking their visions and missions in regards to athletics, only competing with other Christian institutions because secular institution cannot be expected to compete within the Christian ethic, and taking the competitive component out of athletics.

In critiquing Hoffman’s work, I hardly know where to begin, which I see as a positive element of the book, as it generates a great deal of thought and emotion. Unfortunately, the parameters of a book review will not allow for a full dissection of the text. Thus, I have limited my analysis to four main points:

First, I had difficulty in finding Good Game’s thesis. When push comes to shove, it appears that Hoffman does not believe sport and the Christian faith can survive harmoniously, especially within Christian institutions. His disapproval is fine; however, his historical and theological analysis will not allow him to state that sport is incompatible with the Christian faith. Thus, I believe his thesis can be summarized in his opening to chapter 6:

Competition is an indispensable element of sport. Rid sport of competitors’ mutual striving for a prize available only to one of them and you change it to something entirely different. But competition also is the element of sport most difficult to align with the Christian faith (145).

Hoffman’s analysis seems to bring him to the conclusion that competition and the Christian faith are incompatible. And it is hard to separate competition and sport. Interesting, but with this analysis in mind, what can be done about competition? It is all around us, not just in sport; sport is just one of the most flawed examples in our culture. I got my jobby competing for it. How about the institution where I work? Every day, it competes for its viability within the academy. It competes for students, for donor dollars, grant dollars, and so on. And each year, every Christian institution where I have served (4) has touted its standing in the U.S. News and World Report rankings (even though the academy is always quick to point out how meaningless they are). How about the top academic students at Christian institutions? Each year, we have awards ceremonies for various academic achievements where many students vie for only a few awards. How about competition within politics, business, and so on?

Second, Hoffman’s work lacks objectivity. At one point in his work, he criticizes sports publications like Sports Spectrum, a magazine that seemingly could be called the Christian Sports Illustrated, for not tackling the negatives of sport; instead, as Hoffman critiques, it fills its pages with positive stories, encouragements, testimonies and athletes overcoming difficult odds. Well, in the 300 or so pages of Hoffman’s work, I was inundated with every negative sports story imaginable. And every potentially positive story Hoffman attempts to convince the reader is not really positive at all. Is anyone doing it right? Are there any positive stories? Let me attempt to offer a recent headline example in two words: John Wooden.

Third, Hoffman’s six areas for transforming athletics in Christian colleges, although very interesting and worth further consideration, lack connection with much of the book. Many of the negative examples given in the book are of institutions or athletes who have no interest in the connection between faith and sport (Bobby Knight, Latrell Sprewell, Alabama fans and so on), thus, as a reader, I have no expectation of these people. Also, although Hoffman seems to feel strongly that his six suggestions for reforming Christian college athletics would take care of the current ills of Christian college sport, I think down deep he realizes his suggestions would be the end of Christian college athletics. Intramurals are too fierce for Hoffman, because they involve competition.

Finally, Hoffman retreats from culture. Sport is just one more example of something that Christians should retreat from; it is lost and cannot be saved. And those who compete in it are lost as well, so what we must do as contentious Christians is shelter ourselves in our Christian institutions and not get our hands dirty with the trappings of the world.

Hoffman’s work is both interesting and thought provoking. There are many problems in sport and Good Game forces the reader to examine those. There are many examples in our history of people making pleas to swing the pendulum drastically from its current place to its opposite angle. I believe Good Game asks the reader to consider drastic change to sport. Change so drastic it would most likely lead to the end of sport at Christian institutions. A change I believe would be just fine by Shirl Hoffman.

Cite this article
Chris Abrams, “Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 40:2 , 223-225

Chris Abrams

Malone University
Chris Abrams, Malone University