I read a couple articles on sports recently that have caused me to reconsider my love of sports, and more importantly, Christianity’s embrace of sports. One appears in the February issue of Christianity Today, the other is a secular perspective (about as secular as you can get, by the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens). They’re both good; the first I think is required reading for Christians. They’re approaching it from different angles, but their main point is roughly the same – sports turn people into jerks.
I’ve been thinking about that a lot, and the more I think and observe, the more I think I agree. I love sports. At its best, it breeds camaraderie among the participants and can unite its community of fans. But at its worst, it breeds divisiveness and encourages the worst in human nature. And nowadays, the bad often seems to overwhelm the good.
I completely agree with the CT article’s contention that sports brings out a lot of bad even in Christians. I long ago got disgusted with Korean church softball / volleyball tournaments. Endless fighting and ugly behavior. I have no idea what purpose they’re supposed to serve, but they bring out the opposite of Christ-like behavior. I honestly don’t think they should exist. I boycotted every church sports tournament from elementary school on. Baylight got involved in a church softball league years back and I was reminded why I hate it – more conflict and we ended up turning off some non-Christians who came. Really sad.
The fundamental problem is that the values of sport – individual effort, competition, success and glory – are contrary to Christian values, and instead of Christians redeeming sport, they’ve been influenced by it. Paul Shirley in his book talks briefly about how he dislikes Christians, and one thing he mentions is that they talk the talk a lot, but don’t act any different, especially in regards to sex. I’ve heard that sex a problem in colleges also, in athlete Christian fellowships. This problem is by no means universal among athletes nor limited to them. But I can see how it’s especially problematic for them. Sports is about glory, not self-denial. I don’t know how you can be in that environment and not be influenced by it. I think the same problem happens in the Christian music industry; there’s a lot of failure because rock is a culture of glory.
And it’s not just playing sports, it’s rooting for sports teams that brings out bad also. I myself have a lot of sports hate for various teams and players. I’ve always written it off as being different than real hate. But is that true? And I’ve seen fandom bring out the worst in even the holiest people, taking real pleasure in their rivals pain. I’ve talked before about how hateful I think Korean sports fans have become. And Hitchens mentions examples of how sports fanatacism has lead to real political conflict, even war. That’s not good.
What worries me most is that the same harmful values of sport are creeping into the church. That the church is valuing effort, competition, and glory. Even pastors are becoming like rockstars. Maybe it’s always been this way, I don’t know. But it feels weird. We should reconsider this. I kind of like some of Frank Schaeffer’s reasons for joining the Orthodox church – he saw the Western church as being too personality-driven; in the Orthodox church, the priests also face forward, and they are essentially interchangeable. The focus is less on individuals, their skill and charisma, and more about God. At the very least, I think we don’t think enough about how sports is influencing us, both in a Christian and secular context.
I’m not saying that Christians should give up sports. For one thing, I like watching it too much; I’m not even sure I could. For another, the Bible uses sports analogies, primarily Paul, and it doesn’t make sense to me that he would use as an example something that’s necessarily bad. (Although he uses war analogies also and it’s hard to argue that war is an unquestioned good.) But I do think we need to think more about how much we, as Christians, should unreservedly embrace sports. Maybe we should chill out a little bit about sports fanatacism. As a practical measure, I’m trying to tone down my Laker hate to Laker dislike. And more importantly, maybe we should be a lot more conscious and intentional about redeeming sports.