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"It matters a great deal who is going to win, but not at all who won"

Willie John McBride, Irish Rugby player

Sport and Christianity, Practices for the Twenty-First Century

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Matt Hoven, Andrew Parker, Nick J Watson, Ed., London T&T Clark, 2019 ISBN 9780567678621

The book consists of 13 chapters plus an introduction and conclusion, arranged in three sections: Practices for the Mind, Practices for the Heart and Soul, Practices for the Moral Life. It is an academic book but earthed in practice and reality. Unusually for a book of this nature, it maintains a consistent standard throughout, with no disappointing chapters. In the preface, Tony Campolo questions whether contemporary theologians have given enough attention to sport. This book is certainly a step in the right direction. The book will quickly establish itself as a classic and must-read for any who are seriously interested in the relationship of sport and Christianity.

Robert K. Johnston’s “How might a theology of play inform a theology of sport?” is excellent, setting a good foundation for the rest of the book. I liked the choice in his conclusion “In considering a theology of sport, we can either ask, ‘What the hell is going on?’ or we can ask, ‘What in heaven’s name is going on?’” He suggests that Christians have focused too much on the first question.

In “The Paradoxical Athlete: Chesterton on Play and Work”, Scott Kretchmar and Nick J. Watson discuss how sport can simultaneously be “horribly important in one sense but utterly insignificant in another” and the danger of play becoming so much like work that it is no longer play. I am reminded of a comment by Steve Overman that protestants are reluctant to do anything for its own sake.

Rob Ellis in “Creation, Salvation, Competition: Elements in a Christian Doctrine of Sport” is on the money as always, taking Kretchmar and Watson’s argument a stage further by suggesting that “Play creates its own world with its own sense of time and place, and in which we are fully absorbed and engaged”. He agues that “sport can be a site of sin but also a site of salvation but only if we abandon the traditional narrow view of salvation as something only for our soul and see it as “something much “larger” and multi-faceted – embodied as well as spiritual, encompassing all of that human flourishing that allows us to enrich our lives before God…Linking competition to the image of God also allows a further step – so that we can think of sport also as being part of the doctrine of salvation”.

Andrew Meyer, assessing the “Historical relationship between sport and Christianity” draws the encouraging conclusion that contemporary Christians have a more favourable view of sport than at any time in previous history.

Doug Hochstetler in “Running as liturgy” sees running providing an opportunity to enter God’s presence in a special way. Lillie Rodgers and Clark Power in “Athletics as Sacrificial Offering”, believe that “athletics can be an embodied, human response of worship, or sacrificial offering, to the Creator”.

In a really practical chapter, “Sport, envy, and the conundrum of comparison”, Brian Bolt and Chad Carlson, reach the disturbing conclusion that “sportspersons may be more susceptible to envy than others” and that “sport is one of envy’s most fertile gardens, and the soil is rich. The competition of sport - me vs you, us vs them - is a near constant invitation to compare”.

I hope that this short review has given you a flavour of the delightful interchange of academic and practical over a range of disciplinary approaches to the question that so many of us wrestle with: what does our Christian faith sit with our love of sport? This book will not answer the question but will give you a great deal of thought-provoking material to consider in your quest.

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