Sports and Play in Christian Theology

By John Tucker

Sport is a major preoccupation of the modern world. It consumes the time and energies of millions of people around the globe. It shapes the identity of individuals, communities, and nations.[1] For many participants, it operates much like a functional equivalent of religion, giving them a way to interpret and understand the world.[2] Sports stadia are the cathedrals of our time. Sports stars are the saints or demi-gods through whom we access the transcendent. Members of the sports media serve as religious scribes, and sports fans are the worshiping faithful. 

Given this reality, it is quite remarkable that Christian theologians and religious historians have been so slow to recognise the cultural and spiritual significance of sport, and so reluctant to engage in the study of sport.[3] Michael Shafer highlights this surprising phenomenon:

<p value="<amp-fit-text layout="fixed-height" min-font-size="6" max-font-size="72" height="80">"Everyday millions of people around the world concern themselves with sport. They watch it on television, read about it in various media outlets, and in many cases participate in it themselves. From young to old, sport has captured the hearts, minds, and bodies of people the world over. It is a worldwide phenomenon that is no respecter of age, race, gender, nationality, or socio-economic status. Sport is everywhere. Which is why it is interesting that one is not likely to find many Christian theological treatments of sport. It seems to be a reality that theologians tend to be as uninterested in the ideas of sport as athletes are about the finer points of Christian doctrine."<a><sup>[4]</sup></a>“Everyday millions of people around the world concern themselves with sport. They watch it on television, read about it in various media outlets, and in many cases participate in it themselves. From young to old, sport has captured the hearts, minds, and bodies of people the world over. It is a worldwide phenomenon that is no respecter of age, race, gender, nationality, or socio-economic status. Sport is everywhere. Which is why it is interesting that one is not likely to find many Christian theological treatments of sport. It seems to be a reality that theologians tend to be as uninterested in the ideas of sport as athletes are about the finer points of Christian doctrine.”[4]

What is true of sport is also true, more generally, of the concept of play. While Protestant Christians have produced a large body of theological literature to provide ethical guidance on work, there is very little theological and ethical guidance on leisure or play.[5] According to Ben Witherington III, there is hardly any ethical and theological discussion from a biblical perspective on rest and play and their importance in Christian life.[6] This is concerning. Without a theology of play, Christian understanding of play can merely reflect secular understandings. Indeed, James Houston argues that Christian conceptions of play, as a pause between work, do far too often simply mimic secular notions.[7]

Conscious of the way sport and play have evaded the attention of Christian theologians, my colleagues and I decided to convene a conference in 2017 at Carey Baptist College in Auckland, New Zealand. The conference drew together theologians, historians, ministry practitioners, sports chaplains, sport coaches, elite athletes, and gamers from a range of Christian traditions. The presentations explored the relationship between sport and play, on the one hand, and Christian faith and practice on the other. 

That conference was the genesis for the book I have recently edited with Phil Halstead: Sport and Play in Christian Theology. The first half of the book examines the phenomenon of sport and play from a range of biblical and theological perspectivesIt starts by developing a robust theology of play, before examining the ways in which sport allows people to form and express identity. It goes on to explore important theological questions concerning the practice of sports chaplaincy, and the concept of sacred pilgrimage in online games. 

The second half examines sport and play through historical and applied perspectives.It starts by exploring how the church has related to sport over time, and the way Christianity has contributed to sport becoming a dominant activity amongst young people today. It considers the reasons why people participate in sport, as well as some of the consequences of their involvement, by depicting their first-hand experiences in both sports chaplaincy and recreational sport. It concludes by outlining a pastoral strategy designed to help Christians develop a healthy relationship with sport and play. 

In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul writes, “whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him” (2 Cor. 5:9). The apostle is referring to the Christian hope of eternal life and the promise of a new spiritual body. In a playful spirit, the athletes of Spurgeon’s College in London during the 1980s adopted and adapted this text as their motto. They were saying, wherever we play – whether at our home ground or away at another venue – our goal is to please the Lord by the way we play. They were aspiring, in other words, to integrate their faith with their sport, their discipleship with their play. My hope and prayer is that this book will assist you to do just that – to locate sport and play in Christian faith and practice, for the pleasure and glory of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

Sports and Play in Christian Theology is available now!

Notes


[1]Greg Ryan and Geoff Watson, Sport and the New Zealanders: A History (Auckland: Auckland University Press, 2018), 1-2.

[2]For the religious nature of modern sports see Joseph L. Price, From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2001); Robert J. Higgs and Michael C. Braswell, An Unholy Alliance: The Sacred and Modern Sport (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2004); Robert Ellis, The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport (Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 108-22, 177-89; Jeremy R. Treat, “More than a Game: A Theology of Sport,” Themelios 40:3 (2015): 392–403.

[3]Nick J. Watson, “New Directions in Theology, Church and Sports: A Brief Overview and Position Statement,” Theology121(4) (2018): 244; Treat, “More than a Game,” 392; Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, “Sports and Christianity: Mapping the Field,” in Sports and Christianity: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives, ed. Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, Rout­ledge Research in Sport, Culture and Society 19 (New York: Routledge, 2013), 9.

[4]Michael R. Shafer, Well Played: A Christian Theology of Sport and the Ethics of Doping (Cambridge: Lutterworth Press, 2016), 1.

[5]Paul HeintzmanLeisure and Spirituality: Biblical, Historical and Contemporary Perspectives(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2015), xxiv.

[6]Ben Witherington III, The Rest of Life: Rest, Play, Eating, Studying, Sex from a Kingdom Perspective (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), vii.

[7]James Houston, “The Theology of Work,” in Looking at Lifestyles Professional Priorities: A Christian Perspective, Proceedings from the Conference for Physicians and Dentists, Banff, May 2-8, 1981 (Vancouver: Christian Medical and Dental Society of Canada, 1981), 45-46. Quoted in Heintzman, Leisure and Spirituality, xxv.

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