Desperately Needed: A Theology of Sports

I recently finished reading Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports to help me begin preparation for the final project of my Theology and Pop Culture class.  As I’ve grown older, I’ve taken a more critical look at the place sports has played in my life.  Undoubtedly, there are countless assets sports has provided in my development (I think of friendship with teammates, learning team work and working together, work ethic and discipline, and holistic health just off the top of my head), but in reality, sports has remained one of the largest unexamined parts of my life, speaking theologically.  I’ve treated it almost as if it is somehow morally “neutral.”  I think, by and large, that is the way most Christians see it – neutral or morally ambiguous.  Christians are called by groups like Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the YMCA, and others to work hard and play fair.  But is that all there is?

Shirl Hoffman’s book sets out to treat sports seriously through the lenses of theology.   It makes for an usual hybrid read, full of fascinating anecdotes from the sports world mixed with theologically academic concepts.  Hoffman’s work largely breaks new ground in the area of sports and theology.  He states regularly through the book that this is an area Christians must begin to treat with more theological rigor.  In his treatment of the history of Christians and sports, Hoffman traces the initial reluctance to all things sports, into an eventual blind acceptance of them which is, arguably, at an all time high as seen by “faith nights” at professional sporting events, professional athlete testimonies, regular religious imagery in sports . . . and on and on.

In the coming weeks, I’m going to be putting together a series of videos and accompanying material that will hopefully help churches begin to reflect on both the positive aspects of sports as well as the potential negative side affects of sports.  We must begin to subject athletics to the same theological rigor that we would all other aspects of our lives.  Below is a list of the kinds of questions I seldom if ever hear Christians wrestle with that I believe we must start:

– Is competition inherently good, evil, or benign?

– What is the place of the opponent in athletic contests?

– Would Jesus let you win a one-on-one basketball game?  Or would he be any good?

– Is it sacrilegious to pray for the outcome of sporting events?  Does God care about the outcome?

– Is God really a Yankees and Cowboys fans?  Surely he would root for the Indians!

– Is it a healthy thing for Christians to admire “successful” athletes?  Why is it the only stories that get told are those who have won championships or have overcome great adversity (ie. “stories of inspiration”)?  How do we reconcile this with the biblical witness?

Hopefully, I can put something together that will help address these types of questions and move our conversation of sports forward.

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7 thoughts on “Desperately Needed: A Theology of Sports

  1. Perhaps Paul puts it in perspective in his description of running a race to win in I Cor. 9:24-27. Of course, he is talking about running the race of faith, but the fact that he uses the athletic analogy says something about how he views athletic competition. I don’t think Jesus would let me win in a one-on-one basketball game, partly because I can’t play basketball, but I also think he would play all out which is how he did everything. I don’t see any superpowers used, but practice, skill and imperfections like everyone else. One thing for sure, he wouldn’t cheat!

  2. The latest edition of Anvil `(28.1) has a number of decent articles on the theology of sport. It’s available in print or online. Well worth a read.

  3. Good post. But there are some books on theology and sports now. Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport, is a good book, and there’s some catholic work on it too. The vatican has a department dedicated to it.

    • Thanks Henry! I recently read Harvey’s book and just finished Robert Ellis’ new book this morning. Indeed, this field is really beginning to take off and I am very encouraged by it – though it has made it a challenge to stay on top of things as I complete my dissertation! The Catholic contribution I gleaned a lot from is Sport & Christianity – a collection of essays that helped provide insight into the Catholic attention to sports (which has been more significant than most other branches of Christianity). Ellis’ book has helped address many of the holes that exist in other works.

  4. Pingback: Wickedness at World Cup 2014 - Why did Christians support Evil with Sports Culture? - Christian Forums

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