Written by Doug Faulkner. Media by Katie Wallace.
On cold winter nights In the early 1980’s, my friends and I would often walk across Scott Field from our dorm to the warm and cozy confines of HJ Long to take in some college basketball action. The Panthers were usually in a tight battle with an opposing conference foe from the old Prairie College Conference, the forerunner to the SLIAC (our current athletic conference). We did our own version of the “Cameron Crazies” (Duke University’s basketball student section), by heckling the officials, verbally abusing our opponents, and critiquing the coaches’ moves (especially the losing coach).
I also distinctly remember the few, but rare occasions, when we would wander back to our dorm, gather in someone’s room in Janssen Hall and superficially reflect on our conduct at the game in light of our Christian beliefs. We usually enjoyed a spirited conversation and concluded that what we had done (taunting opponents, officials and coaches alike) was just all “part of the game”.
Unbeknownst to me, just a few years before my treks across Scott field, in 1976, Frank Deford, the legendary sports writer for Sports Illustrated, wrote an article (“Endorsing Jesus”) critiquing Evangelical Christians and their love for sport. It’s a long piece, but well done and worthy of your time, regardless of your level of interest in sport. He coined the phrase “Sportianity” to refer to the unique
relationship between American Christians and sport. History shows that from the earliest days of organized sports in America, Christians have embraced, participated, and even promoted athletic contests as a moral good. James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, Billy Sunday, the former White Sox baseball player turned evangelist, and Amos Alonzo Stagg, the famous football coach and religion professor at the University of Chicago, are just a few of the examples of this era known as “Muscular Christianity”. Without going into a dissertation, “Muscular Christianity” is the idea that sport represents the concept of a “Strong God” who is courageous and takes a stand against evil. Scriptures such as I Timothy 4:7, “I have fought the good fight” or I Corinthians 9:24, “run in such a way that you may win” were used to reinforce this relationship between sport and Christianity. It wasn’t so much a philosophical obligation for believers to participate in sport, as it was a “theological” justification for their involvement in sport. Deford was puzzled by Christians’ passion for athletics and their uncritical embrace of sports, while at the same time Christians remained silent, or at least muted, with respect to the many documented abuses and excesses in sport.
Fast forward to 2010 and the book Good Game by Shirl James Hoffman. It also explores the topic of Christianity and the culture of sports. Dr. Hoffman, a graduate of a Christian liberal arts institution, states “when religion runs up against sport, it is usually religion that gets shoved out of the way”. He goes on to say, “that sport played by Christians isn’t different in any substantive way from sport that is taught, celebrated, sold and used in popular culture”. Hoffman, like his predecessor Deford, is frustrated with the lack of contemplation that Christians give to sport. He believes that sport requires far more discernment than it is usually given within the Evangelical Christian community.
Recently, one of our very own GC ministry students responded to this topic in a classroom discussion and urged classmates to consider how scripture can contribute to our understanding of what it means to live “in” this sport-obsessed world, and yet not be “of” this sport-obsessed world. As we consider our view of sport in relationship to our primary Christian commitment, my question for you is this,
“Are you ‘all in’ with respect to molding your view of sport through a Biblical perspective, or are you ‘all of’ the world with respect to uncritically accepting our culture’s view of sport?”
Christians are called to be persons whose primary allegiance is to God, not to sport. Joshua 24:15 states “as for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” May we echo what Joshua wrote in the way we live our lives, not just with respect to sport, but in all things.