Doing sports is (maybe) a sin

Erkki Vettenniemi
Department of History and Ethnology, University of Jyväskylä

Nick J. Watson & Andrew Parker (red) Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives 299 sidor, inb. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2013 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society 19) ISBN 978-0-415-89922-2
Nick J. Watson & Andrew Parker (red)
Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives
299 sidor, inb.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2013 (Routledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society 19)
ISBN 978-0-415-89922-2

When a co-editor of an academic anthology dedicates the tome ‘for him who shed blood for me and all humanity, Jesus of Nazareth’, he should not expect to keep his scholarly credibility intact. This is 2014 Common Era instead of 2014 Christian Era, and no allowances are made in the Western academe for religious belief, least of all for the Christian variety. That said, I found the ashamedly devout dedication a welcome provocation in the post-Christian age of ours.

Composed by Nick Watson, the dedication-cum-confession can be encountered in Sports and Christianity, a set of ten essays that provides ‘historical and contemporary perspectives’ on… well, almost anything that touches on sport and/or Christianity. The previous literature is lavishly assessed by Watson and his co-editor Andrew Parker in Chapter 1, which however ignores Andrew Meyer’s 2010 PhD thesis titled ‘Contemporary American Sport, Muscular Christianity, Lance Armstrong, and Religious Experience’. (Two years later, virtually at the last moment, Meyer had his main findings published in Journal of Religion and Popular Culture; Armstrong’s subsequent admittance of doping inevitably rendered the discussion outdated.) No doubt the editors’ endeavors will be appreciated by scholars keen on coming to grips with this particular field of inquiry, but the 80-plus pages immediately throw the volume out of balance. In fact, Watson and Parker’s bibliography alone is longer than most of the other chapters, implying that the review of literature ought to have been placed at the opposite end of the book, perhaps as an appendix.

Alas, the ensuing essays constitute such a heterogeneous lot that the misplacement of the opening chapter hardly matters. To characterize the tome as ‘uneven’ would be an understatement. Chapter 8, for example, has nothing to do with Christianity in particular or spirituality in general; Jacob Goodson merely ponders on the use of anabolic steroids in baseball. Further, Chapter 9 by Kevin Lixey is basically a litany of pious declarations originating in the so-called ‘Game Plan’ of the Vatican. It is not just short on serious analysis; it is completely devoid of any analysis. Chapter 5, in turn, remains a mystery to me. Whether the impressionistic text has a point or not is impossible to tell, but at least Robert Higgs’ prose on ’stereotypes and archetypes’ is a pleasure to read.

In Chapter 2, Victor Pfitzner explores St. Paul’s well-known tendency to employ sportive turns of phrases in his letters. Although the compact treatise looks perfectly adequate and even authoritative (Pfitzner has a long-standing interest in the Pauline topic), the outcome is reminiscent of yet another literature review. Curiously, elsewhere in the anthology St. Paul’s allusions to races and running are used in a decidedly amateurish manner, as if the itinerant apostle really cared about the cultivation of physical prowess. Of course, he might have been an exceptionally avid sports fan, but apart from a few metaphors no evidence has been discovered yet.

Apart from the two exemplary texts, coherent and insightful contributions are few and far between in this anthology.

Chapters 3 and 4 are solid pieces of historical scholarship on the gradual acceptance of modern sport by the Anglican clergy in Britain and the evangelical Christians in the United States, respectively. Most students of sport history are supposedly familiar with the nineteenth-century concept of ‘muscular Christianity’, but the English pioneers of what Hugh McLeod calls Christian sport ‘never claimed that sport was in itself morally beneficial’. Across the Atlantic, evangelical preachers such as Billy Graham are famous not only for their ability to fill stadiums; they are also famous for using outstanding athletes as their sidekicks. Shirl Hoffman gives a glimpse of the crusading athletes’ testimonies: ‘Be a bad loser, good losers usually lose’, ‘Of course it’s hard sometimes to show (the opponents) the love of Christ after we’ve beat them up and down the field’, and more in the same vein. As regards the preachers themselves, their attention eventually shifted from ‘examining the effects of sport on the individual and society to (…) new technologies for advertising the faith’, according to Hoffman. In other words, competitive sport came to be embraced by mainstream Anglo-American Christians as an efficient vehicle to spread the Gospel. Critical evaluation of sport was left to the heathens.

Apart from the two exemplary texts, coherent and insightful contributions are few and far between in this anthology. Symptomatically, the last chapter leaves the reader nonplussed instead of furnishing him/her with ‘a stimulus and an encouragement’ for further reflection (as the Introduction defines the book’s purpose). Can ‘spiritual humility’ be reconciled with the aggressive ethos of elite sport? Apparently not, though Scott Kretchmar’s essay prevaricates to the extent of excluding the possibility of a meaningful conclusion.

Thankfully, Nick Watson’s veritable sermon on ‘Special Olympians’ in Chapter 6 compensates for prevarications elsewhere in the volume. In Watson’s view, athletes with physical and intellectual disabilities could well be a ‘prophetic sign’ in the new millennium; it might be their sacred mission to expose and overhaul the ‘idolatrous’ institutions of sport. Given that the able-bodied contests are ‘shot through with sin and competition’ and controlled by ‘demonic spiritual forces’, redemptive action seems indeed long overdue. Granted, Watson is aware of the fiercely competitive spirit that prevails at the Paralympics, and on closer look his text cannot really be recommended as a subversive manual – unless post-race hugs for all participants qualify as transgressive acts. Besides, Watson’s outburst against ‘sinful’ sport is compromised by recurring nods to the ‘many positive aspects of modern sports institutions’. He also proves capable of formulating sentences the beginning of which effectively annihilates the argument: ‘Not that I in any way denigrate sport itself, but (…).’

In spite of senseless sentence structures, I dare to hope that Nick Watson will soon come up with the first sustained scholarly critique of sport from a Christian standpoint. He only has to cast aside the remaining demons of doubt and let his true Christian colors shine. It is not for nothing that the Book of Revelation (3:15) rebukes ‘lukewarm’ approaches to life: ‘I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot!’ As a distinctly lukewarm academic work, Sports and Christianity runs the risk of being dismissed by committed Christians as well as secular scholars, assuming, of course, that the latter ones ever get beyond the declamatory dedication page.

Copyright © Erkki Vettenniemi 2014

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