A Brief Theology of Sport

December 9, 2014 — Leave a comment


Lincoln Harvey is Lecturer in Systematic Theology at St. Mellitus College, London. Earlier this year he published A Brief Theology of Sport. Peter Leithart already reviewed it, and Harvey offered a response. I’m going to comment on it here briefly, and then hopefully you’ll get a copy for yourself and read it and enjoy.

Although this book could easily be a Saturday afternoon read, it is not particularly light reading. It’s a slim volume that offers both Historical (Part 1) and Analytical (Part 2) soundings. In the historical section, Harvey runs from ancient to modern conceptions of sport in just over 50 pages. His opening chapter on the ancient conception argues that both sport and religion are universal and that inevitably they are intertwined. The following chapter details Greco-Roman understandings before turning to the early church’s response in chapter 3. As you might imagine, if sport and religion are intertwined, and early Christians were critical of the Greco-Roman religious activities, then they were also not big sports fans to say the least. Similar attitudes can be found in the medieval church (chapter 4), as well as the infamous Puritans (chapter 5), although noticeable shifts in the attitude toward sport did occur in both periods.

With the historical soundings in place, Harvey takes another 50 or so pages to complete his analytical task. In the opening chapter, Harvey moves toward a working definition of “sport,” noting that it is a sub-species of “play.” The latter is “a radically contingent, self-contained and utterly absorbing, unnecessary-yet-meaningful activity” (69). “Sport” is part of the sub-species of “games,” though is not identical to them. Games are a rule bound type of play (70), and sport is one genre of games. With all this in mind, Harvey turns in the following chapter toward the development a Christian theology of sport. Here, he draws a connection between play as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” activities and our own existence as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” creatures (84). The next chapter elaborates on this and so begins explicating a theology of sport proper. He ultimately suggests sport as a kind of liturgy of our most basic identity as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” creatures (93). He likewise makes a sharp distinction between worship and sport, and that is a point that Leithart criticizes and to which Harvey responds.

The final two chapters, still part of Part 2, offer seven avenues for further explorations and some concluding comments. Harvey suggests taking the proposal that “sport is a liturgy of the creature’s contingnecy” (101), and applying its explanatory power to the following areas of study:

  • Rules (“By mapping sport onto contingency in the way we have, we get a clear idea of the value of rules in sport.” 101)
  • Competition (“Is competition really compatible with the Christian life?” 101)
  • Idolatry (“Sport will always be a perfect arena for idolatrous self-worship. It easily slips into the pagan (self-) worship of nature.” 103)
  • Sport and war (“[O]n a properly Christian reading of creation, war would be much better understood as a fallen state of sport rather than sport being seen as a domesticated form of war.” 104)
  • Professional sport (“Our theological analysis shows that sport should not be professionalized, any more than worship should be professionalized.” 104)
  • Gender and sport (“The corrupted nature of sport is again evidenced in the undervaluing – and denigration – of women’s sports historically.” 105)
  • Good and bad sport (“By linking sport to our  created being in the context of a fallen world, we have created some space for judging between sports.” 106)

As Harvey says in his concluding chapter, “Thinking through the question of sport has helped me appreciate why I love football so much. It has helped me see football for what it is. It is a chance for me to bounce up against my meaningful non-necessity” (111). Hopefully, if you are interested in sports yourself, and football in the American sense, this will be the effect of reading Harvey’s work for you as well. His book is not the final word on the topic, but it is excellently researched and probes the topic from angles that many have not. The endnotes following each chapter provide many avenues for additional reading, since this book will probably whet your appetite for further study.

But, like sport, Harvey’s book can be read as an end in itself. That is, it can be read as a way to give you a general orientation to sports in Christian theological perspective. It can be a way for you to enjoy playing and watching sports to the glory of God, knowing that it is an unnecessary, yet meaningful activity for you as a creature to partake in. But, if you really like sports, you’ll want to explore further and Harvey’s book will help set you along the right track.

Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, April 2014. 152 pp. Paperback, $17.00.

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Thanks to Cascade Books for the review copy!


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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

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