Sporting Theologically

Sporting Theologically June 10, 2014

The Spurs are back in the finals against the formidable Heat, and of course Spurs fans everywhere are jittery (there are at least 3 outside San Antonio, perhaps more). It’s a good time to steel oneself against the possibility of tragedy and turn philosophical about sports. Or, to be philosophical, I should say, “sport.”

Robert Ellis’s The Games People Play is a wonderful playing field of a book in which to kick about philosophically. Ellis is principal at Regent’s Park College, Oxford, and a Baptist minister, but he’s obviously spend some considerable time following and thinking about American sports too.

In an opening chapter, he traces the history of interaction between sport(s) and religion, going back to ancient Greeks, following the patristic debates about sports, examining Puritan opposition. In the development of modern sports, the key moment is in the mid-19th century, when the Victorians hit upon a settlement of the religion-and-sport question. No more wall of separation. Sport could be turned to the cause of virtue:

The Victorians, or some of them, began to dissociate games from their traditional puritanical reservations, and see sport as virtuous, character-building, worthy. Sport was seen to have come to acquire positive moral qualities: embracing equal competition between equal numbers to well-known and published rules that had to be justly upheld. With the amateur ideal that provided much of the early ideology, sport had to be pursued for its own sake. . . . Yet, played for itself, as a world entire to itself, part of the vision was that games, whether honestly won or lost, promoted individual strength of character and so served a national need” (27–8). Sports, in short, came to be “seen as opportunities for character-building, community cohesion, and evangelism, as shown in Muscular Christianity or in a multitude of twentieth-century secular initiatives (33–4).

Ellis ultimately offers a theological defense of sports, but he’s aware of the effects of this Victorian settlement. 1851 is a key date, to which Ellis devotes a chapter. It is on the one hand the putative high point of British church attendance (Ellis makes the appropriate qualifications to this statistic) and the moment when modern sports began to take shape. He doesn’t claim to prove a causal link, but asks, can these two trends be unrelated? “Taken together we must at least ask whether sport has become a meaning-making exercise in our culture just as another meaning-making practice declines” (91).

The Victorian settlement was certainly a great gain for sports. Was it also for Christianity?

(More on Ellis’s book to come.)

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