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Athletes or fans regularly invoke the name of God as an expletive of frustration in sports, but rarely think about whether God has anything to do with the game at all. The narrative of the American Dream that culminates in individual happiness offers a starkly different framework for sports than the story of God’s kingdom as told by the Jewish messiah. As a child growing up in the church, my pastor had a small rotation of canned jokes, his favorite of which went something like this: “The Bible does talk about sports, you know?It’s actually in the very first verse of the Bible: ‘In the God created the heavens and the earth.’ ” The notable feature of this (bad) joke is that the punch line is dependent on the assumption that God’s Word does not, in fact, address the world of sports, and especially not in the opening—and therefore very important—chapters of the Bible.The industrial revolution, however, laid the railroad tracks for the professionalization of sports, with the train pulling into the station in the latter half of the twentieth century.
The second response deifies sports, expressing religious devotion and offering sacrifices of money and time at the altar of winning.
When viewed through the lens of Scripture, however, we will see that sport is more than a game, less than a god, and when transformed by the gospel can be received as a gift.
Moreover, the most popular sporting event—the gladiator games—involved throwing Christians into the ring with wild bears and lions.
Broadly speaking, throughout history the church has had an overall negative or dismissive view of sports—the devil’s workshop at worst and a secular means to an evangelistic end at best.6 John Calvin played a bit of bocce ball, Dietrich Bonhoeffer a little tennis, but in the early years of America the serious-minded Puritans put sports almost completely outside of God’s will.7 Up until the late eighteenth century, sports were for the most part recreational.
There seem to be two polar responses: some dismiss sports as merely a game, while others worship sports as nearly a god.
The first response minimizes sports as a childlike activity, good for passing time but largely insignificant for the deep matters of life.
Abstract: Sports have captured the minds and hearts of people across the globe but have largely evaded the attention of Christian theologians. There seem to be two polar responses: some dismiss sports as merely a game, while others worship sports as nearly a god.
Building upon Johan Huizinga’s classic definition of play, Erik Thoennes says, “Play is a fun, imaginative, non-compulsory, non-utilitarian activity filled with creative spontaneity and humor, which gives perspective, diversion, and rest from necessary work of daily life.”10 At the core of the definition of play is that it is autotelic; it is for its own purposes.
Play need not be justified by its effects, be it psychological (peace of mind), physical (better health), social (learning teamwork), etc.; it is simply creatively delighting in and enjoying God’s good creation for its own sake.11 In short, we are created to play.