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Christianity and the culture of sports

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The pillars of religion and sports undergird the house of American culture. Over 40 percent of Americans tell pollsters (perhaps with some bit of fibbing) that they attend weekly worship, and Sports Illustrated puts out 13 million copies of its magazine each week (the same number of copies that To Kill a Mockingbird has sold since 1960).

But what is the nature of the relationship between American religion and American sports? In his book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, Shirl James Hoffman argues that the church has uncritically embraced the culture of sports and needs a strong corrective.

"When religion runs up against sport, it is usually religion that gets shoved out of the way." Hoffman writes. "Christians who have operated close to the sport scene have been largely followers rather than leaders, adopters of the dominant sports ethos rather than trendsetters."

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In other words, there has not been enough careful reflection about the counter-Christian aspects of sports, justly laying a charge against the church that it is not heeding Paul's admonition: "Do not be conformed to this world" (Romans 12:2).

Similar to the late Neil Postman's critique of television and entertainment, Amusing Ourselves to Death, Hoffman would have Christians consider more carefully whether some aspects of sports (medium) distort the gospel (message) beyond recognition.

"There have been modern-day Jeremiahs speaking out against the ills of sports, questioning the public's unexamined embrace of them," Hoffman writes, "but they are mostly sportswriters, social critics, and neo-Marxists arguing for reform based on principles of common decency, not evangelicals arguing from deeply rooted religious convictions. The evangelical community has been eager to lead the charge in the culture wars but has remained largely uncurious about sports."

In an influential series of Sports Illustrated articles published in 1976, Frank Deford coined the term "sportianity," as a description of the syncretism between sports and Christianity. Of course, even as 1976 was "The Year of the Evangelical," according to Newsweek, it would still be another three years before the launch of ESPN. In the 30 years since, much has happened within both American evangelicalism and sports.

After the first few chapters of fascinating historical overview, Hoffman turns his attention to exposing the "unexamined assumptions" behind: (1) the Christian approach to competition, (2) sports' influence on the character of athletes, (3) the place of prayer in sports, (4) a Christian athlete's spiritual obligation to his or her body, and (5) the role of sports in evangelism.

In so doing, Hoffman critiques just about everything and everybody that has one foot in Christendom and the other foot on the athletic field: chaplains, athletes who "thank Jesus" after a win, athletes' fingers pointed in the air after on-field success, and coaches who profess Christ but promote the "killer instinct" or promote winning even at the loss of ethical behavior. Some of Hoffman's critiques seem justified, but others seem like nit-picking. One area of concern Hoffman did not broach is the increasing sexualization of sports, both on-field and along the sidelines.

Hoffman understands Christianity and Christendom, church history, American evangelicalism, pop culture, and sociology-and he is a compelling writer, too, provoking much conversation with the reader. I found myself both agreeing and disagreeing with him all within the space of a few sentences.

I think that much of what Hoffman presents as evidence of the corrupting power of sports comes from the world of "big-time sports"-the large college athletic programs and professional teams. Of course, as Hoffman notes, everyone from parents to peewee players tend to imitate poor behavior displayed by players and coaches at top levels. Is the opposite true as well? Does good behavior at the top also trickle down and serve as a moral exemplar to youth?

But the question remains: Has the American church forgotten (or pragmatically laid aside) its prophetic voice when it comes to sports? Hoffman would answer, "Yes," and invite Christians to become more reflective in their involvement.

As Zechariah wrote about the future peace for Zion: "And the streets of the city shall be full of boys and girls playing in its streets" (Zechariah 8:5).

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