Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives

Written by Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, eds. Reviewed By Jeremy R. Treat

Theologians have largely ignored sports. This is shocking in light of the prominent place of sports in contemporary culture and the ubiquity of games throughout human history. Thankfully scholars have taken notice and in the last half-decade there has been a budding interest in the relationship between sports and faith. Sports and Christianity seeks to analyze historical perspectives on sports (part 1) and advance the conversation by addressing contemporary issues for Christians in sports (part 2). This important book offers not only a synthesis of sport-and-faith scholarship, but also essays by several of its key players.

The first chapter, written by the editors, surveys modern scholarship on sports and Christianity and suggests further areas of research. For anyone who is new to the field of sports scholarship, this essay is a perfect place to start. The authors summarize the history of the conversation and explain the key issues involved. I am tempted to say that the first chapter alone is worth the price of the book but, then again, the book costs over $100.

First, the authors survey the history of recent scholarship. Michael Novak’s seminal work The Joy of Sports, first published in 1967, was the first systematic study of the sport-faith interface. Since this opening whistle, there have been several key players who have advanced the conversation; namely, Shirl Hoffman, Robert Higgs, Joseph Price, William Baker, and James Mathisen, and Lincoln Harvey.

The authors then discuss the most significant topics in sport and Christianity. The place to begin is with a theology of play. In 1950 J. Huizinga clarified the unique place for play in the life of humanity. The Catholic theologian Karl Rahner then theologized the conversation by rooting humanity’s impulse to play in God himself, who is the “ultimate player.” To play is to enjoy God’s creation in a creative and celebratory way as an end in and of itself; it is nonutilitarian. In this sense, a theology of play has the potential to combat the Greek dualism that has often pervaded Christianity.

Historically, sport and Christianity were brought together in the strongest way through Victorian “muscular Christianity” (1850–). This term refers to the Christian use of sports as a way to form character and virtue. As opposed to seeing sport as an intrinsic good, muscular Christianity approaches sport as an instrument; sport can be a classroom for morality.

Sport is more than play. Add competition, and a game becomes a contest. Competition is not necessarily incompatible with a Christian love ethic, but when taken to extremes it can have negative results. The “win-at-all-costs” culture that pervades sports today comes with a high ethical price (i.e., performance enhancing drugs).

Lastly the authors mention several suggested areas of further research in this young field, such as theological analysis of disability sport, the use of prayer in sport, and the theory and practice of sports chaplaincy. The chapter concludes with a table summarizing various data for sports and Christianity and a thirty-two-page bibliography for further research.

In chapter 2 Victor C. Pfitzner asks, “Was St. Paul a Sports Enthusiast?” After a brief survey of Paul’s use of athletic metaphors, Pfitzner lays out the debate regarding whether Paul’s athletic language reveals that he was genuinely following the sports of the day or whether he was appealing to the philosophical tradition of using athletic imagery to discuss virtue. According to Pfitzner, the answer is both, and Paul specifically uses sports metaphors to subvert the triumphalistic culture from which they were borrowed.

In chapter 3 Hugh McLeod surveys “Sport and Religion in England, c. 1790–1914.” Up until the 1840s sports and religion were seen as contrary in England, but from 1850 forward sports were recognized as a potential tool for character formation and evangelism (the movement known as “Muscular Christianity,” namely because sports became a realm for forming strong godly men). Tension soon emerged between sport and faith, however, as a result of four factors: the professionalization of sports, gambling, time, and sports as a new religion. This era of sports was significant because it was the beginning of the modern world of sports.

In chapter 4 Shirl Hoffman furthers the story by showing how in America the social gospel movement used sports as a tool for morality and justice, while evangelicals began using sports largely as a means of evangelism. Hoffman argues that evangelicals have emphasized winning to the point of sacrificing ethics and morality, while at the same time focusing so much on sports as a tool that they imbibe cultural assumptions and lose the joy of sport itself.

In chapter 5 Robert Higgs proposes that sports can be analyzed by reflecting on who sports performers are and how their identities create and reflect cultural values.

In chapter 6 Nick J. Watson proffers “Special Olympians as a ‘Prophetic Sign’ to the Modern Sporting Babel.” In a fascinating and convincing essay, Watson argues two strong points: (1) professional sports are largely idolatrous, imbibing cultural values and ideologies that are ungodly, and (2) special Olympians can be a prophetic sign of God’s kingdom in the current age. In other words, special Olympians expose the worst of big-business professional sports and point towards the good in sports that is rooted in God’s created order.

In chapter 7, Tracy J. Trothen addresses “The Technoscience Enhancement Debate in Sports.” Where does one draw the line between a good enhancement and one that is unethical? Trothen approaches the question from a post-modern feminist perspective that appeals to divine transcendence. According to Trothen, sport is a type of religion, another way of experiencing the sacred. When a player is “in the zone” they are experiencing transcendence. In a more controversial argument (one that leans heavily on the panentheistic theology of Jürgen Moltmann), Trothen avers that the relational transcendental of God will lead to questioning imposed human constructs such as gender and embrace diversity in its fullness.

In chapter 8 Jacob L. Goodson offers “a virtue-centered approach for making judgments on the use of steroids within Major League Baseball” (p. 225). Baseball, according to Goodson, is a journey where the virtues developed along the way are ultimate over the goal of a World Series. This virtue-centered approach, where sacrifice and teamwork are held in high regard, offers a different critique against steroids that serve the individual over against the team. Such an approach demands a shift from Aristotle’s magnanimous man who is a self-sufficient hero to the magnanimous team, built on friendship and sacrifice.

In chapter 9 Kevin Lixey discusses “The Vatican’s Game Plan for Maximizing Sport’s Educational Potential.” Lixey demonstrates that the Catholic Church views sports as a gift from God and therefore can play the following roles in the life of the church. First, play is an antidote to apathy. Second, healthy competition helps to excel. Third, sports can be a great educational tool in forming character.

In chapter 10 Scott Kretchmar discusses the compatibility of “Hard-Won Sporting Achievements and Spiritual Humility.” Can humility and competitive sports coexist? In short, according to Kretchmar, sports and humility can coincide, although he thinks that modern sports are not the best place to cultivate humility.

So is this book worth the $100 price tag? Should the true scholar-athlete buy the book or a new pair of Nikes? I’d say buy the Nikes, but then run as fast as you can to a good library and read this book (and especially the first chapter). It is an excellent contribution to the field.

Jeremy R. Treat

Jeremy Treat is pastor for preaching and vision at Reality LA in Los Angeles and adjunct professor of theology at Biola University.

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