I have been surrounded by sports my entire life. My father was a college track coach before becoming an athletic shoe designer. My grandparents were track coaches for decades. Their love for sports was definitely past down to us kids. The smell of sweat and grass was my permanent scent for the first eighteen years of my life.
Some of my earliest memories of sports involved watching the Michael Jordan fly across the court, embarrassing opponents left and right. My family and I lived in Taiwan for a good chunk of the 90's and most of the NBA games they showed on TV were exclusively of his Royal Airness.
The first time football began to intrigue me was when the Oregon Ducks made it to the 1995 Rose Bowl. My whole family traveled down to Pasadena to watch the "Grandaddy" of all bowl games. Unfortunately us kids had to watch the Ducks lose to Penn State on a small TV at a relative's house.
We live in a country that is obsessed with sports.
The largest and most expensive structures built within cities are dedicated to the furtherance of the fanatic experience. Even in our struggling economy, billions of dollars are spent attending, viewing, playing, and experiencing sports.
Bitter rivalries between sports teams match tribal war proportions. You can mock someone's politics, faith, or mother but God help you if you put on a Washington Huskies jersey in Eugene, Oregon—the brass knuckles to your spleen will send you back up the I-5.
The fact that sports can have grown adult men fist-fight each other whilst defending the honor of their team (which are represented by cartoon animals, mind you) manifests just how much love there is for sports. If drunken-sports-related brawls were dollars (streakers on football and baseball fields would be fifty cents), our economy would be unstoppable.
RECEIVE, REJECT, REDEEM
Since we are surrounded by such a gluttonous amount of athletic display, how are we as Christians to react to sports? Sports are a major part of our culture and they are not going away any time soon. Is there anything from sports, in the words of Mark Driscoll, Christians can "receive, reject, or redeem?"
Whether it is because of the rampant idolatry, psychotic fanaticism, materialism, self-glorification, steroids, play-for-pay deals, perspiration, violence, competition, or Laker Dancers many Christians have decided to reject sports. It just seems so worldly and so devoid of God.
The evidence seems to show that sports bring out the worst in human nature. Scandal after scandal has plagued the recent college football offseason. Every year we discover baseball players seeking to "enhance" their performance through the use of drugs. I have even seen my fair share of parents on the brink of going to jail for assault because they did not like something that happened in their child's football game.
Shirl James Hoffman (Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports), who wrote an extensive column for Christianity Today regarding Sports and Christianity, states, "while honesty, sympathy, and generosity are the idealized derivatives of a life lived with God, recent data reveal that immersion in a culture devoted to proving one's superiority squelches rather than reinforces these virtues."
And yet, other Christians have received sports and all its inglorious baggage. Unfortunately, in many cases Christians are the ones perpetuating the self-aggrandizing, dishonest, rage filled, sexualized, and greedy attitudes running on the fields and filling stadiums.
Ted Kluck (The Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto) regarding Hoffman's article, stated, "For many [Christian athletes], God has become nothing more than another lucky pair of socks—another performance-enhancing drug."
Sports are fun and we like to win. We like to know we are better than others. It is as simple as that.
The big question Christians need to ask themselves is what does the Bible say about sports? More than you would think.
The biggest sports fan in the entire Bible is the Apostle Paul (although Elijah, who outran a chariot, comes in a close second). Paul saw sport (which was used as pagan worship in that day) as a means to communicate Gospel truths to his readers.
"Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it" (1 Corinthians 9:24). Just as athletes work hard and discipline themselves to compete, Paul exhorts his readers to live the Christian life.
In fact, at the end of his life, Paul wrote, "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith" (2 Timothy 4:7).
Paul wrote much more about sports than even these two verses but they offer a glimpse into Paul's perspective of sport. It is something to be redeemed, not whole-heartedly received but not rejected.
Christians need to take a biblical theology of sports; sport-ology, if you will.
We cannot cut ourselves off from the world in monastic fashion but we also cannot welcome with open arms the self-glorifying, win-at-all-costs attitudes that many athletes and fans retain.
Whether we play them or we watch them, in the end, sports can be another beneficial way to learn about living the Christian life.
In further posts, we will examine specific lessons that can be gleaned from the wide world of sports.
What are some that you have learned?