A Brief Theology of Sport

By Austin, Michael W. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, March 2015 | Go to article overview

A Brief Theology of Sport


Austin, Michael W., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


A Brief Theology of Sport. By Lincoln Harvey. London: SCM, 2014, xxi + 130 pp., $17.00 paper.

Why do people love sport? In A Brief Theology of Sport, Lincoln Harvey offers an answer which centers on the relationship between sport and our identity. While Harvey recognizes the connections that contingently exist between sport and war as well as the ways in which sport can unfortunately serve as a form of religion, he argues that it is most deeply and properly related to our true identity as creatures. This explains its popularity, and serves as a foundational insight for developing a theology of sport. The book is intended for helping those inside and outside of the church to understand their passion for sport from a Christian theological perspec- tive. Harvey rightly observes that there is little in the way of contemporary theological engagement with sport. While there are books which focus on religion and sport, Harvey's concise book is unique as a Christian theology of sport.

The book's first part consists of a historical survey of the different ways that sport and religion have been related to one another in both theory and practice. In his discussion of ancient sports and religion, Harvey observes that historically speaking, both sport and religion are universally present, and they are intertwined. One example of this relationship is the game of Tlatchtli, an ancient ball game played in Central America. The game was a ceremonial ritual primarily intended to preserve life and honor the origins of this community. This is but one example of the connections between sport and religious ritual that can be found as one explores human history. The Greek Olympic Games included homages to Gaea, Pelops, and most importantly Zeus himself. The victorious athletes were heroes, but they were heroes who would offer sacrifices to Zeus upon receiving their victor's crowns. Roman sport and gladiatorial games also had religious significance, but instead of the gods they placed Rome itself, including its divinized emperor, in the place of worship.

Turning to the historical relationship between the church and sport, the perennial question is this: Should Christians be involved in sport? Historically, we find different answers to this question, including opposition to sport and instrumental use of sport. Christians in the era of the early church had to navigate cultures where boxing, wrestling, and chariot races were popular and attracted thousands of spectators. A primary problem with sport in this era was its explicit connection with religious rituals centered on other gods. The related dangers of idolatry led many believers to oppose sport; Tertullian, John Chrysostom, Clement of Alexandria, and Novatian expressed such opposition. And it was determined at the Council of Arles in 314 that believers who fraternized with gladiators and charioteers be excommunicated. Yet the early church existed in a time like our own, where sport enjoys immense popularity, and some-Paul and Chrysostom, for example-used images from sport in their teaching to encourage virtue and faithfulness. The final two chapters of part I include two case studies related to the manner in which the church has approached sport. The same historical pattern present in the early church's approach to sport is also present in the approaches of the medieval Catholic Church, the Puritans, and the muscular Christianity movement. In all of these eras, sport was popular, it was opposed by the church, and it was instrumentally used by the church.

Part II contains an analysis of sport and Harvey's positive proposal concerning a Christian theology of sport. He first offers a working definition of sport drawn from philosophy, sociology, and cultural history. From this discussion, several themes emerge with respect to its definition. Sport is a form of play that is free, physical, bound by rules, and is unnecessary but nevertheless meaningful to us. It is also important for Harvey's theological proposal, discussed below, that sport is autotelic. …

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