"Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing."
Global Perspectives on Sports and Christianity
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Edited by Afe Adogame, Nick J Watson and Andrew Parker, London, Routledge, 2018. ISBN: 978-1-138-82852-0The book consists of a 16 somewhat eclectic chapters which consider the relationship between sport and Christianity from a range of perspectives. In reviewing the book I will comment on each individual chapter and then make some overall comments.
Tom Gibbons in Challenging the secular bias in the sociology of sport writes “in order to: (i) challenge the secular bias that has saturated the sociology of sport to date, (ii) initiate debate between Christian and non-Christian scholars, and (iii) stimulate further discussion on the potential connections between Christian approaches to sociology and the sociology of sport.
Jeremy Treat in Sports in the biblical narrative argues that sport is “more than a game, less than a God, and when transformed by the gospel can be received as a gift”. For Calvin (quoted in the chapter) sport is “the theatre of God’s glory” but for Treat it is also “the playground of God’s goodness”. Play and sport is self-justified, delighting in God’s good gift of creation and needs no extrinsic justification.
In what for me is by some distance the most interesting chapter in the book, Treat suggests further that Greek dualism has crept into evangelical thought to see sport in a negative light, a view that he describes as a “world negating view of the gospel”. From there he moves to explain how sin has affected and damaged sport - and the rest of God’s good creation. Such a belief sets us free to play sport for our pleasure and God’s glory, not to justify ourselves and prove our worth.
He ends with a conclusion that will please many of us: “Salvation is the restoration of creation, and if creation included God’s design for play and sport, then there will be sport in the new creation”.
In Interreligious football: Christianity, African tradition and the religion of football in South Africa, David Chidester suggests that football has had a long relationship with Christianity and indigenous religious traditions in South Africa and illustrates his thesis with reference to the 2010 World Cup. Chidester covers the different religious groups’ approaches to the World Cup and also discusses the similarities between football and religion. The chapter also includes evidence that the infamous vuvuzela started its life as Christian worship instrument.
Soccer fandom as catechism practices of the sacred among young men in Argentina by Eloisa Martin argues for interpretation of soccer fandom as a practice of the sacred. The chapter is based on an ethnographic case study of football fans in Argentina. Curiously the content of the chapter seems more about Gilda, the singer, than football.
In Soccer, victory authorized by the gods. Prophecy, popular memory and the peculiarities of place, Olutoyo Charles Adesina analyzes how traditional religious credo, values and ideas have also come to incorporate a multitude of perspectives that question and at the same time reinforce old ideas of winning footballmatches with reference to beliefs in and uses of rituals, incantations, charms and amulets as tools for winning games.
The chapter, The church and FIFA World Cup in Ghana. A gender perspective by Rose Mary Amenga-Etego describes how the growth in the popularity and support for football in Ghana and especially among Christians is not gender inclusive.
She writes of the 2010 FIFA World Cup where Ghana reached the quarter-finals that “although religion and football in Ghana has a long history, 2010 marked a new phase in the relationship between religion and football in the nation”. The chapter refers to churches organising prayer meetings, fasts, vigils, blessings, deliverances, predictions of scores and thanksgiving services to support the national team in specific football games but equally of the influence of Mallam, witches, wizards and fetish priests on football.
Nigeria: The case of Kaduna City Interfaith Football Club by Corey L Williams describes two Christian football teams where Christian practice is required but which have Moslem players as well as Christians. With their slogan ‘God first religion second’, they have been successful in bringing people together.
Jonathan Tuckett in Spirituality and martial arts fitting in the life-world explores the martial arts of Kendo and Taekwondo as forms of naturalisation. The chapter also discusses Christian attitudes to the Martial Arts.
In Playing and praying in the Premiership Public display of beliefs in English football, Abel Ugba looks at the public reaction to the collapse and recovery of Fabrice Muamba while playing for Bolton Wanderers against Tottenham Hotspur and the “Pray for Muamba” campaign. He argues that recently “there has been increasing public display of religious symbolisms by footballers in the English Premiership and other sports” but does not really justify the assertion
In Sport, society, religion and the Church of Scotland, Grant Jarvie discusses the relationship between the Church of Scotland and sport.
Protestantism and sport in the Bible Belt’ of Norway in the first half of the twentieth century by Nils Martinius Justvik looks at historic Norwegian Christian attitudes to sport, with particular reference to the Agder region of Norway and to the role of the YMCA, and why they were often negative
He concludes that there were three main reasons for the negative attitudes:
1 Sport took up time which could be better used
2 Sundays and holidays should be days of rest mentally and physically, not days for competitions.
3 The atmosphere of the competition area was not appropriate for Christian believers.
In Sport, celebrity and religion Christianity, morality and the Tebow phenomenon, Andrew Parker and Nick Watson analyze the Tebow phenomenon and how Tim Tebow’s celebrity status arguably owes more to his Christian faith than his NFL achievements. There is also a helpful discussion of whether it is acceptable for high-profile athletes to try to impose their religious beliefs on others.
James Deming in Church, sports, and tragedy. Religion and rituals of public mourning in the Ibrox disasters of 1902 and 1971 looks at the two disasters at Ibrox Stadium and the role of the church in the aftermath of each.
In Sport and Christianity in American cinema, Sean Crosson maps the developing relationship between sport and Christianity as revealed in American cinema, something he finds “not surprising given the association of Christianity with sport in American life”. He notes that “the recurring presence of Christian figures, particularly priests, in the American sport film has facilitated the acceptance and popularisation of sport – including formerly banned sports such as boxing - via its depiction in film”.
In Christianity, boxing and Mixed Martial Arts Reflections on morality, vocation and well-being, Nick Watson and Brian Brock that little has been published on Christian attitudes to boxing. The chapter concludes with a theological and ethical critique and assessment concluding that boxing and MME are immoral.
Bishop James Jones, former Bishop of Liverpool, writes of his own and the Church of England’s the role of the in the Hillsborough Independent Panel, which investigated the disaster in a chapter called Hillsborough and the Church of England.
The book is a welcome contribution to the literature on sport and Christianity. The wide range of topics covered means that there is something for everyone which an interest in the general subject in the book. As indicated in the review some chapters excite me more than others – which undoubtedly will be the experience of every reader – although everyone’s preferences will be different. While Sports in the biblical narrative was the chapter that I resonated most with, I was interested to see the range of interaction between Christianity and sport from USA to Europe and from Ghana to South Africa as from institutional panels to film drawing on history, theology, sociology and beyond.