Sunday, February 21, 2010

Are You Game?

Sports. The word encompasses a host of visual images. Children playing T-ball or chasing a soccer ball. A friendly game of hoops at the gym. College & professional games. The Olympics. And on and on ad infinitum.

For some, sports is not just a mild hobby. For them, Sports with a capital S is almost synonymous with Life! You can insult lots of things, but don't mess with their team!

Is there a difference between how Christians view sports and competition as opposed to the rest of the world? Should there be?

Shirl James Hoffman's new book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports addresses this obsession with sports. This is a fascinating book with much to ponder. I urge believers to thoughtfully read this and take a look at their attitude toward sports. This will not be a popular book, and will likely make some folks angry or, at the least, defensive. But for those who read it with an open and reflective spirit, it will transform how they view the athletic competitions of our day.

I don't wish to open the debate here regarding the pros and cons of sports. I've been on both "sides" of the issue: I grew up in a sports-loving family and I'm married to a man who not only doesn't care for sports, but is actually disgusted with the preeminence that sports have in our society. (Just last night on the way home from a school choir event, my girl shared that one of the most talented singers, who is also very athletic, will have to quit choir next school year because the coaches won't let her split her schedule and do both volleyball and choir. It often seems that sports incite an "all or nothing" mentality.) But I do want to share a few excerpts that resonated with me.

When religion runs up against sport, it is usually religion that gets shoved out of the way. (From the Preface, p. xii)

Hoffman details the history of the Christian response to sport from the days of the early church to modern times. At various times in history, the "church" frowned upon athletics because of the mind-set needed and the potential for obsession. [Nineteenth century churchmen examined] the recreation-amusement dichotomy. . . .They clearly understood that games were enjoyable [and that] enjoyment came only as players approached games with a certain seriousness, surrender of will, and acceptance of an alternate reality represented by the rules and customs of the game. For early Protestants, this risked immoderation, and for them, the price for participation was simply too high. (Chapter 3, p. 97)

As the years progressed, the church not only accepted sports but embraced it, creating a new "folk theology" -- which a Sports Illustrated senior writer in the 1970s called "Sportianity" -- a concoction of triumphal evangelism blended with worldly Darwinian competition, and crafted to appeal to those for whom a love of athletics frame their lives. . . .It is taught with remarkable consistency to high school, college, and professional athletes [and] also explains the meaning of sports to thousands of ministers, laypeople, and the religious press. . . .In the theological haze that is Sportianity, broken helmets become stars in the Christian's crown, and Christ becomes the author of brutality. (From the Introduction, pp. 14-15)

The author also takes a look at character, and how sport impacts that. He cites several incidents where an athlete or coach acted in a manner that had negative repercussions for his/her team. [One] act was decent and honest, but the same gesture displayed in the course of daily living would have drawn little attention. . . .Quite frankly, we don't expect coaches to act in ways that are detrimental to their and their teams' self-interest even if it is the right thing to do. . . .Honesty, especially when it is costly, is dispensable in sports. [A golfer, who penalized himself for something that no one else had noticed, said] he was simply being honest. "You might as well praise someone for not robbing a bank," he said. (From Chapter 8, pp 201-204)

Despite what the traditions of sport may tell us, what is truly highest and finest about God's people is not their capacity to sacrifice and work hard in order to bask in the rewards of long-coveted goals but their capacity, when the right moment comes, to give up those rewards willingly in order to do the right thing. (Chapter 8, p. 218)

The above is obviously just a drop in the bucket of information and suggestions in this book. It is packed much to consider, regardless of your current stance on sports and competition. BTW, Shirl J. Hoffman is clear that he is not a sport-hater.

I have never fallen out of love with sport. . . .I suppose I do hate what we have allowed sport to become, the feeble uses to which we try to put it, and the ugly social contexts in which we insist on inserting it; I do hate its distortions and abuses. But my love of the "essence of the sport experience" should not be in doubt. (Introduction, p. 22)

I strongly encourage you to get a copy of this book.

Shirl James Hoffman has also crafted an essay Death, Injury, and Risk Taking in the Winter Games: Begging for a Christian Response which discusses Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili’s fatal collision as well as the danger of continually pushing the envelope in Olympic sports. Rather than make this already wordy post even longer by including that essay here, I urge you to go visit my bloggy friend Kim at Window to My World and read it there.

Dallas/ Ft. Worth, TX—Like most Americans, Christians love sports. They love team rivalries, the sports analogy/ sermon illustration, the thrill of playing, Christian celebrity athletes and even the church-hosted Super Bowl party complete with a five-minute half-time devotional. These are sacred institutions in Christian life; their prominence is seldom questioned. Yet, since 77 percent of evangelicals believe that the mass media is “hostile to their moral and spiritual values,” one wonders why evangelicals haven’t also sensed that hostility in media-bloated competitive sport contests. Christians frequently voice criticism about violence in video games, but violence in sports such as football and hockey, which involves their children more intimately and dangerously, is rarely examined.

Author Shirl Hoffman, Ed. D, believes it’s time for Christians to ask the hard questions. “The institution of sport has been so intricately woven into the fabric of our culture, and thus into the Christian culture, that criticism of sport or suggestions that sports be given a closer look often are viewed as cranky complaints by prigs who don’t know good fun when they see it,” Hoffman says. “The person who dares to ask whether the competitive ethic as celebrated in modern sports might conflict in important ways with the Christian worldview risks being labeled a ‘sport hater.’” In his new book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, Hoffman draws attention to both the pitfalls and the spiritual opportunities missed by the carte blanche acceptance of current sports culture by Christians, particularly evangelicals.

The main factor driving the church’s unwillingness to cast a critical eye on the culture of sports is the rise of what sports writer Frank Deford called “sportianity,” a concoction of triumphal evangelism blended with worldly Darwinian competition and crafted to appeal to those for whom a love of athletics frames their lives. This folk theology combines locker room slogans, Old Testament allusions to religious wars, athletically slanted doctrines of assertiveness and sacrifice and a cult of masculinity, backed up by cherry-picked Bible verses pre-screened to ensure they don’t conflict with sport’s reigning orthodoxies. The fundamentals of “sportianity” have been rationalized, systematized and vigorously promoted by sport-evangelism organizations, coaches at every level, ministers, laypeople and the religious press. In fact, there are few alternative systems of thinking about sports and faith in the evangelical community—until now.

Hoffman is an internationally recognized authority in the fields of kinesiology, physical education and the relationship between faith and sports. He has taught at every level of education, coached college basketball and was a gifted high school and college athlete. As he penned Good Game, Hoffman knew his slaying of several sacred cows would likely draw the animosity of some readers. He challenges Christians to thoughtfully consider topics like:
  • The Killer Instinct—what is the true cost of competition?
  • Building and Sacking the Temple—why Christians should avoid violent sports…including football!
  • Sport and the Sub-Christian Values—do competitive sports really develop character?
  • Touchdowns and Slam Dunks for Jesus—how sports evangelism alters the gospel
  • Prayers Out of Bounds—why the athletic field is not the place for prayer

Hoffman contends that in popular sports, Christians have created a kind of sanctuary for themselves in which they are not expected to think or act like Christians, as if both athletes and spectators enjoy a special exemption from the fundamental teaching of Jesus (i.e. love your enemies, the first shall be last, etc.). As a body of believers, the church has failed to think about sports analytically. Good Game presents a compelling case to that end, incorporating research many would like to ignore and example after convincing example lifted straight from the sports page. Unless Christians in the athletic and academic communities develop a healthy curiosity about the relationship of sports to faith, they are likely to continue bouncing between two different worlds framed by two different worldviews: the sincere, daily effort to become like Christ and the cut-throat competition of game day.

Shirl J. Hoffman, Ed.D is Professor Emeritus of Kinesiology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he served as head of the department for 10 years. Hoffman has been a frequent contributor to the national dialogue on issues in kinesiology and higher education. He is a former editor of Quest and former associate editor of the Chronicle for Physical Education in Higher Education. He was named Distinguished Scholar by National Association for Kinesiology and Physical Education in Higher Education (NAKPEHE). He gave the Alderson Lecture at The University of Texas and the Dudley Sargent Lecture to NAKPEHE. Currently he is a fellow emeritus of the American Academy for Kinesiology and Physical Education, member of the International Association for the Philosophy of Sport and Executive Director of the American Kinesiology Association, an association of over 100 college and university departments of kinesiology across the U.S. and Canada.

Hoffman is editor of the first book Sport and Religion (Human Kinetics, 1992) and has been featured in a number of nationally aired televised documentaries on sport and religion on CBS (“Sport and Ethics”), ESPN (“Time to Pray, Time to Play”), Channel 4 in Britain (“Praying to Win”) and on nationally aired broadcasts on NPR (“A Whole New Ballgame”), BBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Company (“Inside Track”) and various local and regional talk shows.

Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports
by Shirl J. Hoffman
Baylor University Press Feb 1, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-932792-10-2/paperback original/341 pages/$24.95

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publicist. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


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quilly said...

I am thinking Amoeba could have written this book. What sports stand for -- like baseball pretty much accepting steroid use -- is so against what we, as a society, should stand for.

Amoeba still tries to watch sports from time-to-time, but he usually gets so angry, he has to quit.

Cindy said...

This is a bit of an issue at our home as well. It's a long story but dear son wants to do marching band next year instead of football. Dear husband isn't thrilled about it. Dear mom (me) is trying to mediate everything.

Cathy said...

I have loved for my girls to play sports too, but sometimes it's hard to mix it all together. Fortunately, when our girls played, it was while they were in Christian school and it didn't interfere with church activities. But I know this can be a real issue too.

Interesting post.