Christians and Athletic Competition #1

This weekend kicks off the NFL season, and it seems like a perfect time to kick off my series of posts regarding Christianity and competition.  My paper is due at the end of the month and after three months of reading, it’s time to put all that research into some kind of communicable sense.  So . . . here goes installment #1:

It’s really incredible, when you think about it, how easily sports has been accepted into Christian culture.  Helped, no doubt, by the overwhelming predominance of male-led clergy, sports and Christianity seem to go together like “peanut butter and jelly” – at least that’s what Dion Sanders once claimed.

There are certainly plenty of positive attributes athletic competition promotes: a healthy view of the physical body (temple), team work, goal-oriented discipline, and the spirit of play to name but a few.  However, to critique the sports industrial complex is tantamount to heresy in most church circles.  After all, if we condemned sports as sacrilegious, from where would pastor’s draw their sermon illustrations?

In a three-part series in Sports Illustrated in 1976, writer Frank DeFord was one of the first to acknowledge Christians were too quick to find themselves in bed with sports resulting in a compromised situation he termed “sportianity.”  The hijacking of sports by religion (or vice versa, depending on how one looks at it) has far from slowed down.  As the Little League World Series just finished it’s national telecast on ESPN, we gear up for another 16-week NFL schedule (extended a week for additional revenue, I mean health) and on and on the examples go, it has become difficult to tell whether or not sports has created a new religion itself or if it has been assimilated into a new version of Christianity (more to come on this paradox in a subsequent post).

The time for critical reflection is way past due, but scholars are taking notice.  A steady growth in the past ten years of material published addressing sports and religion shows no indication of slowing.  In this initial post, I wish to make two observation to help focus my discussion in coming weeks (and in my research paper).

First of all, sports is phenomenologically, complex.  It has physical, psychological, physiological, sociological, cultural, and ethical aspects just to name a few.  Sports crosses culturally diverse venues: we celebrate sports in our movies, television programming, visual arts, popular music, it dominates the landscape at every institution of higher learning, and has become a (the?) dominant ethos of youth culture.  Yet, strangely, theologically, sports has largely gone unaddressed in recent times (it seems as though in the past 100 years or so there has been kind of a theological blindspot, for religion and sports have never existed too far apart in the more distant history).

To my knowledge, no one has ever addressed the world of sports in the language of “powers” or “structures of existence” (Berkhoff, Yoder).  I believe this is an area in desperate need of attention and development.  As sports continue their broadening of influence and participation (participation in high school sports has increased every year for the past 22 years), we are in a desperate need for further theological development and thought.

Secondly, I will be spending my attention over the next three weeks addressing the American obsession with being #1.  A great book came out earlier this year entitled The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Sports.  In it, the authors reflect on how two dominant American ideologies (capitalism and Calvinism) have helped shape the evolution of sports in this country.  For the sake of my paper, I will be exploring how this evolution relates to the current crisis in major college football, and propose an appropriate Christian response.

Sports, at their best, are seen as an enactment of human’s desire for play.  In the next post I’ll relate the concept of play to the Old Testament’s concept of sabbath.  There is an inherent tension for the Christian in competitive sports here:  can we work hard and still be at play?


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