I grew up loving Professional Wrestling. My brothers and I used to body slam one another, arguing who got to be Hulk Hogan or Ric Flair or Macho Man Randy Savage (or Sting or The Sheik or Andre the Giant or The Ultimate Warrior or Jake the Snake or … I could go on).
I owned a Hulk Hogan Wrestling Buddy.
And tons of M.U.S.C.L.E Men.
Don’t judge me.
I was crushed when I found out that wrestling is fake. I mean, the athleticism is real, but the characters’ relationships, the story lines, even the matches, all were contrived. It was more crushing than finding out Santa Claus was fake. Stupid reality.
Yet I didn’t stop watching. In fact, I was an avid fan until I was *mumble, mumble* years old.
If you think finding out that Professional Wrestling is fake is a soul-crushing reality-check, stop reading this post. Go ahead. Google something pleasant, like “unicorns and rainbows.” Whatever you do, don’t keep reading. And don’t read Shirl James Hoffman’s Good Game. It’ll wreck you.
Still here, eh? Well, you asked for it, you masochist. Big dose of reality coming your way.
ALL SPORTS ARE FAKE. There. I said it. That’s right, your beloved baseball, football, cricket, rugby, tennis, all of them. Fake. Ok, not fake, as in “it’s-all-in-your-head-and-doesn’t-exist-in-reality” fake, but fake as in “all-sports-are-really-just-grown-up-illusionary-play.” That’s the truth and it’s one we often lose sight of.
In the second half of Hoffman’s book, he takes us on a whirlwind tour of all of the ways that Evangelicalism is beholden to “Sportianity.” One of the big problems with this is that Sportianity is built on a series of illusions. Sport is a type of play. As such it is nonessential, autotelic (it is an end unto itself), yet invested with loads of symbolic meaning. Hoffman looks at where sport falls on French sociologist Roger Callois’ taxonomy of play. Callois identifies four categories: alea – games of chance; mimicry – make-believe or acting; illinx – activities that induce thrills or vertigo (think roller coasters and skydiving); and agon – which is “play in which symbolic adversarial relationships are acted out . . . ‘in such a way that thw winner appears to be better than the loser’” (275).
Further parsing agon, Hoffman describes a continuum from paida (cops and robbers play among the neighborhood kids) to ludus (play with lots of rules and regulations, strategies and skills). It is this end of the spectrum with which we are most concerned. Nearly all sports we would consider to be “professional” trend toward the ludus. Yet it is still play. It is still nonessential, autotelic, and symbolic. Hoffman goes further yet, adding in five other attributes that apply to ludus kinds of play: “1) it is experienced as nonserious seriousness; 2) it takes place in an imaginary world set apart from the ordinary; 3) it offers players an uncommon sense of freedom; 4) it envelops players in a sense of adventure and possibility; 5) it is fundamentally impressive and expressive” (ibid).
I am particularly interested in the first two of those five attributes. Who hasn’t experienced the seriousness of sport? Crazy soccer moms weaving their minivans through traffic trying to get their 8 year-old to the travel soccer team’s away game. Baseball fans beat a fan of the visiting team into a coma. The thing is, their team was the team that won! These rivalries, allegiances, whatever you want to call them are illusory. They are manufactured. Yet they are taken very seriously. Have you ever tried to calm down a raving sports fan or athlete? Telling him (or her) that “it’s only a game” usually backfires.
Also illusory are the environs in which the contests take place. We construct huge sports complexes that have no cultural reference point outside the sporting event itself. In this contrived uni-use space, we create imaginary time (how else does a one-hour sporting event get stretched over the course of four hours?) and imaginary conflict governed by rules that are enforced only during the allotted time and in the allotted space we’ve apportioned. Through all of this suspension of reality and imposition of illusion we engage, whether as participants or spectators, in made up struggles with pretend stakes and manufactured spoils. All this to the tune of billions of dollars spent on sports entertainment every year.
Deep down, we realize that it’s all a bit silly. That is why we construct elaborate justifications for our involvement in sport. “It builds character” – nope, see Chapter 6, “Christians and the Killer Instinct” and Chapter 8, “Sport and the Sub-Christian Values.” So you say, “It helps us get healthier and more fit” – uh-uh, look at Chapter 7, “Building and Sacking the Temple.” “As Christians, we can use the celebrity of professional sports to win people to Christ” – negatory, as Hoffman points out in Chapter 9, “Touchdowns and Slam Dunks for Jesus.” So what good, exactly, are sports?
They are good because the witness to at least two important components of the Christian worldview: that this life is a preamble to a life of eternal bliss and enjoyment in the presence of God, and that God gifted us with creativity and play because He is creative and playful. When we play, we experience the enjoyment of suspending our lives for a few hours because it anticipates the kind of carelessness we anticipate when there will be no more tears (Revelation 21) and no more weeping (Isaiah 65). We relish in a game well-played precisely because of what it harkens to: “Tennis is not eternity and baseball is not heaven, but they may bear a symbolic relationship to the real thing lying outside our immediate experience” (280). We also enjoy play because we are imago Dei, image-bearers of God. We look at creation and see the whimsical platypus or the giant Sequoia or a Chihuahua, and we know that God had fun in creating all that is around us. And so we, too, want to have fun and be creative and play.
Taken together, these two elements of a Christian worldview – eternity and a creative, playful God – can have a profound impact on the future of Christianity and sports. As Hoffman writes, “The first offers us a vision for sports: the game we play, the forms they take, and the sentiments they evoke ought to bear some resemblance to our understanding of our existence in eternity. The second . . . carries a prescriptive message, nicely articulated by evangelical philosopher David Naugle: ‘If human play is indeed rooted in divine play, then humans out to develop our abilities at play and cultivate a spirit of playfulness.’ And when our sports go as they could and should, they can become a means of spiritual formation” as opposed to a competitive system of idolatry.
That is really the gist of Hoffman’s book. One the one hand, we take sports too seriously and forget that they are still forms of play. And on the other we don’t take them seriously enough and as Christians are blinded to the way that many churches and evangelicals suspend their own ethics and morality so that they can justify reorganizing life around sports instead of around Christ. The challenge is to find that tertium quid, that third way that seeks to show all the ways that sport and play reflect who God is and who we are called to be in response (Hoffman’s urge to find more ways to show grace in competitive sports is enlightening here), while at the same time minimizing that which can be idolatrous: the greed, individualism, triumphalism.
Perhaps we need to learn, like the WOPR in WarGames, that sometimes our hyper-competitiveness leads us only to a place where the only way to “win” is not to play at all. Then we can all fancy a nice game of chess.
Wait, you don’t know what I’m talking about? You’ve not seen WarGames? For shame! Ok, I’ll make this brief. David Lightman (a really young Matthew Broderick) is this whiz kid who hacks into a military mainframe and gains access to the supercomputer (the WOPR or Weapons Operation Plan Response) thinking he’s hacking into a video game developer mainframe to play still-in-development games. He finds one called Global Thermonuclear War and begins to play. But, unbeknownst to him, it sets off all sorts of alarms at Cheyenne Mountain where the computer thinks Russia is launching a surprise nuclear attack.
The military folks figure out that it’s all a simulation with a few phone calls and tell the computer to knock it off. The thing is, the computer doesn’t know the difference between real and fake. The computer is convinced that the attack is real and that the humans must have been compromised. It reasons that the best thing to do is figure out the launch codes and initiate a response. Lightman and the computer’s architect, Stephen Falken, are called in to try and help stop the computer. They figure the only course of action is to try and teach it the futility of continuing. Here’s how it ends (by the way, you’re welcome… now go get the movie!)