A couple days ago, a friend pointed me to, “Sports Fanatics,” a Christianity Today article in which Shirl James Hoffman (author of the book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, from which the article is taken) argues that (mainly Evangelical) Christianity’s relationship with sports has ultimately been detrimental to the faith, with the sports culture influencing Christianity more than vice-versa. The article is certainly thought-provoking and worth the read; along the way, he makes numerous excellent points about sports gone bad or too far (such as his lead example, a couple who skipped their daughter’s wedding because it was scheduled on the same day as an Alabama football game).
At the risk of over-simplifying Hoffman’s argument (which is surely more nuanced in the book), it seems that his primary concern is with the competitiveness that fuels sports culture. Put simply, Hoffman seems to have trouble reconciling this kind of competitiveness with the Gospel and the lifestyle and values by which Christians are to live. He sees this competitiveness at odds with the sympathy and concern for enemies that Christians are to display, and he fears that sports in general have negatively affected the Evangelical Christianity that has attempted to use sports as an avenue for the Gospel. Though he concedes that sports without competition are not sports at all, Hoffman suggests that sports would be better if they were “joyous play … sport that is serious but also festive and fantastical” and far less about vanquishing one’s opponents. He protests the achievement culture fostered by sports, suggesting that this kind of influence makes Christianity into a religion more about doing than feeling. In his words: “The concrete trumps the symbolic; doing, achieving, and struggling are favored over mystery, joy, feeling, transport, and spiritual insight.” In the end, he suggests that perhaps Christians should focus more on “side-by-side” competition sports (like swimming, golf, or Track & Field) rather than contact sports (football, hockey, boxing, etc.) mainly to avoid the physical violence (dishonoring to God’s temple, he suggests) and the aggressive mindset of these sports, also suggesting that Christians should essentially forgo victory celebrations, since they suggest superiority rather than sympathy and concern for the other.
His good points about the many excesses of sports aside, I fundamentally and strenuously disagree with Hoffman’s thesis for several reasons. (Scot McKnight has also posted a few counterpoints over at JesusCreed, focusing on the fact that sports are themselves a closed continuum, and so long as the game is played with integrity, by the rules, and with respect for the opponent, competition isn’t a problem. The New York Times also just published an Op-Ed about sports culture, “The Sporting Mind,” that is well worth the read.)
1) My biggest point of disagreement is that I don’t think the sporting world has so much negatively affected Christianity as it has shown major weaknesses in the popular formulation of Evangelical theology. In other words, the problem is the weakness of Evangelical theology more than anything having to do with sports—sports are just the mirror that reveal the theological problems more clearly. One could summarize much Evangelical theology in the following manner: “We are all rotten to the core and sin every day. Fortunately, Jesus died so that our sins could be forgiven. All you have to do is believe that he died for your sins and resurrected from the dead and you’re forgiven for whatever you do. Then your job is to go spread this message to as many other people as you can so that they can be forgiven and go to heaven, too. Just make sure you give God the glory for whatever good you do, since you’re still nothing but a filthy sinner.”
This theology ignores everyday ethics—and the New Testament gospel of moral and ethical transformation—for an ethic that sees evangelism as the only real responsibility of the Christian. The shallowness of this theological perspective is reflected in many “Christian athletes,” most of whom were raised to “glorify God” with their efforts (i.e. victories) on the field, court, track, etc., and many think of this as their chief responsibility as a Christian. They need to make sure they point to the sky after a touchdown, verbally “give all glory to God” after the game, and pray before and after they play. As long as they do this, they’re “saved,” and “different” from the other athletes who are “all about themselves.” Then these “Christian athletes” leave the field of play and have extramarital affairs and generally live just like the rest of the world, with little to no difference between them and anyone else. But if you think about it, this is only a variation of the basic Evangelical message summarized above—only using sports “to preach the gospel of forgiveness.”
2) Some of Hoffman’s theology is as questionable as that which he critiques. I see more calls to serving God with “doing” and “struggling” than “feeling” in the New Testament, not just in the OT. The point of the Sermon on the Mount and much scriptural prophetic critique was precisely that the concrete trumps the symbolic—how we treat others matters a lot more than whether we can spin nice stories, give a nice gift (or sacrifice), or “feel the right way” when we pray. I’d like to see more Christian theology focus on the “doing” and “struggling” of everyday life and less focus on “feeling” in general, especially in Evangelical circles.
3) In terms of the ethics taught by sports being different from those taught by Christianity—suggesting that modern sports culture only fosters selfishness, cut-throat competition, and is a place “where self-denial is a recipe for competitive disaster” misunderstands why so many teams and individuals succeed. I would argue that the teams and individuals who embrace self-denial, self-subordination, and servanthood tend to win more often than teams that embrace their opposite. There are certainly notable examples of the reverse, but the kind of self-denial and self-sacrifice needed to work like some of these great players work is critical to their success. “Team chemistry” is just another way of talking about the self-sacrifice, self-denial, servanthood, and overall unification of the team. These are natural principles that apply to sport just as they do in every other avenue of life—again, sport is just the mirror that simply shows such principles more clearly at work. “Sympathy” is just as present in sport as anywhere else—watch winning NFL players seek out opposing players after playoff games to say something of comfort, etc. Look at how teams rally around injured teammates, watch how guys work each other, etc. Frankly, I think “sympathy” is actually seen to fill its legitimate role (stepping in to comfort, help, and support others as they move forward) in sport, as opposed to what I think is a sort of false sympathy (a sort of “bleeding-heart” notion, for the lack of another way to say it) pushed by our society at large.
4) I strongly agree with the notion of sport as a means of worship, though I don’t necessarily see it at odds with victory/defeat metaphors, etc. Keep in mind that a large percentage of Scripture uses victory/defeat metaphors (including graphic depictions of war that are far more violent than any modern sport) within the context of worship language—look at the Psalms, for example! That said, I do strongly agree with Hoffman’s antipathy towards characterizing Jesus as “always on our side”—something I’ve always hated among Christian athletes. (Why do athletes only seem to give God the glory for wins?) This is where Joshua 5 is especially significant for the Christian athlete.
5) His reminder of “sport’s temptation to pride” smacks of an unbiblical definition of pride. If the winning team exults in its victory and an outstanding player thinks himself an outstanding player, it is not pride. If this turns into a stubborn unwillingness to do anything except what one wants or be open to anything or anyone else, then it’s pride. Victory without some sense of jubilation strips sport of its passion. On the other side of the coin, I’m in agreement with dispensing with shallow post-game testimonies and gestures. If a player is a Christian, let it be obvious in the way that the player plays and conducts himself off the field in everyday life.
6) I disagree that contact sports and their increased risk of injury are inherently dishonoring to the body as the temple of God. Intentionally defacing the body is one thing, but a pursuit that carries the risk (or even probability) of some injury isn’t so problematic to me—these temples are decaying to death anyway. Plus, Paul’s injunction against defacing the temple of God was about sexual immorality, something that debases and defiles the temple, not about potential injury, etc. That passage is one of the most popularly abused passages in the New Testament (perhaps I should add it to my list for this blog).
7) At the highest and most cut-throat levels of sport, the players tend to have more respect for one another than do the fans. Players at Florida State and Miami are bitter rivals and desperately want to beat each other, but most of those teams know each other, played against or with each other in high school or all-star games, and have a high degree of respect for one another. When the game ends, the animosity tends to end. The same is true in practice, where players will even get into fights on occasion. But once they get back to the locker room, everything is fine and they go eat at the same table and crack jokes. This is less true with fans, who are often far more hateful towards the opposing team and its fans. Either way, the notion of respecting one’s opponent is critical to the sports culture, and that lesson is certainly not one that Christians should resist.
8.) So where to go with this? I think the first thing is that Evangelical Christianity is badly in need of a theological overhaul, turning away from “evangelism” (i.e. preaching the Gospel) as the core of Christianity and towards a notion of living life in and through the transforming presence of God. That is, Evangelical Christianity badly needs a “participationist” theology rather than an “outreach” theology. In terms of how this would impact sports, I would like to see Christian athletes (and Christian athletic organizations) focus on application of a legitimate biblical ethos to playing the game—respect for others, self-denial in pursuit of a goal, collective concern, etc.—and living off the field. My thinking is that if even 10% of the claimed Christians in sports actually decided to conduct themselves in this manner it would be a noticeable phenomenon.