"Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play…it is war minus the shooting."
Good Game: Christianity and the culture of sports
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Shirl James Hoffman, Baylor University Press, 2010 350 pages. ISBN 978-1-932792-10-2Shirl Hoffman’s long awaited book does not disappoint. In eleven chapters he traces the history of the relationship between sport and Christianity from the ancient Olympics to the modern day. The final chapter sets out his manifesto for a way forward.
The strength of the book is in the analysis of what the subject as the author observes it but the wealth of material and the 35 pages of references will ensure this is a must read book for anyone with a serious interest in the subject. The early chapters give the most thorough account that exists of the historical development from the early church through the Middle Ages and the Puritans to the modern age.
The author – rightly – in my view, berates evangelicals for failing to think theologically about sport: “In the vacuum caused by the reluctance of the Christian community generally, and the evangelical community in particular, to think seriously about sports, a folk theology offered as an explanation for the relationship between sport and the faith has emerged. Viewing it as not quite Christianity, Frank Deford labelled it ‘Sportianity’—a concoction of triumphal evangelism blended with worldly Darwinian competition, and crafted to appeal to those for whom a love of athletics frames their lives. It combines locker room slogans, Old Testament allusions to religious wars, athletically slanted doctrines of assertiveness and sacrifice, and a cult of masculinity, backed up by cherry-picked Bible verses pre-screened to ensure that they don’t conflict with sport’s reigning orthodoxies”.
Perhaps the key chapter is “Christians and the killer instinct” (145-65) which looks at how Christians address and often struggle with the issues of competition. Or as Hoffman eloquently puts it: “On the whole, evangelicals have not managed to reconcile the competitive element of sports with their faith any better than Samuel Johnson’s dog managed to walk on its hind legs”.
The author suggests that the story of Andrea Jeager’s conflict is an example: “of the radical stance on sports that can come when one takes their faith seriously and chooses to examine sports competition unrestricted by the mind-numbing constraints of modern sports theology”.
Chapter10” Prayer out of bounds” is another great chapter with sub headings
· Pragmatic prayers
· The triviality of athletic prayer
· Gestures, prayer circles and end zone prayers
· Praying for safety, praying to win
· Prayer as magic and superstition
The final chapter “Notes toward a well-played game” (Pages 263- 292) sets out Hoffman’s manifesto for sport last chapter. It is a complex argument and not easy to grasp. Eg ”Reimagining sport as an autotelic, leisure based experience means shunning rhetoric about the sports field as a training ground for character, or as a way of building strong bones and muscles, or as a fertile field for evangelism, or realizing any other practical benefit”.
A little clearer is : “Evangelicals may have a chance of influencing big-time sports when they cease using Scripture theological clap-trap to paper over the realities of hard-nosed competitive sport”.
Three small irritants for the UK reader Tim Heinman (sic) is misspelled consistently. He wrongly has Eric Liddell – a la Chariots of Fire – discovering just days before the race that his 100 meters heat is on a Sunday. The facts about the Cambridge Seven are incorrectly recorded.
As a last word, I will leave you with this challenging quote: “The gospel of Christianity is revolutionary, life-changing, other-directed, and subversive – all of which are anathema to the ethos of sports. The theology of sport evangelism doesn’t challenge assumptions. It plays to our natural dispositions and to our preferred views of the world.”