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Time for a Separation of Church and Sports?

5 years ago
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After this month's Super Bowl, American Christians, especially the conservative evangelicals who enjoy a high profile in football, had good reason to feel good about themselves.

Their current poster boy for the faith, Heisman winner Tim Tebow, appeared with his mom in a highly anticipated (and very expensive) Super Bowl ad aimed at promoting a pro-life message. And the Christian lobby behind the well-received spot, Focus on the Family, won an enormous amount of attention from the pre-game controversy the commercial generated. Not only that, but a team named the Saints won the big game, and their MVP, quarterback Drew Brees, started his post-game speech announcing that "God is great."

All in all, a typical sabbath in the most popular temple of the American faith.

But even as evangelicals were swapping high-fives over their good fortune, some dissenting voices were emerging to rein in their enthusiasm and raise serious questions about whether Christians, and evangelicals in particular, are becoming so obsessed with sports that they are losing sight of what is really important, and are even mixing the precepts of faith with the rules of the games.

The cover of February's edition of Christianity Today, the flagship evangelical magazine, puts the issue in stark terms. Over a picture of two screaming Green Bay Packers fans, stripped to the waist with their torsos smeared with gold and green team colors, is the headline: "Fanatics: How Christians have succumbed to the culture of sports."

The lead essay is by Shirl James Hoffman, emeritus professor of kinesiology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, and author of a new book, Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports.

In his friendly jeremiad, Hoffman -- a sports lover who has been an athlete, official, coach and professor of sports -- is unrepentant about calling a personal foul on the confused values of American Christians who worship the Jesus of the Cross as well as the gladiator of the arena.

"There are simply no easy, straight-faced, intellectually respectable answers for how evangelicals can model the Christian narrative -- with its emphases on servanthood, generosity, and self-subordination -- while immersed in a culture that thrives on cut-throat competition, partisanship, and Darwinian struggle," Hoffman writes. "Further, while honesty, sympathy, and generosity are the idealized derivatives of a life lived with God, recent data reveal that immersion in a culture devoted to proving one's superiority squelches rather than reinforces these virtues."

It is not just a problem of Christians who are so mesmerized by sports that they forget the gospel, Hoffman writes. It is also the unquestioned and unfiltered exchange of rites, practices and principles between church and sport. The pagan Romans, he says, were amateurs compared to American Christians.

"The cozy coupling of sports and evangelicalism shows itself not only in the outsized athletic complexes that are common features of church architecture, but also in the ease with which sport and its symbols show up in the sanctuary. Pastors incorporate pithy sports metaphors into their sermons. Famous athletes are invited to pulpits to tell how their faith helps them compete." At the same time, "the symbols of Christianity have invaded sports."

"Professional football is a heady mixture of toughness, violence, and piety -- vicious collisions coupled with post-touchdown genuflections, trash talk mixed with heaven-directed index fingers, anger and aggression interrupted by prayers." He says these "cheap advertisements of the faith" in big-time sports "smack of cheap grace."

For evidence look no further than the post-game interviews with the Saints. "God had a bigger plan than all of us, a plan that we couldn't see three or four years ago," running back Reggie Bush said of the team's apparent resurrection from perennial NFL doormat to Super Bowl glory. New Orleans defensive tackle Anthony Hargrove, who was in an alcohol treatment center before the season began, credited a divine director scripting his season and that of the Saints: "It's just totally divine, this is God's plan."

Such talk is almost locker room boilerplate at this point. But it was especially incongruous, if not presumptuous, to hear high-paid athletes claim that God was concerned with their gridiron performance while hundreds of thousands of earthquake victims lay dead in devastated Haiti.

Moreover, modern sports, both professional and "amateur" (the scare quotes are on purpose) are so rife with scandal and perfidy that projecting them as models of the Christian life is galling to critics like Hoffman, just as he believes "the evolution of a sports theology" will lead churches into similar quagmires. Already youth sports are invading Sunday mornings as relentlessly as kudzu, often with the collusion of Christian parents who prefer to watch their kids compete, and churches who sponsor leagues or tweak worship schedules to accommodate play time.

Hoffman's article certainly struck a chord. The article generated a large number of comments, many of them expressing wholehearted support. "[A] necessary article that tackles one of the major idols (yes, idols) within our society and churches today," wrote one. "Football, especially, seems now (and for some time has been) to be the golden calf . . . of Christianity," said another. One cited as all too rare today the example of track athlete and Protestant missionary Eric Liddell, who refused to compete in a race in the 1924 Olympics, even though it was his best event, because it was held on a Sunday. Another commenter said his children left the youth group at their evangelical church "because all the leader talked about was sports."

Even the authors of several essays presented as a rejoinder to Hoffman to a great degree conceded his main point, though they argued that the situation was not so dire as he claimed, and that sports were hardly beyond repair. "Hoffman is on the mark when it comes to the systemic issues and realities," wrote Mark Householder, president of Athletes in Action, a sports ministry of Campus Crusade for Christ. "Here is the reality: Having a few athletes and coaches committed to following Christ doesn't necessarily change sports culture. That culture is broken."

Such sentiments can hark back to an earlier era, more than a century ago, when many conservative Protestants viewed organized sports with deep concern (as they did much else about the culture). The "Muscular Christianity" movement of the Victorian era began to play up the benefits of athletics in developing a manly, healthy Christianity, and the 20th-century emergence of both professional sports and a culture-savvy evangelicalism began to cement the alliance.

Billy Sunday, for example, was a former baseball player who became the country's most famous evangelist in the early 1900s by using sports as a tool for conversion. Other evangelists -- and athletes -- followed that path. The Promise Keepers men's movement was founded in 1990 by a football coach in a football stadium, and as a recent New York Times story showed, some churches are now bringing extreme martial arts into the sanctuary in order to attract men to church and affirm them as Christians and tough guys.

As far back as 30 years ago, Frank DeFord of Sports Illustrated described this religio-athletic amalgam as "Sportianity," which Hoffman defines as " a mix of locker-room psychology and athletically slanted doctrines of assertiveness and masculinity, abetted by cherry-picked Bible verses pre-screened to ensure they don't contradict sport's reigning orthodoxies."

Hoffman does take pains to note that there is a place for athletics, and even a place for a public expression of faith in the arena. Perhaps the best example of the latter was also at the most recent Super Bowl, when veteran kicker Matt Stover missed a fourth-quarter, 51-yard field goal that was arguably a turning point in his team's loss. As the ball sailed wide of the goalposts, the 42-year-old Stover turned and pointed both index fingers emphatically to the heavens. "Matt Stover, a deeply spiritual man, does that every time, make or miss," announcer Jim Nantz informed the 100 million or so people watching.

"Through my career I have to first and foremost honor Him," Stover told Baptist Press in a 2003 interview. "It's not about me, it's about Him. When I point up I'm giving thanks -- not only when I get a field goal but also when I miss one. It's life's trials that make you grow the most, not the good times."

Amen, amen. Yet the gesture was perhaps the least-remembered moment of the game, and it was quickly back to the Saints kicking butt and thanking God for allowing them to do so.

What's to be done? That's the hard part. Hoffman wants Christians to transform sports, rather than the other way around, and many of his critics agree. But his recommendations can sound improbable, given the popularity of both evangelical Christianity and sports -- especially football. "Sport is impossible without competition," as he notes, and of course Saint Paul was a fan of using sports metaphors to describe the Christian life -- running the race, fighting the good fight and so forth. But there is a difference between athletics and bashing one's foe, and Hoffman would prefer that churches and Christian universities promote "side-by-side" competitions such as swimming, golf, and track while perhaps even -- yes -- dropping football.

At the very least, he says, consider ditching those on-field prayer circles and "tired images of Christ as coach or Christ as teammate who is always on our side." That would seem to require a cultural revolution few are willing to join, even if some might cheer it on.

But the warnings seem well-timed, since America's "Sportians" are now facing something of a lull. The Super Bowl is over, the hockey and basketball playoffs aren't until June, and the Winter Olympics have never generated quite the same religious rush. Then again, the NCAA's "March Madness" is just around the corner, and pitchers and catchers reported to spring training last week -- a date others may remember as the start of Lent, that other pre-season warm-up.
Filed Under: Religion, Culture, Disputations

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