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“Knowing Christ is the best thing that has ever happened to me, although winning the US Open was a pretty good second.”

Alison Nicholas

The Image of God in the Human Body

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edited by Donald Deardorff II and John White, Edwin Mellen, 2008

As I write a review of this book, I have to declare an interest. I was privileged to write a chapter and a half in it. The preface by James K. A. Smith sets the scene

"So where can we find sustained theological reflection on sport? I don't mean 'religious' reflections by athletes - which are usually testimonials that simply instrumentalize sport as a means for sharing a message about a wholly other-worldly, disembodied 'gospel' (and which tend to also be remarkably unreflective and uncritical about the nature of sport as industry in our culture)". And the clear statement "we lack a robust theology of sport". (Page iii).

The book's 388 pages are arranged in 15 chapters, divided into 4 sections:

- A brief history: theological paradigms

- Embodied contestants: created for play, games and sport

- The Fall and sports: ethical problems, perversions and idolatries

- Redemption in sports; towards responsible, flourishing sport practices

As with all books of this nature, some chapters are better than others and some chapters are of more interest to the reviewer than others!

The first chapter: A Brief History of Christianity and Sport: Selected Highlights of a Puzzling Relationship by James A. Mathisen is outstanding. It contains a summary of Ladd and Mathisen's Muscular Christianity which sets a context for the rest of the book. As always Mathisen's analysis is thought-provoking. His comments on modern sports ministry: "The fact that the current movement still operates in the absence of any clearly articulated theology of sport is troubling. For a minority of those involved, probably a Reformed theology and related hermeneutics guide their efforts, but no theology or hermeneutics is broadly shared within the movement". (Page 34) and "Sports evangelism would proceed, with or without an underlying theology or redemptive critique of it. (Page 30) deserve more thoughtful consideration than they are likely to receive.

Val Gin's Reversing the curse: practicing the presence and presents of God in sport

is another strong chapter. At the outset she states: "We need to reflect and discern how the truth of God's word can be lived out in our lives so that we are able to reflect God's character in the sport culture. How can we redeem sport so that right living is normative and sin is no longer dominant?" (Page 257). Her application of Brother Lawrence and of the Lord's Prayer to sport are very helpful.

She continues: "Christian competitors would transform sport by redefining competition is understanding that an athletic contest is a test with others, for the purpose of bringing out the each other". (Page 267).

The chapter has some excellent one-liners: "Our identity in Christ also enables us to be honest about our weaknesses and strengths". (Page 264). "The redeemed people of sport need to claim and recognise that God created sport". (Page 269)

For me the best chapter was "Finding the Right Place: Professional sport as a Christian vocation" by Ashley Null. Null has a great gift for seeing the issues clearly and expressing them succinctly.

The chapter gives a real insight into the world of the professional sports person - identity and all that. The chapter should be required reading for anyone who wants to work with the performance-orientated sportsperson. Three quotes illustrate what I mean.

"Not surprisingly, then, many professionals in sport and religion think the two fields are as compatible as fire and ice. Put God and sports together, many coaches suspect, and the security of religious faith will at least dampen, if not destroy, the athlete's driving inner need to win". (Page 314)

"'Being in the zone' means sensing God's presence and pleasure as sports people express in action his divine purpose for their lives, not just experiencing a release of endorphins as they thrill to see themselves excelling their competitors". (Page 325)

"Having found their true identity in the calling, Christian sportspeople eagerly compete to express and experience who they are right now. They no longer feel the need to be on a perpetual quest to achieve something more in order to at last become someone better in the future. In short, once assured of their calling, born-again pros know that in Christ they have finally found the place to feel fully at home, today as forever". (Page 354)

The book represents an excellent attempt to begin the process of reflecting theologically on sport. Everyone who is serious about redeeming the world of sport for Christ, should read this book.

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