Shirl Hoffman's recent CT article, "Sports Fanatics," questions an evangelical love for modern sports that confuses infatuation for true love. Repentance! For the first 10 years of my 17 years on staff with Athletes in Action, I confess that rarely, if ever, did I question this relationship between faith and sport.
Evangelicals should be grateful that Hoffman is willing to cry from the wilderness, even if it makes us uncomfortable. John the Baptist types always make religious folk uneasy. I am personally indebted to Hoffman, who has contributed to my own intellectual formation as I work on my Ph,D, in theological ethics. No qualms, in general, from me. However, there is a fallacy that lurks behind his call for us to think Christianly about sport. His view comes from a view of human nature that appears to lead him into a kind of dualism. Let me explain.
He states that what is wrong or right about sport is determined by our passions—or what Augustine claims are our loves. This is spot on. Sport, like other practices (education, for example) allows us to experience certain goods that fulfill us as human beings. Human beings, who are made in the image of God, long for those very goods that are integral to their own flourishing. Those longings are a form of love.
Thank God that sport is a sacred space where we meet and greet such loves with other people. For example, there are non-moral goods (e.g., excellence, play, skill, and friendship) and moral goods (e.g., honesty, self-control, prudence, and courage) that a sport can foster.
For Hoffman, play is his lode star for sport. But isn't it amazing how many different reasons people give when they are asked why they participate in sports? Hoffman highlights play theorists, and he singles out play as the sole fundamental good, if not the ground of this whole reality. I agree that play, a product of our imagination and creativity, is unique to human beings, and that sport should properly express this reality. But we are more than imaginative beings. I believe Hoffman swings the pendulum too far.
First, his definition of sport locates the "essence" of sport in play. This is reductionist. Certainly, sport is a form of play, but it is not pure play. Sport involves contests, rules, contestants, opponents, and performances. He does admit to this, but the play aspect overwhelms these other basic goods. Of course, the fact that sport is more than play brings with it more opportunities, both good and bad. On one hand, he flattens these other important aspects when arguing for sport as play, but he also uses these other aspects to point out where Christians have over-conformed to sport ideals.
More troublesome is the way he seems to neglect our full humanity in sport. He argues that man as player (Huizinga) is the essential stance for how Christians should compete in sport. He clearly avers that play belongs to the sacred realm; it appeals "more to our spirits than to our physiologies." Spirit is placed above the body. In fact, he makes a metaphysical claim that play itself is part of the created order, a religious expression. That implies that more earthy aspects—like strategy, aggression, and demonstrations of physicality (muscularity)—are worldlier and thus stand lower in his hierarchy. But they are worldly only because of his dichotomy. Our physicality belongs to God, because of how he made us, just as much as play. Hoffman states that our bodies are the apex of creation, yet, he implies that play does not pertain as much to our bodies.
I believe the pursuit of excellence through self-mastery and strategy are also signs of God's order in this sphere of life. The sensual, sweaty, and strenuous features of our humanity as expressed in sport are no less spiritual.
Hoffman identifies play with the creation narrative, as if to protect it, while failing to address how play itself is affected by sin. Just watch an episode of The Office, where play is over-valued. Watch children misdirect play as they frolic with other playmates.
So if play is not the main good to be preserved and realized in sport, what is? Excellence? Creativity? Imagination? No. It is unhelpful to search for the holy grail among a list to determine what is most basic to sport. Instead, the myriad of goods reflected in and derived from sport are part of the richness of our humanity. When athletes contest with one another, they revel in the very complex act of being human.
John White is a Ph.D. candidate in theological ethics at the University of Edinburgh and assistant professor of theology at Cedarville University. "Speaking Out" is Christianity Today's guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.
Copyright © 2010 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other respondents to Hoffman's "Sports Fanatics" include Athletes in Action president Mark Householder, Benjamin J. Chase, and Ted Kluck.
CT also published a cover story on "Why We Love Football" in 2007.
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