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If I had to choose between my wife and my putter... well, I’d miss her.

Gary Player

On the 8th day

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(A Catholic theology of sport), Matt Moven, JJ Carney, Max T Engel, Eugene, Cascade Books (Wifp and Stock), 2022.

The book is a welcome addition to the academic literature on sport from a Christian perspective. It delves into theology, sport, play, anthropology, suffering and loss, superstition and prayer, morality and social issues – to give a non-exhaustive list. The title is based on a banner seen at an ice hockey game: “On the 8th day God created Gretzky”.

The book promises “a critical overview of how religious thinking can engage the phenomenon of sport” and “a dialogue between sport and faith that is both reflective and critical” and does not disappoint. The authors suggest that there are two questions about sport to be answered: “What the hell are they doing?” and “What in heaven’s name is going on?”

Correctly interpreting the Apostle Paul’s athletic references as “using sport as a metaphor for discipleship”, not as a proto-type theology of sport, they conclude that “a modern Christian theology of sport is not predetermined by the biblical witness”.

The authors’ view of sport is very positive. Play is important. God has made us with a desire to play. They argue that sport with its “spirit of play can enrich the conviction that human beings are made in God’s image and likeness”. I love the idea of how those moments of ecstasy that sport can produce, or as the book puts it, “sport’s ability to deliver fleeting yet unforgettable tastes of glory” are a reminder, even a reflection, of the transcendent Being who gave us the ability to enjoy sport. I also resonated with the concept of sport, which “can mediate the divine” and “mediate the transcendent in human lives”. It helps us remember that we can be aware of the presence of God anywhere, including sport. This, they explain, is because all of what is most human - can point to God in whose image humans are created and, in fact, all creation can mediate God’s presence. Sport too has a practical role in God’s kingdom as the authors note that sports programmes in schools and the community can help people learn moral principles.

The book acknowledges the dichotomy, which many previous scholars have seen, between the values of (professional) sport and the teachings of Jesus. The authors just express it more eloquently: “The Christian account of salvation by grace is a counter narrative to the Pelagian pseudomeritocracy that dominates so much of the world of sports”.

They refer to “sport as a ritual performance… that it carries meanings of time and space that allow a glimpse of the sacred” because “prayers and actions, such as pointing to the heavens, can be spiritual practices when they are part of a lived awareness God’s relationship to the athlete, the sport, and humankind”. I would suggest that this is one of the book’s original contributions to our understanding of the relationship between sport and Christianity.

The positives are tempered with a warning not to let the sheer joy of sports be damaged by an “excessive focus on measurables such as winning and statistical achievement, and betting lines, and their worth explained solely in utilitarian terms; for the good for one’s physical health, social bonds, or increasing income” etc. They also warn of the risk of an athlete’s entire self-value being wrapped up in their identity as an athlete, which can lead to their commodification in a world that only values them in relation to their current athletic ability. As they express it: “Finding the root of their identity in spiritual beliefs rather than in sporting performances facilitates a deepening of one’s sense of self”. However, achieving that balance in elite and professional sport can be a tricky.

The authors advocate what they call a “sacramental worldview as the filter through which we approach sports. “A sacramental worldview”, they explain, “asserts that all creation and humanity itself have the potential to mediate and point to the One that creates and sustains the world…(and) prompt recognition of God’s grace in creation”. Again, in a very original way they see an answer to suffering and loss in sports in the Eucharist “the key to living the paschal mystery in sports and all of life”, explaining that “God’s love incarnated in Jesus Christ does not ‘explain’ suffering, but ‘frames’ it in a way that transforms suffering into a new life through the paschal mystery”.

In a chapter called “Building a culture of encounter”, quoting Pope Francis’ phrase, the authors discuss the role of sports in promoting social justice, acknowledging that the church has not only seen sport’s potential to play a critical role in the church’s overall evangelizing mission but also emphasized the positive social potential of sport over negative trends. They earth this theoretical teaching in their desire “that the principles of Catholic social teaching provide important ethical resources for engaging intractable social challenges in contemporary North American sport such as the cost of youth sport, compensation for NCAA athletes, and stark racial and gendered inequalities in sports coaching, management, and ownership”.

In writing a review of an American book on the Catholic theology of sport, I was very conscious not only of being a British Baptist but also that my readership will be largely British protestants. I hope I achieved an unbiased assessment of the book.

One question that did intrigue me was in what way is a Catholic theology of sport different from a protestant or generic Christian theology of sport? You can read a few reflections on that at

Christian or Catholic|?

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