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.
by Shirl J. Hoffman
Baylor University Press Feb 1, 2010
ISBN: 978-1-932792-10-2/paperback original/341 pages/$24.95