Friday 27 June 2014

Good Sport

I contributed this week’s ‘Connecting with Culture’, a weekly email service provided by the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity.

The last few weeks haven’t gone well for fans of the England football team. Even those of us who went into the World Cup with fairly low expectations can’t help feeling disappointed. Still, at least there was an opportunity to salvage some national pride with the cricket. Alas no, as it turned out. Anyway, there’s always the tennis. Well, we shall see. And if not, the Commonwealth Games start next month.

High profile though these tournaments are, they represent a mere fraction of the global phenomenon which is sport. For every type of sport and sporting event covered on the back pages of our newspapers, there are dozens more – each with their participants, aficionados, and spectators. Sport has the capacity, it seems, to embrace the leisure-seeking novice as well as the high-profile professional and everything in between. How might we account for its popularity?

Two recent books – Lincoln Harvey’s A Brief Theology of Sport and Robert Ellis’ The Games People Play – shed helpful theological light. Both review the troublesome history the church has had with sport, where it has either been rejected (understandable, perhaps, in contexts where sport was bound up with pagan rituals) or been harnessed to the church’s own agenda – whether using jousting to prepare knights for the Crusades, or extolling the virtues of a ‘muscular’ Christianity.

Both books take their cue from creation. For Ellis, we play because we’re made in the image of the powerful, playful Creator, such that sports can provide ‘signals of transcendence’ in a secularised world. For Harvey too, sport is a type of play, an expression of freedom, an ‘unnecessary-yet-meaningful activity’. As such, it reflects God’s creation, the ‘unnecessary-yet-meaningful reality of being freely loved into existence in Jesus Christ’. Or in lay terms, ‘sport has everything to do with our deepest identity’!

That sport is woven into the very fabric of our created being helps us appreciate its popularity. It also enables us to understand how easily it can become an arena for idolatry, disfigured through politicisation, commodification and narcissism – though this potential for corruption doesn’t make sport inherently evil. Sport is sometimes seen as a vehicle to a ‘larger’ purpose such as evangelism. Yet, while it may open up such opportunities, like other contexts do, Christians are in a position to celebrate it as a good in its own right and see it as a significant factor in human flourishing from the hands of a gracious God.

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