Does a theology of sport exist or are sports making sport of theology?
In Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, Shirl James Hoffman examines the growing evangelical Christian presence in the world of professional sports and the unthoughtful (and perhaps, unholy) allegiance many Christian institutions and individual Christians have with athletics. Hoffman is Professor Emeritus of Exercise and Sport Science at University of North Carolina at Greensboro and has served in many capacities in the academic and athletic world. Hence, he is not an anti-athletic stone thrower from the “other” side but rather one who has spent the large part of his professional career engaged with the world of physical education and kinesiology.
Good Game is, I would say, highly academic in nature. The sheer number of quotes and footnotes demonstrate the breadth and depth of research by Hoffman . As such, however, I think it will have fewer readers than it probably merits. The book is a near marathon to read though I was engaged with the material. Maybe a half-marathon or sprinters version could be in the works.
I appreciated the historic perspectives offered in the earliest chapters. Christians of every age have been confronted with questions of leisure and sport. Indeed, “there is nothing new under the sun.”
I like the questions that are being asked by Hoffman. Christians and Christian institutions should examine the role of athletics and sports to assess its legitimacy. Paul commanded the believers at Rome to be fully convinced in their own mind regarding matters of dispute or conscience (Romans 14:5). To fulfill that exhortation entails more than just going along but rather assumes some level of critical examination of the issue before the conscience. Hoffman asks questions that too often are not being asked. We just “don’t go there.” Is reciting the Lord’s Prayer before or after a game, for example, really the same thing as a vital integration of faith and learning?
As one who has taught and coached in Christian schools for twenty years, I would recommend this book for administrators of Christian schools (Presidents, Headmasters, Athletic Directors, and coaches) who have never “gone there” by honestly examining their philosophy of athletics. I think sports, including contact sports, like any human endeavor is subject to bring out the best and worst of man. Good Game is more about “sportianity,” the over indulgence in sports, than sport itself. This of course points to the the greater problem than sport; the fallen nature of man and his propensity to idolatry.
Maybe I am just wild at heart (wink), but there is something essentially masculine that comes alive in sport that would otherwise lay dormant and therefore apt to corruption. I think C.S. Lewis identified that danger in Men Without Chests,
“Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism . . . For every one pupil who needs to be guarded from a weak excess of sensibility there are three who need to be awakened from the slumber of cold vulgarity. The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles but to irrigate deserts. The right defence against false sentiments is to inculcate just sentiments. By starving the sensibility of our pupils we only make them easier prey to the propagandist when he comes. For famished nature will be avenged and a hard heart is no infallible protection against a soft head.”
Sport has an ability for many to awaken dead emotion. The unique challenge of sport for the Christian is when to call “foul” and when to say, “play on.” Good Game is a helpful resource in deciding between the two.
[Our thanks to B & B Media for the review copy of this book.]