Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
Reviewed by Brian R. Bolt, Kinesiology, Calvin College
When he wanted to make a point that could be understood by the widest possible audience, the apostle Paul’s metaphor of choice was sport. In sport Paul saw unrivaled tenacity, commitment, sacrifice, affinity, and intense love – all attributes he sought to stir in the hearts of early Christians. Perhaps Paul shared the sentiments of Robert Novak who noted in the book’s Forward, “religion and sport have always sprung out of the same deep waters of the human soul” (xi). This edited volume is separated into two parts. Part one serves as a selective history of the sport-religion relationship (chapters by Nick Watson and Andrew Parker, Victor Pfitzner, Hugh McLoud, Shirl Hoffman, and Robert Higgs), while part two focuses on contemporary issues in sport and Christianity (chapters by Nick Watson, Tracy Trothen, Jacob Goodson, Kevin Lixey, and Scott Kretchmar).
Editors Watson and Parker introduce part one with a well-constructed literature review. The authors “map the field” by briefly unpacking the theologies, ministries, ethics, and emerging research topics in the Christianity-sport relationship. This refresher honors the pioneers and innovators and the particularly crucial times and locations where sport and Christianity have formally merged into foundational ideas or movements, such as play theology, muscular Christianity, and organized sport evangelism. The gift of this chapter is the inclusion of a substantial literature review organized into helpful categories for easy reference.
Part one continues with chapters that set the ideological backdrop of sport’s invasion into Christianity and vice versa. Pfitzner appropriately begins with the ancient Greek games that prompted Paul to use and revisit athletic metaphors in his letters, reminding readers that Paul did not endorse or assess sport; instead he employed the metaphors for impact with his audience. Paul found richness in his comparison between a Christian disciple and an athlete, yet the distinction is clear; Paul was an athlete for Christ competing for a prize beyond earthly glory.
McLoud draws attention to a landmark time from 1790-1914 (primarily in England), an era when sport became organized, codified, and harnessed. At that time, the allure of sport was too strong for the church to resist. Muscular Christians championed the value of sport in character formation, especially for young boys for whom sport became an essential part of the full life to which God calls us. Sport became the hands-on educational tool for learning and practicing moral, courageous, and disciplined living. Slowly, the church’s attitude toward sport morphed from objection to potential. The obvious next step was to harness the power and attraction of sport for organized evangelism. In his chapter, Hoffman briefly details the history of sport evangelism in North America, featuring groups such as Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action whose ministry model was largely built on using the popularity of sport to spread the Gospel. For athletes, coaches, and Christian institutions, Christian faith no longer tempered sporting pursuits. Conversely, it became the divine motivator for competitive success upon which to build a platform for Christian witness. And as such, the marriage of church and sport was consummated.
In part two Nick Watson introduces us to the intriguing world of disability sport, primarily the Special Olympics movement. Watson asserts that sport engaged in by those with cognitive disabilities offers a “prophetic voice” to the world of able-bodied sport. Popular sport is, according to Watson, “to some degree underpinned by ungodly ideologies and values and thus is an institution that is in part controlled by principalities and powers” (186). Conversely, the dominant paradigm of the Special Olympics is “power through weakness” a dramatic departure from that of able-bodied sport, and a suitable parallel to Christian faith. Watson cautions against romanticizing disability sport, but reminds us that those designated as weakest and least desirable by the world are vital members of the body of believers. With all of its potential benefits, sport is a fertile ground for modern-day idolatry, fostering obsessive attachment to things other than God. Special Olympians are no less attached to their sports or earnest in seeking success, yet their relational and grateful dispositions toward sport are representation of God’s attributes and words, which is indeed prophetic.
In separate pieces Trothen and Goodson address the ever-present dilemmas of legal and illegal performance enhancements in sport, ranging from the saturated conversation of steroids in American baseball (and other sports) to the evolving and unpredictable possibilities of technoscience in sport. Public reactions to such issues vary from anger and condemnation to appeasement or apathy. Though technoscience has become more visible, Trothen points out that yesterday’s interventions are today’s assumptions, as vaccines and vitamins have become normal. We live in a world where the natural and artificial overlap, and though equality in sport is not a tidy yes or no, most of us hold firmly to the belief that we know cheating when we see it, and we believe the good of sport is diminished by a technological imbalance. Both authors appeal to focusing on the yield of sport beyond wins and losses and challenge us to think differently about the positive possibilities of difference such as how accommodating competitors with technological adaptations can destabilize our existing prejudice and open new and redemptive relational possibilities.
In the penultimate chapter Kevin Lixey summarizes the most recent contributions made by the Catholic Church. The Vatican has focused much recent attention on sport, developing a mostly positive position and urging its members to participate in sport for God’s purposes. However, Lixey cautions that the role of the educator, meaning the teacher or coach, is critical in determining the character outcomes of sport participation for the individual. This practical chapter reminds those of us trained to pick out the hypocrisies and inconsistencies in the sport and Christianity relationship that, in the end, nearly all of us define human participation in sport as a potential for good.
Finally sports philosopher Scott Kretchmar addresses the apparent incompatibility between sport and humility. In this year’s NFL playoff, American football cornerback Richard Sherman, after a game-saving play, used his post-game interview to declare, “I’m the best” while calling his opponent a “sorry receiver.” Most sports fans flinched at such machismo, bravado, and apparent lack of humility. Yet Kretchmar points out, and athletes know, success is earned on the field by talent and preparation, and athletes who succeed in the biggest moments feel a strong sense of accomplishment. So while Sherman’s declaration was certainly bad form, was not he just telling the truth? Despite our moral misgivings, Kretchmar declares pride and humility to be compatible in sport, leaving room for Sherman to feel (if not voice) his self-confidence. An athlete’s confidence is his or her foundation. Put simply, talented athletes who lack the necessary confidence react more slowly, question split-second decisions, and unhelpfully allocate attention to past failures. Pride is akin to confidence. So while the boastful pride seemingly spouted by Sherman could be called sin, grateful pride is not. According to Kretchmar, grateful pride honors the history of the game, acknowledges the contributions of others, and demonstrates the patience and perseverance it takes to excel. For his part, Sherman’s follow-up article for Sports Illustrated1 showed some signs of grateful pride, as he acknowledged his teammates and expressed gratitude to others. Athletes walk a razor’s edge regarding good and bad pride, much like anyone blessed with excess. The Bible warns of the danger of too much of anything, be it money, power, beauty, intelligence, or in this case, athletic talent. Confidence is necessary, yet pride is a deadly sin, and as Christians we are called to humble ourselves. Kretchmar’s chapter allows for the confidence of appropriate pride to be compatible with humility, and for the athletes and coaches to work toward authentic expressions of faith, pride in accomplishments, and gratitude beyond skyward gestures and post-victory shout-outs to the Almighty.
This book mines connections between sport and Christianity with past and present focus, but also with the goal of pushing future research and conversations in new and deeper directions. Part one of the volume is a helpful reminder and sets the backdrop, but in many ways restates what has been done in other contexts. The chapter authors are academic leaders in the field, and it is helpful to have the selected topics in one place. But the book could have benefitted from fewer authors representing various points of view so that the feature literature review by the editors could have been extended. Watson and Parker’s edited volume is a must-read for scholars and practitioners desiring to understand the foundations and key concepts of the growing sport and Christianity literature base.
Sport is truly a conundrum for Christians and society in general. Proponents claim it builds strength of body and will, bolsters Christian faith and provides opportunities for evangelism. Detractors warn of excess, glory-seeking self-centeredness and arrogant intolerance of the weak and gentle. Both views are true at times, making the argument that sport is a complex and enduring part of human culture. The chapters in this volume ground the meaningfulness of sport in the human story and urge practitioners, theologians, and philosophers to think deeply and honestly about our sporting lives.