God must love football because he created so many football players, right? Or is it soccer or basketball that God loves?
The world has gone bonkers over sports and its stars. As one English soccer t-shirt has it, Football isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s much more important than that. In the United States alone, we spend something like $17 billion annually on tickets to watch our favorite players putt, bat, dunk, kick, or tackle. We spend more than five times that ($90 billion) on our own sporting equipment. And Sports Illustrated prints over 13 million copies of its magazine each month! Our devotion to our favorite games is, to put it bluntly, idolatrous. A courtside seat to see the Lakers will set you back $2,200 bucks—and those seats are filled throughout the season. We demo massive stadiums and build new ones in their place which are bigger, more attractive, and more comfortable.
Curiously, the church does not seem to feel much rub between our allegiance to Christ and our devotion to the games. Retired sports stars go on the circuit giving their testimony to congregations here and there. Denominations host Faith Nights at MLB games. There are even Christian wrestling organizations, of the cartoonish variety, that glamorize violence in a vaudeville fashion (Billionaire Todd is the bad guy who always loses; Jesus Freak is one of the good guys who tends to win his matches). After the wrestling, the “athletes” share the gospel with those who came to see a good show.
Interestingly, sports and religion have become bedfellows. Disciples adorn themselves with the sports apparel of their favorite player, and Christian symbols permeate sporting events. When Brazilian soccer star Kaka (you only get one name if you are a Brazilian soccer star) scores a goal before the watching world, he then lifts his jersey to reveal a t-shirt with the message I Belong to Jesus! Tim Tebow puts “John 3:16” under his eyes before the game.
In his new book Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, professor and author Shirl James Hoffmanwrites this about the mixture of sports and religion:
As sports have invaded Christian culture, 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.
One wonders at the church’s seemingly blind acceptance of our sports culture. Again, as Hoffman puts it, the sports culture, at its worst, is variously described by both insiders and outsiders as…
narcissistic, materialistic, violent, sensationalist, coarse, racist, sexist, brazen, raunchy, hedonistic, body-destroying, and militaristic…. [B]ig-time sports culture lifts up values in sharp contrast with what Christians for centuries have understood as the embodiment of the gospel. 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.
Well. . . there, I’ve said it. And I’ve written enough CN essays over the years to know that this one will elicit several emails, most of them critical, some even hostile. Reed, how can you say that? It’s just a game—and I like [fill in the blank with your favorite team or sport]. As if being just a game makes right the worship of the athletes and liking the sport justifies all of the above. Perhaps we, as believers need to wrestle as some Christian thinkers did in the later 1800s and early 1900s as sporting pursuits rose to new heights of popularity in the U.S. They realized the possibility that Sports… provided a public sphere in which ethical behavior could not only be tested but molded (Hoffman, p.113). Fair enough. But they also saw the potential of the idolatrous nature of sport. Around this time period, the Dean of the Divinity School at University of Chicago said,
Football today is a social obsession-a boy killing, education-prostituting, gladiatorial sport. It teaches virility and courage, but so does war. I do not know what should take its place, but the new game should not require the services of a physician, the maintenance of a hospital, and the celebrations of a funeral. (Hoffman p. 124)
Has our devotion to sport and sporting gotten out of hand? Have we made idols out of our competition and of our competitors? A short CN essay is clearly not the place to work out a theology of sports and a Christian’s participation in them. But isn’t it time for the church, at least, to ask these questions?
I wonder if we might have something to learn from one superstar of yesteryear. I’m thinking of missionary Charles Thomas Studd.
C. T. Studd was the most famous cricket player of his generation in the era when cricket was the sport of the world. He was arguably the most sought-after athlete in all of England. He was the Kobe Bryant or Lindsey Vonn of his time. He was Tiger Woods before the scandal, Lance Armstrong at his peak. And he gave up his sport for Jesus.
Studd had become a Christian in 1876 when he was sixteen years old, but he soon fell away from his faithand lived the life of a prodigal. At the pinnacle of his athletic career, however, Studd met Christ, really and truly, and cricket lost its allure. To understand the significance of the following quotation, imagine your favorite sports star meeting Jesus and then saying these words:
I have tasted almost all the pleasures that this world can give. I do not suppose there is one that I have not experienced, but I can tell you that those pleasures were as nothing compared to the joy [of Christ]. . . . Formerly I had as much love for cricket as any man could have, but when the Lord Jesus came into my heart, I found that I had something infinitely better than cricket. My heart was no longer in the game; I wanted to win souls for the Lord.
Can a disciple enjoy the game? Clearly. Can he or she be a fan? To a degree. Can a Christian be a great athlete? Certainly. But whether athlete or fan, we should play or watch our sports with a difference. We will, in a word, no longer be in the game. Neither our sport nor our star will be our god. Elsewhere Studd wrote this:
I do not say, “Don’t play games or cricket and so forth.” By all means play and enjoy them, giving thanks to Jesus for them. Only take care that games do not become an idol to you as they did to me. What good will it do anybody in the next world to have been even the best player that ever has been? And then think of the difference between that and winning souls for Jesus. Oh, if you have never tasted the joy of leading one soul to Jesus, go and ask our Father to enable you to do so, and then you will know what real true joy is!
Our sports culture is, as Hoffman puts it, tilting toward Sodom and Gomorrah. He is absolutely right, so let us proceed with care. Let us be very unlike Lot who pitched his tent too close to Sodom and became like those he was near. Let us defuse the power of the gods by laughing at them, turning off the television when they are performing, and cultivating interests that are broad and wide. How?, you ask. Just do it!