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“All I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football”,

Albert Camus

The Games People Play: theology, religion and sport

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Robert Ellis, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014. ISBN 978-1-60899-890-6

The strength of Robert Ellis’s The Games People Play is that he writes as an academic theologian with a love of sport who has conducted empirical sports research among players and fans. Thus he is well placed to develop a theology of sport, rooted in the actuality of sport. The way he takes concepts based on play, salvation and sin and applies them to sport, arguing that participation in sport can be seen as a participation in God’s playful creativity, is ground breaking.

The aim is stated as: “to explore the relationship between Christianity and the all-pervasive cultural phenomenon of modern sport. In so doing we will be examining theories which suggest, among other things, that sport has become a kind of surrogate religion in the twenty-first century. We will also be attempting to outline a theology of sport—that is, suggesting how sport might fit into our understanding of God’s way with the world and our attempt to live godly lives in the world”.

The book begins with a chronological perspective, examining the history of sport and religion’s relationship to it. The way in which sport is experienced through six contemporary social lenses – business, media, consumerism, gender, ethnicity and politics – is outlined.

Three different historical responses to sport are identified:

a vehicle for communion with the divine;

a frivolous exercise, a distraction from the serious business of living;

a means of character-building and moral improvement.

A helpful review of the literature on play is followed by an insightful distinction between the play of the first six days of creation, categorized as “working play,” that expresses creativity, freedom, and rationality and Sabbath play, which is a “re-creative play” that restores balance and refreshes. However, the author argues convincingly that too many theologies of sport are, in effect, theologies of play, and that it is necessary to distinguish between the two more carefully. A key difference between theologies of sport and play is the element of competition involving a striving, whether against an opponent, or oneself, or perhaps natural forces or elements, and, of course, the human desire to win. Later it is suggested that winning in sport and “the desire to win is some kind of presentiment or anticipation of God’s victory: through sport, a locus of salvation in its way, we may participate in this victory of God over sin, chaos, and death…[thus] locating the theme of competition in Jesus’ life and ministry may not be so far-fetched or misplaced after all”.

Biblical material considered includes creation, Paul’s sporting imagery and play and creation from Proverbs 8. There are also references to Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion, to “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi) and sport as “transcendent experience” (Murphy and White). The notion that “through play, and through sporting transcendence, we may in some way commune with God and in reaching out to God be met by the God who reaches out to us” is explored.

Living out what he calls the “cross-carrying attitude in sport” will certainly be challenging. As Ellis puts it. “it is one thing, we might say, to love one’s neighbor by tackling them hard and bringing out the best in them; it is another to give up our own desire to be the best we can in order to do it”.

Writing of vicarious sport the author analyses spectator perceptions of sport, noting the similarities and differences between perceptions of players and spectators. Very quickly he moves away from the word “spectator” noting that “fans are not mere spectators”. They are not passive but actively engaged. They find some of their identify in supporting (not just watching) their team.

Ellis looks at how Christians should engage with sport, noting the “tendency among modern sports chaplaincies and ministries to construe their engagement with sports clubs and players in an instrumental way: the rationale for involvement is often evangelism or individual pastoral care”. This can mean that sport is, in effect, instrumentalized for the gospel and seen as a vehicle for some larger purpose. He argues rather that an “authentic Christian engagement with sport is unlikely to rest at simply using it for its own ends but will engage with it prophetically.”

If we believe that sport, part of God’s creation, “can be a significant contributory factor in the human flourishing that is part of the larger context in which Christian understandings of salvation must be set” then Christian sports ministry ought to “engage with sport from an holistic perspective seeing sport as of worth in itself and not just for its instrumental value”. Radical and exciting thinking!

In the midst of the main argument of the book, the reader encounters very useful cameos. For example, the sections on Sport and gender, Women and Sport, Sport and ethnicity, Sunday sport, Competition - the dark side and the inadequacy of evangelical view of salvation are excellent.

This is an outstanding book which takes the Christian understanding of sport to a new level.

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