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Sports in church

Shirl Hoffman would win the gold if ‘ruffled feathers’ were an Olympic event

Wary at first of big time sports, Christians have come to embrace them and the culturally-relevant social image.

By Ronald E. Keener

As Shirl Hoffman watched the Vancouver Winter Olympics, he was impressed by the number of outspoken Christian athletes: the outstanding forward for the USA hockey team Jinelle ZauggSiergiej, speed skater Chad Hedrik, long track speed skater Trevor Marsciano, speed skater Rebekah Bradford, bobsledder John Napier, along with many others.

“As one reads the personal testimonies one cannot help but be impressed with how their faith sustains them in a tough competitive world,” says Hoffman. “Yet the testimonies of these Olympians, like those of so many other Christian athletes, speak primarily to the internal dynamics of their faith rather than external manifestations of it.

“Clearly their faith becomes important in a motivational way –“Since I became a Christian I now compete for God”– or helps them cope with rigorous training or recovery from injuries, but it is less clear how their faith has affected anything concrete in the way they approach their sport.

“As with too many talented Christian athletes, being a Christian in the sports world seems primarily to be willing to give assent to one’s Christian beliefs rather than impressing competition with a radical Christian ethic,” he says.

Clearly, Hoffman looks at faith and sports differently than many, and he says so in a strong book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports (Baylor University Press, 2010). He is professor emeritus of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and executive director of the American Kinesiology Association. He responded to questions from Church Executive:

As you watched the Winter Games, what were some reflections from the Christian point of view?

The Olympics – both summer and winter versions – have always been cloaked in a myth of purity even though historians have shown that the games of ancient Greece along with their more modern counterparts weren’t as free of bad conduct and corruption as we might like to think. With the relatively recent invasion of the games by full-time, professional athletes, and the importation of the excess, pragmatism, and shameless commercialism that forms that culture, one can hardly blame critics for viewing the Olympics with the same cynicism directed toward other big-time sports.

That said, the games do provide for an array of heart-warming stories. The account of figure-skater Joannie Rochette’s courageous performance in the face of her mother’s untimely death is but one example. Now, I’ll leave it to others to explain how one balances this touching story over and against the YouTube video, viewed by well over a million people, of Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili slamming into a vertical post at 90 miles an hour in an event in which speeds seem to be deliberately juiced up to attract larger television audiences.

Secular sportswriters and social critics have spoken out on the ills of sports and our unquestioned support of the sports culture. Why haven’t more Christians examined this topic?

Three quarters of a century ago the Christian community, wary of the image of big-time sports, hesitated to get too close to them. By 1950 however, public interest in sports had surged, and Christians, like everybody else had become caught up in the craze. Without taking time to examine the role of sport in society and its effects on individuals and institutions, Christian churches, colleges and evangelistic organizations rushed to associate with its appealing, culturally relevant social image.

The values reinforced by the sport culture—excess, materialism, violence, tribalism, Darwinian ethic, glorification of power, objectification of the body, and hyper-consumerism— were not taken seriously by the church. Once the church went down this path there was no looking back. Now after decades of weaving sports into the fabric of their institutions and personal lives, Christians are hesitant to examine them in a new light, even a light shed by the gospel they claim to believe.

As you wrote Good Game, you knew that many of your observations were going to ruffle feathers in the evangelical community. What was your goal in writing the book?

Well, it certainly wasn’t my intent to ruffle feathers, but after years of lecturing and writing on the topic I have come to appreciate how irked Christian sport fans can get when someone dares to criticize them. So far I have managed to escape the fate of the third century Syrian ascetic Telemachus who came in from the desert, made his way to the floor of the Colosseum and thrust himself between two warring gladiators, and commanded that the games be stopped “in the name of Christ Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords.”

No one has tried to stone me as they did Telemachus for his effrontery. There were several goals in writing the book the overriding goal being to provoke a serious, informed discussion about the role of sports in the Christian community, not only in the Christian athletic community in church and academic communities as well.

Sport is given enormous attention in Christian colleges. Many churches have made sizable investments in sport facilities and programs, in many cases, without giving careful thought as to how such programs might be integrated with the spiritual mission of the church. If the book encourages churches and Christian colleges to step back, take a breath, get informed about sports, and dare to challenge a competitive model of sport that has been shaped by commercial and public taste rather than the verities of the faith it will have achieved its aim.

You borrow a term, “sportianity,” from Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford—a secular writer—to describe the unique theology that describes American evangelical notions of faith and sport. What is “sportianity”? How wide-spread is this way of thinking?

Over a quarter of a century ago,Deford used the term in a seminal three-part series on sport and religion as a way of underscoring how the ethos of the sporting industry had so colored the gospel professed by many Christian athletes that it seemed to him as though a hybrid religion had been born; a gospel vetted by the athletic establishment.

It is a gospel of grace filtered through a sport ethic that values self-reliance, self-aggrandizement, and demonstrations of relative superiority. Sportianity studiously avoids asking prickly questions that might call some aspects of the sports culture into question. It is stridently status quo and as a result is a major impediment to serious reform of the sports by the Christian community. Arguably it is the dominant way of explaining the role of sports in the Christian life to ministers, laypeople and the religious press.

One of the most cherished tenets evangelicals hold in regard to sports involvement is the idea that when more evangelicals flood the world of sports, they will redeem it for Christ. What does the evidence say about this? Are evangelical athletes redeeming the sports culture?

I can’t see where the race toward Gomorrah in big-time sports has been noticeably impeded by the enormous influx of Christian athletes into sports like football, basketball, and baseball. Neither can I see where the growth of the sports evangelism enterprise has had much effect on the moral climate of sports.

Part of the reason, of course, is that typical evangelism efforts target individuals rather than the institution of sport itself. The uncomfortable reality that sins can be social and corporate as well as individual isn’t always acknowledged by ministers, chaplains and counselors working in the athletic community.

We know for example that many, perhaps most of the ills of sport come not from cheating or violating established norms of the sports culture but from over conforming to them— what sport sociologists call “positive deviance.” It isn’t cheating that is ruining sport; it is over conforming to the impulses inherent in the sports culture. Therefore, if the Christian community wants to get serious about restoring sport to its created essence it must restore the dominant ethos lying at the very core of the sports culture.

One of the most eyebrow-raising topics you address in the book is what you call “building and sacking the temple” or the damaging of the body for the sake of sport. Why do you encourage Christians to avoid violent sports—particularly football?

I question whether or not Christians should involve themselves— or encourage others to do so—as players, coaches or spectators in sports where the injury rate is so high that we come to expect them to happen. For more than century Christians have defended their involvement in sport as a way to “build up the temple of the Holy Spirit,” yet a truckload of evidence suggests that participation in many sports is much more likely to cause the temple to be razed.

Collision sports result in trauma to joints and bones that leave athletes permanently disabled. We are currently experiencing an epidemic of concussions in football and soccer. Latest data suggests that over half the NFL players in any given season can expect to be injured. Why athletes would want to do this is explainable by their acculturation into what sociologists call “the culture of risk” where doing the imprudent, dangerous and irrational is made to seem normal.

The question for the Christian community is to what extent it should buy into sports in which athletes bodies are sacrificed—admittedly willingly— for the entertainment of the masses. Unfortunately, body theology that teaches a biblical view of the indivisibility of body and soul, isn’t given much play in Christian circles. Instead we are more likely to see a pernicious dualism that subjugates the body to the soul which renders it expendable and something Christians are at liberty to do with as they please.

It may be summed up this way: “God owns my soul but I own my body, and I’ll do with it what I please, thank you.” The result is the emergence of Ultimate Christian Wrestling, an exposition in which men systematically deface the imago Dei with gusto,  performing under the dubious stage names as “The Modern Day Warrior,” The Custodial Crippler” and inexplicably, “God’s Property.”

Another craze sweeping the evangelical landscape is one you call “the body-spirit movement” or “the faith fitness movement.” What are some of the hallmarks of this movement? What do you find troubling about this trend?

I applaud Christians who are earnest about taking positive steps to improve their health including increasing their levels of physical activity. I believe Christians should be stewards of their bodies as well as their souls. Recognizing this many larger Christian churches have developed luxurious fitness facilities in their churches and staffed them with personnel.

Fitness tapes and books by Christian fitness gurus have an enormous market. My analysis of these materials has led me to the same conclusion reached by religious scholar Marie Griffith in her book Born Again Bodies: the movement seems geared toward crafting slim, culturally appealing bodies. Slim bodies may project more attractive image but I would be hesitant to suggest, as many in the movement do, that a slim and trim body glorifies God more than a less fit one.

There also is a crass instrumentalism at work in the movement that seems to value a devotee’s faith, less as an all-encompassing worldview, than as an instrument for pushing believers through workouts and helping them control dietary intake. Finally, I’m not sure I understand the rationale for churches to divert thousands, even millions of dollars, away from other needy in fitness facilities which, at days end, are no more likely to improve the health of their members than the YMCA down the road. A family struggling to scrape by may well wonder if funds diverted to slimming the contours of overeating believers might better be spent on enlarging those of their malnourished neighbors.

Many readers will be shocked by your contention that the athletic field is not the place for prayer—particularly public prayer. This has been the stance of atheist groups, but why do you say should Christians consider this perspective, as well?

In short, public prayers at athletic contests are inseparable from the larger spectacle in which they are embedded. Inevitably they lend Christianity’s imprimatur to what precedes and follows them, and when Christians take time to examine the symbols and values celebrated in our major sport spectacles I think they will probably conclude that we should think twice about lending the imprimatur of the faith to these events.

Do those index fingers pointed skyward and end zone genuflections cheapen prayer? I think they do. Many athletes regard their prayers in the arena as a demonstration of their faith but I doubt that prayer works any better as a demonstrative gesture in the athletic arena than it worked for the Pharisee who was rebuked by Christ. The hope that such prayers— like the circle of players who gather for prayer at mid-field following the game— will in some way modulate the generally crummy atmosphere and antics that pervade the big-time sports culture seems a bit naïve.

As I show in the book, the spectacle has been much more effective in vulgarizing prayer than prayer has uplifted the spectacle. When Jesus taught his disciples the Lord’s Prayer—by far the most popular prayer in locker rooms—I doubt that he intended for it to be blended with athletic jingoism invoked by testosterone-fueled gladiators as a way of psyching themselves up for the mock wars that pass for some of our most popular forms of sport entertainment.

As sports have become more popular so has sports evangelism. Who is involved in this phenomenon? Why do you suggest that evangelicals may not be well served by the current enthusiasm for sports evangelism?

Sports evangelism is a massive enterprise stretching across all levels of sport and encompassing what some have estimated to be well over 100 organizations. I know and have great respect for people who work in these organizations, but at the same time I have some serious reservations.

I am less concerned about informal sport being used to attract young people to the church than I am about using images of high profile college or professional athletes to project a culturally appealing picture of Christianity. Not only is it a misleading image it reduces Christ to a product, not all that unlike Pepsi Cola. Sports evangelism efforts at the highest levels of competition where the contrasts between the sporting and Christian cultures are starkest are the most troubling. Sport is not a blank slate upon which the Christian message can be written. Through their symbols and rituals sports evangelize too.

The evangelists would do well to remember that the medium used to transmit a message often speaks louder than the message itself. There simply are no straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers as to how Christians can model the Christian narrative with its emphasis on servanthood, generosity and self-subordination while helping to promote a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle. Justifying it as evangelism seems to me to compound rather than resolve this fundamental problem.

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