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"Football is not a matter of life and death, it is more important than that."

Bill Shankly, Liverpool Football manager

Passion Plays

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Randall Balmer, Chapel Hill University of North Carolina Press, 2022. ISBN 9781469670065

The sub-title “How religion shaped sports in North America” attracted me to the book but I found that it failed to make its case. The author states at the beginning of the book: “Passion plays examines how the history of religion across North America connects in fascinating ways to the emergence of modern team sports. That basketball was invented by a Christian – James Naismith – is well known and well documented. Links between religion and (American) football, ice hockey and baseball are tenuous at best.

The book sets out the parallels between sports and religion - sacred space, ritual, authoritative text etc but there is nothing original in that, as such superficial parallels have often been documented. The perceived similarities between “the hockey sin bin and the Catholic doctrine of penitence and absolution” and seeing radio phone-ins as a kind of confessional are original if rather far-fetched. The book asserts that sports “bear at least a family resemblance to religion” without explaining or justifying the claim.

The author argues that sport has replaced church in terms of being the place where Christians gather on Sunday and suggests that “Americans once looked to religious leaders for moral direction… now as often as not, moral leadership emanates from the world of sports”.

There are several references to Muscular Christianity such as : “many of the leaders of organised team sports were connected in some way or another with Muscular Christianity”, and that “the sensibilities of Muscular Christianity surrounded hockey as well”. The book outlines “principles of Muscular Christianity - the full armor of God fighting against the wiles of the devil”. It is unclear what Balmer understands by “Muscular Christianity”. For the author, the term Muscular Christianity seems to encompass any Christian engagement with sport rather than having much to do with the principles identified with Thomas Hughes in the mid-19th century in England. Similarly when James Naismith is stated to have been “a fervent disciple of Muscular Christianity”, I have no real idea what the author means by it.

The last two sentences of the book are: “Amid a world perceived as disordered and unfair, this universe - this religion - provides shelter, a common vocabulary, shared assumptions, and the assurance of camaraderie. It's a wonderful, enchanted universe”. This shows where the author is coming from but doesn’t really help prove the assertion that religion has shaped sports in North America.

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