Par for the Course?

April 4, 2011 — 3 Comments

(image: University of Florida's Quarterback Tim Tebow with "John 3:16" written on his eye black)

Baseball's Opening Day was last week. The NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament (aptly named March Madness) concludes tonight. It is appropriate, then, that I should be reading through Shirl James Hoffman's Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports. Similar to Erdozain's The Problem of Pleasure, but wider in its historical scope and focused on the other side of the pond than Erdozain's assessment of Victorian sport culture, Hoffman asserts that today's

"culture of sports is light years removed from what Christians for centuries have idealized as the embodiment of the gospel message. The Christian worldview is based on an absolute, immutable, justice-loving God. The worldview of sports is based on material success. How Christians, especially evangelicals, have managed to live in these two diametrically opposed worlds, even to the point of harnessing one to serve the other, is the focus of this book." (p. 11)

Lest you tune me out from the outset, dear reader, Hoffman is no sport-hater. An athlete-coach cum professor-kinesiologist, Hoffman seeks to explore the sorry state of evangelical involvement with sports in hopes that he might point a way toward "reclaiming sport for the Christian imagination" (p. 22). In the first half of the book, he hurdles over 2,000 years of sports and Christian history. Chapter One looks at the early interaction of Christianity and Greco-Roman sport. By the fourth century, church leaders were firmly denouncing Christian involvement with public sport gatherings. At issue was not the sport in and of itself, but the pagan ritualistic worship that surrounded the gatherings

The second chapter targets a Constantinian accommodation to sport. With much of the pagan ritual removed from public sporting events, the Church began to soften its position through a gentle ambivalence. This, however, led swiftly to accommodation and, eventually religious justification of sport. Interesting are the contributions of Thomas Aquinas who, merging Aristotelian understandings of play as an end in itself on the one hand, and building virtue through pleasure on the other, concluded that properly directed play for the creation of enjoyment could "reap benefits for the soul" (p. 67).

The third chapter looks at Protestant attitudes toward sport. In one corner are the reformers Calvin and Luther who both allowed for participation in, and observance of, sport and play, though to vastly different degrees. Luther encouraged recreational activities as they refreshed the laborer, whereas Calving merely permitted them as cautious undertakings. In the other corner sit the Puritans. They viewed the illusory world of sport and play as directly competitive to the spiritual world of God and thus attempted to ban sport altogether. When unsuccessful they would do what they could to strip it of its meaning and enjoyment.

In the fourth chapter, Hoffman puts the full court press on Protestantism's "great reversal" of its attitude toward sport. Bolstered by an emerging revivalism and moral philosophy which emphasized the role of the individual in salvation and sanctification, sport gained a foothold as a means of effecting both. It's use as an alternative to baser activities found in pubs and alleys led sport to be embraced by evangelicals as a means of social reform. Yet the wide growth and acceptance of sport by the populous quickly outstripped the church's efforts to guide the ethics of sport.

Chapter Five Hoffman grapples with the rise of "sport evangelism." In my opinion, this is Hoffman at his best. In an unflinching manner, he delivers crushing blows against the skyrocketing popularity of "Christian" athletes who co-opt their fame and talent as a stage for evangelism. He traces this back to a 1947 Billy Graham event which featured a mock race by then world record track athlete Gil Dodds. After he ran, he asked the crowd, "I wonder how many of you tonight are doing your best in the race for Jesus Christ?" (see p. 133). This set of a wave of headlining sport celebrities at evangelism events. Eventually this birthed the foundation of organizations like Fellowship of Christian Athletes and Athletes in Action who would seek to commodify sports for evangelistic endeavors.

The game plan here is similar to other culture change strategies chronicled by James Hunter in To Change the World. The thinking is that if the "elites" of sports culture–that is, professional athletes–can be "won" for Christ, then the culture of sports itself will be changed. Yet despite decades of active intervention in professional and amateur sports and thousands of conversions, sports at all levels are rife with corruption, cheating and excessive violence. The "elite" strategy has not worked.

What is needed is a movement away from a utilitarian view of sport. Instead of seeing it as a tool for evangelism on the on hand, or a tool for corruption on the other, evangelicals need to recapture an understanding of the pursuit of sport as something with intrinsic value because God has created it good. Right prioritization, not balance, is key. This is the beginning of the tertium quid of sport, similar to Dr. Clark's pursuit ecclesiologically. My hope is that as Hoffman tees up the undergirding theology in the second half of the book, a clear and imaginative praxis will begin to emerge.

Anderson Campbell


  • Rodger McEachern

    Eddie – you rightly point out that that Hoffman with Hunter point to the thinking within some evangelical groups the belief of convert the players and coaches then the sport can become Christianised…yet as you know following the Rebel Sell, it is the culture that wins not the Christians. Give another point to the’lions’! You also quoted Hoffman at the beginning of your post…about the culture of sports being contrary to the Christian worldview…I agree with Hoffman as he refers to the culture of sports in its professional and elite American university incarnation…I found him to be unclear at times if he also was referring to sport and recreation in their other incarnations…as a disclosure like Hoffman I too was trained as a kinesiologist, I have coached high school soccer and track, and was involved in elite level track when younger…in reflection if there was a disconnect with my experience vis-a-vis sports and Christianity it was the fact that the sports were conducted in a secular context and as a secular pursuit…not that they were value neutral and not purely utitilarian either. #dmingml

  • Bill Westfall

    Hey Eddie…thanks for this review. I appreciated Hoffman’s work, especially in regards to the effort he put into the historical perspective of sport culture.I have to admit, I kind of laughed as I read this book, asking myself, “Is there seriously no part of my life that this DMinGML reading has not totally attacked??!!”Ah, this is a good thing.I realize more and more that ALL of my life must be yielded to the lordship of Christ…everything must be given over to him and be done for His glory–even sport. Truly, no separation exists between the secular and the sacred. Al of life is sacred if we will allow the allegiance we give to Christ to shape our activity.

  • Chris Marshall

    gracias, senor Eddie.What I find in my context is the hideous display of parenting that comes with coaching youth sports and the pressures put on pre-adolescent kids that are meant only for fully developed alpha-male personalities. Week in and week out, I watch kid’s countenance and body language reflect fear and despondency instead of joy and play as their parents or coaches berate them on less than desired results. I find myself becoming indignant and often have to just walk away. What are we doing to our kids?