Wednesday, May 12, 2010

'Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports' by Shirl James Hoffman - Interview with the Author

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In recent years the United States has seen an influx of Christian athletes and coaches get into big time sports, as well as a heightened important placed on sports in church and at Christian schools and colleges. However, as Shirl Hoffman critiques, a Christian vision of sport remains merely superficial—replete with prayers before free throws and praises after touchdowns but offering little, if any, alternative vision from the secular sports culture.

In his new book 'Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports,' Shirl Hoffman, Executive Director of the American Kinesiology Association, retells numerous fascinating stories from the world of ancient and contemporary sports and draws on the history of the Christian tradition to answer “What would it really mean to think Christianly about sport?”

Q&A with author Shirl Hoffman

 Q:  You borrow a term, “sportianity,” from Sports Illustrated writer Frank Deford to describe the unique theology that characterizes American evangelical notions of faith and sport. What is “sportianity,” and how has it affected the evangelical community?   
A:  “Sportianity” is a concoction of triumphal evangelism blended with worldly Darwinian competition and crafted to appeal to those for whom a love of athletics frames their lives. It combines locker room slogans, Old Testament allusions to religious wars, athletically slanted doctrines of assertiveness and sacrifice and a cult of masculinity, backed up by cherry-picked Bible verses pre-screened to ensure they don’t conflict with sport’s reigning orthodoxies. The fundamentals of “sportianity” have been rationalized, systematized and vigorously promulgated by sport-evangelism organizations. It is taught with remarkable consistency to high school, college and professional athletes. “Sportianity” also explains the meaning of sports to thousands of ministers, laypeople and the religious press. In fact, there are few alternative systems of thinking about sports and faith in the evangelical community.

Q:  In the chapter entitled “Killer Instinct,” you examine the aspect of competition in sports. Why should Christians be concerned about the competitive drive?

A:  I’m not going to scuttle competition. It’s a necessary aspect to most games. But the truth is that it fractures social relationships. A lot of Christians still believe we want to get involved in sports because it shapes our Christian character. This idea is certainly trumpeted by sports evangelism organizations. But research in this area has shown that those assumptions are baseless. It’s easy to say that sports develops honesty, community, etc., but competition tends to bring out the worst in people—the players, the fans, everyone. Think about it this way: without the pressure to beat the other team, would there be corruption in college athletic departments?

Q:  One of the most eyebrow-raising topics you address in the book is what you call “building and sacking the temple,” or the damaging of the body for the sake of sport. Why do you encourage Christians to avoid violent sports—particularly football?

A:  It is impossible to overstate football’s assault on the dignity of the human body. Of the 62,000 injuries suffered in high school sports each year, 68 percent come from playing or practicing football. Brain injuries in college and especially professional football are becoming a national calamity. The real seriousness of these injuries is muted by athletic jargon. One doesn’t bruise one’s brain, one “get’s one’s bell rung”; an athlete’s cerebral cortex isn’t traumatized, he or she “gets dinged.” If one dominant theme has emerged from centuries of Christian commentary on sports, it is an utter intolerance for sports that are harmful to the body. Somewhere in the devolution of evangelical ideas about sport, however, the theme was scuttled. When sports were taken under the wing of the church around the turn of the century, sport violence became rationalized in evangelical circles. The prevalence of athletic injury has worn calluses on the Christian conscience. It is hardly coincidental that evangelicals who can’t imagine a life without sports entertainment find it difficult to imagine that sports injuries have moral and theological implications. Today, on the rare occasions when evangelicals raise questions about the harm sports do to the body (the “temple”), they do so in an almost backhanded, apologetic way, as though the critic fears being drummed out of the manly club of sportsmen. Yet dishonoring the body in a football stadium in front of thousands isn’t all that different from dishonoring it in an inner-city “shooting gallery,” save for the fact that society applauds the former violent competition and outlaws the latter. In both instances, the masterpiece of creation is offered in cheap trade for the promise of a few moments of excitement.

Q:  Many readers will be shocked at your contention that the athletic field is not the place for prayer—particularly public prayer. While this has certainly been the stance of atheist groups, why should Christians consider this perspective, as well?

A:  I think it’s important for Christians to consider what motivates coaches, players and fans to pray in the athletic arena and to consider what those prayers actually accomplish. When the Supreme Court handed down its decision banning invocations at public high school football games, nationwide protests erupted. In truth, many of these invocations had been marginally sectarian at best, severely hedged by sensitivities to religiously pluralistic audiences intended to solemnize the event and promote good citizenship. Many coaches insist that having the team “take a knee” before the game is highly effective for creating a feeling of team unity. But is either of these things fulfilling the true purpose of prayer? Prayers offered in the foxhole-like atmosphere of the locker room can fade seamlessly into the coach’s pep talk. These artful and dramatic prayers in the locker room, clearly designed to manipulate the emotions of players and elevate competitive intensity, are difficult to take seriously. They seem crass and opportunistic. The disconnect between the way many coaches wax religious in the locker room and the short shrift given to religion in their private lives led former Michigan State University football coach Duffy Daugherty to suggest that “all those coaches who require pre-game prayers by their players ought to be made to go to church once each week.”

At the heart of this issue is the feeling among Christians that God is as interested in popular sports as we are and that He takes a direct hand in determining the winner. But even some of the most respected Christian coaches and players have expressed misgivings about this idea and the rise in on-field prayer gestures by individual players acknowledging God for helping them win. Tom Landry once said, “I’m afraid these little ‘God helped me score a touchdown’ and ‘God helps me be a winner’ testimonials mislead people and belittle God.”

Q:  High profile evangelical sports personalities such as Tony Dungy have captured the attention of millions and have used their platform to draw attention to God. Why do you suggest that evangelicals may not be well served by the current enthusiasm for sports evangelism?

A:  As sport has become more popular, so has sport evangelism. To evangelists, it’s a simple matter of mathematics. The Southern Baptist Convention bases its ambitious sports evangelism program on the dubious assumption that “96% of the population is linked to sports in some way.” But as philosopher-theologian Jacques Ellul has pointed out, Christianity absorbs culture like a sponge, and precisely how much of culture it can absorb without changing itself is a question rarely asked by those at the heart of the sport evangelism movement. To communicate their faith in an unsympathetic culture without contorting the message itself, most sport evangelism organizations have treated the message like a product to be advertised. Heeding textbook advertising strategy, sport evangelism has become focused on “parachurch” groups that, freed of churchly and denominational entanglements, are able to tweak the gospel to the latest tastes, images and jargon of their target audiences. Whether it’s the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, the Christian Anglers Association or the National Christian Barrel Racers Association, each group gives the gospel a unique twist that makes it more palatable to unbelievers. Can we create that many different “user friendly” versions of the gospel without damaging the integrity of the message?

The celebrity gospel spokesmen of professional athletics come with their own set of challenges. Refreshing though the public witnesses of sincere men like Tony Dungy may be, they are mere whispers in the cacophony of the more beguiling voices of big-time sport spectacles that herald muddled views of goodness, truth, beauty and the glories of self-determinacy, self-assertion and self-absorption. The usefulness of sport celebrities to the evangelical cause can quickly plummet when they stub a spiritual toe (i.e. soliciting a prostitute, fathering a child out of wedlock), something that has been a continuing problem for the sport evangelism movement. Simply put, an advertising pitch for the gospel constructed on the backs of celebrities—whether musicians, television preachers or athletes—will always be as vulnerable as those whose image is used to proclaim it. 

I am in the process of reading this book; it is quite thought-provoking.  Being the sports fan that I am, it has given me a lot of food for thought!  I think this would be a terrific book to give to Dad for Father's Day!

You can order this book here.

This book was provided by the B&B Media Group for review/publicity purposes.

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