Archives For Sports

Football season is officially over. Much of the nation is in mourning, not just for that, but that the Patriots won their 5th championship. At the same time, even a casual fan would need to admit that it was one of the greatest Super Bowls of all time. This would mean the Atlanta Falcons lost the best and worst Super Bowls of all time. Even more begrudgingly, one might entertain the idea that Tom Brady and Bill Belichek are the greatest of all time. As a Dolphins fan, I shudder at the thought.

While I mostly watch the game as a game, I rarely watch events like this as just games. Part of that is just me being analytical, and the other part is the after effects of reading a collection of essays called From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion. One essay in particular, “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival,” has some obvious connections here.

The author, Joseph Price notes,

Professional football games are not quite so obviously religious in character. Yet there is a remarkable sense in which the Super Bowl functions as a major religious festival for American culture, for the event signals a convergence of sports, politics, and myth. Like festivals in ancient societies, which made no distinctions regarding the religious, political, and sporting character of certain events, the Super Bowl succeeds in reuniting these now disparate dimensions of social life (137)

Using those categories, let’s consider how last night played out.

Religion

While we might consider our culture too “secular” for pagan temples, we don’t seem to mind giant sports stadiums. As I’ve written elsewhere,

On close inspection, the “liturgy” of a football game is hauntingly similar to a worship service. You put on the garments that identify you with worshipers of the same deity (mascot). You gather at a temple (stadium, or couch in front a big screen) where priests (refs) mediate the festivities where the most devoted worshipers (players) lay it all on the altar (field). The resulting spectacle delivers an intensity that can easily translate into a worship experience for some fans.

We could add to this the elements of the celebrity presence and the halftime show. First, in ancient Greece, the athletic activities were conducted in honor of the gods. On the one hand, you could consider Robert Kraft the god of the Patriots and Tom Brady is performing for his honor. On the other hand, you could say that the entire game, regardless of who is playing, is played out for celebrities who are the embodiment of the American gods money, sex, and power. Why else are we having so many screen shots of the famous people watching? I’m watching to watch the game, not see who’s in attendance.

Second, the halftime show is certainly akin to a worship service. From this point of view, it doesn’t particularly matter who the artist is, just that the performance is as transcendent as possible, and the music involved glorifies American ideals in some way. It is simultaneously an ad for the artist and a call to worship through song, although it is not always clear who or what is being worshiped. Though last night with Lady Gaga, I’m sure you could sift through the lyrics in her medley and get a good idea. I just don’t care that much since they weren’t aquatic creatures involved.

Politics

If you’ve never thought of sports as political, you should think more. It wouldn’t make much sense why there is so much American pageantry involved in the games otherwise. A former President does the coin toss. We sing the national anthem, after a special musical guest sang God Bless America. In the civil religious calendar of American culture, the Super Bowl is the winter festival at which we acknowledge our American-ness by gathering with a group of friends and watching other people exercise and while we eat too many calories. It’s what the Founding Fathers would have wanted.

This political element is not restricted to football, but is part of every major sporting event. It is actually part of every sporting event, it is just much more overt and amped up when it’s the Super Bowl. We have to unfurl a giant flag and have military personnel, current and former, on hand in order to honor veterans and servicemen. Not saying this is a bad thing, but it is a very political thing woven into what most people would consider just entertainment. You might also note that when a coach doesn’t want to talk too much about a big game ahead, he might default to politics more than any other topic.

Myth

This might be a bit of a stretch so bear with me. Price pointed out that the actual game of football, it is a “contemporary reenactment of the American frontier spirit” (139) What he meant by that is the football depicts the rapid conquest of territory by means of violence, which is one way to think of how the west was won. So in one sense, a football game is a mythological depiction, through sport, of something deeply part of the American psyche. It’s Manifest Destiny on steroids.

While that might be tricky to validate, the mythology of football itself within the American psyche is not. The Super Bowl is never a stand alone game. It is where legends are made and where some athletes cement their legacy as the greatest of all time in their respective positions. Especially in a game like last night, what happens on the field lives on for decades. If you watched the game last night, you’ll more than likely tell someone years from now about it and what it was like. It’s not that it is mythological in its essence, but more so in its significance.

All of this perhaps why Price concludes,

As a sporting event, the Super Bowl represents the season’s culmination of a major American game. As a popular spectacle, it encourages endorsement by politicians and incorporates elements of nationalism. And as a cultural festival, it commands vast allegiance while dramatizing and reinforcing the religious myths of national innocence and apotheosis (140).

And all this time you just thought it was a game right? The Super Bowl is America’s biggest game, but it is overtly religious and is one of the high points in the civil religious calendar as the premier winter festival.

As with most things in our culture, the thing is never just the thing. There’s a bit more below the surface waiting to be unearthed. And if it’s the Patriots, it unusually involves some sort of gate based scandal, so at least we all have that to look forward to.

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If you remember yesterday’s review, Lincoln Harvey ended his book on sports with suggested further avenues for exploration. Although Marcia W. Mount Shoop didn’t take Harvey’s advice to heart before writing, she is definitely tracking down one of his avenues and then some. In her recent book, Touchdowns For Jesus And Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports, Shoop takes on just about every controversial issue related to sports. As a brief overview, here’s her own video previewing the book:

This book is risky indeed. But, it’s worth checking out if you’re a fan of football, particularly the collegiate variety. Shoop’s opening chapter is similar to the above video. The following chapter unpacks more what the idea is behind a true apocalypse. If you knew that the last book of the Bible could be called “The Apocalypse of Jesus Christ” as well as “Revelations,” then you already know the connection. As she explains, “Apocalypse literally means lifting the veil. Apocalypse means seeing the truth about who we are, and seeing the truth about the nature of redemption” (10). The redemption is necessary because there are demonic distortions in the world of big time sports (who knew?) and in successive chapters, Shoop looks at how that plays out in fanaticism (chapter 3), gender inequalities (chapter 4), race (chapter 5), higher education (chapter 6), and religion (chapter 7). The final chapter offers some insights for the way forward.

I found the middle chapters (4-6), which are kind of the meat of the book, the most interesting and instructive from my perspective. As male, I’m not often aware of gender inequalities in sports since I always participated as a guy. As a Caucasian, race is not on the forefront of my mind either when it comes to sports. It is in this chapter as well that Shoop offers insightful (and incisive) commentary on the NCAA sanctions against UNC’s football program that went down a couple years back. She writes with an inside perspective since her husband was on the coaching staff at that time. Much of the critiques runs over into the following chapter on the interface of higher education and big time sports. For the unfamiliar reader, it can be quite the apocalyptic unveiling of the way the NCAA functions.

In general, this book to achieve the task of unveiling very well. Part of this was the choice of subject matter, which helped me think more deeply about certain aspects of my love for sports. The other part was that it is written from a perspective significantly different than mine. Shoop writes as the wife of a football coach, who is also an ordained minister and has a Ph.D in religious studies. This combination (theologian married to football coach) is not something you come across everyday (as she herself notes). And while we’re probably not on the same page theologically for some issues, I appreciated her thoughtful analysis in many places. For readers interested in exploring the ethical dimensions further of big time sports, particularly college football, this book should be on your to-read list.


Marcia W. Mount Shoop, Touchdowns For Jesus And Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time SportsEugene, OR: Cascade Books, July 2014. 134 pp. Paperback, $16.00.

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Thanks to Cascade Books for the review copy!

9781625646170

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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Visit the publisher’s page

Thanks to Cascade Books for the review copy!