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"I love the sense of satisfaction that I get when I’ve done a swimming workout or race, and know that I gave my whole being and heart to God in every moment of the swim. It’s the best worship I can offer him."

Penny Heyns

Theology Disability and Sport

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Edited by Nick J Watson Kevin Hargaden and Brian Brock, London Routledge, 2018. ISBN 13: 978-0-8153 7897-6

The book consists of 10 chapters by different authors.

The Culture of Sport Bodies of Desire, and the Body of Christ - Benjamin S Wall

The chapter provides a “cultural exegesis of sport to highlight its authoritative influence on societal ideation about the body”, ending with a plea to Christians to celebrate body differences. As the following sentence shows, this is not the most accessible chapter in the book: “The sequelae of such cultural fanaticism is not only the idée fixe with what is en vogue but also the rising power and influence of cultural icons to which Christians indiscriminately genuflect”.

Outside horses inside Men: Equestrian Sport Disability, and Theology – Kirsty L Jones

This article claims to be among the first to synthesize equestrian sport, disability, and theology. The author suggests that everyone who rides a horse makes themselves vulnerable, an experience which can take an “able-bodied” person into the world of disability. The chapter also addresses the need for churches to adopt different “appropriate and accessible ways” to communicate gospel truth to people with disabilities (especially cognitive ones).

Sport Theology; and the Special Olympics: A Christian Theological Reflection - Nick J Watson and Simon Kumar

The authors propose that the “weakness, vulnerability, openness and humility that is often demonstrated in Special Olympians (and other types of disability sports) may carry act as a counternarrative and an incarnational prophetic message to the institution of modern sports”.

They quote Amos Yong that “Paul’s model athlete is less the champion of the Isthmian games than today’s Special Olympian”.

The authors argue that Christianity is “characterized by a theology of vulnerability and an ethos of downward mobility which arguably is seldom witnessed professional sports world”.

My concern with the paper is that in extolling the values of the Special Olympics, the authors implicitly dismiss the witness of thousands of Christians in competitive Para and able-bodied sport.

“You Shall Not Murder”: Atos at the Paralympic Games - Stuart Braye

Braye argues that IPC and its emphasis on elite, successful disabled people, rather than helping the rank and file disabled in society, actually does them a disservice. He highlights the disconnect between glorifying the faster, higher, stronger paralympians and other disabled people, who are denied their most basic human rights and are fighting to gain the care they need.

Braye concludes: “The IPC’s claim during the 2012 Paralympic Games opening ceremony, that rights for disabled people had been achieved is, I argue, deeply unethical and contrary to the Christian notion of championing the cause of the oppressed marginalized”.

Messengers of Hope: A Boy With Autism His Church and the Special Olympics – Paul Shrier

The chapter looks at the experience of an autistic boy and his sporting experience. The statement that Shirl Hoffman’s Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, is “an example of the Christian belief that competition is not good” seems an over-simplification of Hoffman.

Running for Jesus! The Virtues and the Vices of Disability and Sport - John Swinton

I felt this was the best chapter in the book, exploring the “connection between Christianity and sport” which is “fascinating but inevitably ambiguous”. The author explores the opportunity to give glory to God and the temptation to glorify self.

He argues that Para-athletes are judged by the same standards as “able-bodied” athletes, which can lead to problems if “the successful Paralympian then becomes a paradigm for the expectations of disabled bodies more generally”. He adds: “The idea of overcoming is generally problematic for people living with disabilities, especially for those for whom overcoming their disability is not an option”.

I resonated with the sentence: “Christian sportswomen and men have to work through… how to love our neighbour, when by defeating you, our neighbor seems to have just taken away our hopes and dreams”. This is something that I have written about elsewhere*.

Calling for a time-out - The Theology of disability Sport and The Broader Understanding of Competition - Kevin Hargaden

The author sets out the contrast between man, created in the image of God, not defined by their achievements and what he calls “Homo economicus”. He quotes the lovely story of the boy in the The Special Olympians who sacrificed his chance of winning to pick up an opponent who had fallen. Again I felt there was an implicit – and unfair – criticism of the professional Olympian or Paralympian, who undoubtedly would have kept on running.

Embodying Compassion: Disability Sport and the mercy of God - Brian Brock

Brock argues for a “humble sportsmanship that is constantly prepared to have its sporting ideals interrupted in being reliant on the work of the Spirit whose gifts are of peace, faithfulness, patience, and gentleness”.

He also writes: “The main proposal of this article is that if Christians understand their engagement in sporting activities in abstraction from their responsibility to pray for and await God’s own merciful action, they will inevitably conceive themselves as duty bound to be good sports”. This sentence puzzled me to the extent that I wondered if a “not” had somewhere been missed out.

Sport, Theology, and Dementia - Reflections on the Sporting mories Network, UK Nick J. Watson, Andrew Parker, and Spencer Swain

The chapter examines the role of sport from a theological perspective in the care and treatment of individuals with dementia with reference to the sport-dementia organization Sporting Memories Network

Overall another excellent contribution to a field where little has been written. Personally I would love to see more written on the nature of elite Para-sport and the theological issues it raises in comparison with “able-bodied” sport.

*Born to play



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