Do Not Be Conformed to the World of Sports

By John B. White

Stanley Hauerwas and others have noted how Christian ethics often has been dominated by moral decisionism. Moral decisionism is an approach to ethics that is preoccupied with difficult questions or hard cases of moral dilemmas (e.g., moral quandaries about the beginning or end of life decisions). This way of moral reasoning puts us as individuals at the center of doing ethics with our freely deciding what is the right decision by appealing to universal rules.  However, even when such moral dilemmas demand our attention, they are episodic, and if we are not careful, decisionism’s moral vision can blur or frame out larger swaths of everyday experiences that call for equal moral reflection and deliberation. During an ordinary day, our callings and roles in various sphere of life bump against the Christian story and contribute to who we are becoming as Christians.

One such area of contemporary life is sports, which continues to grow exponentially where the amount of time, devotion and money are spent. The preeminence of sports in the United States is one of the most important cultural phenomena of our time. Approximately 63 percent of Americans watch some form of sports and over 45 million children and adolescents in the U.S. participate in sports. Attention to sports touches all dimensions of human life and intersects virtually every social institution including family, school, business, community, government and religion. Globally, the athletics industrial fixation generates billions of dollars annually, notwithstanding billions more in legal and illegal betting.

Upon deeper reflection on my own sports experiences, I confess at times to adopting a constellation of complicated and culpable beliefs, attitudes or practices that seemingly conflict with the inner landscape of my Christian faith and identity. Although positive elements of beauty, friendship and quests for excellence accent most people’s wide-ranging sports experiences, the dominant culture of sports can shape/form us into accepting its own logic, norms and values to our detriment.

How does this work when we step into world of sports? According to missiologists, the complexity of the powerful process of socialization can entrap and discipline our attitudes and actions us as we indiscriminately participate in a context where political and economic forces and cultural ideologies converge, causing us to follow the will and way of sports, in this case, rather than that of the gospel.

During and after many games, where emotional highs and lows infused my imagination and actions, I remember how my identity could become indelibly intertwined with the outcome of a contest. When I won, I was a winner; but when I lost, I questioned who I was since my attempt to prove myself fell short by the metric of sports. The scoreboard empirically tells a story about winners and losers which gets recorded as stats and facts. Who I was and what I was becoming was cemented in the spirit of sport itself. Like the very odes that the ancient Greek poet Pindar wrote to celebrate the victories achieved in the Olympic Games, the intoxicating power of wins and the alarming shrill of losses made me vulnerable to the illusions of the false self.

Often, my sense of security and significance persuaded me to pursue and define who I am by what I have, what I do or what others think of me. Henri Nouwen refers to these missteps as the three big lies that equate our identity with possession, power or prestige, rather than who God declares we are as God’s beloved.

My exhortation and admonitions in this three-part series are not as a Pharisee; for my failures – better the human condition – preclude me from holding a haughty spirit. Karl Barth writes in his Romans commentary that moral exhortation commences “when all these dubious characters [sports, in this case] are seen to be no more than exaggerations of what we all are…” Barth continues that what we ought to do does not operate from any quest to justify ourselves, but is grounded upon the mercies of God, which God in Christ gives to us in our concrete existence.

In Romans 12:1-2, Paul exhorts us to recognize how our complete commitment to worship should follow as a response to God’s mercies. Paul provides the important grammatical and theological detail that it is “in view of God’s mercy” (NIV) that modifies his intense proclamation of how we ought to live as members of God’s community. The indicatives of God’s grace ground the imperatives of the gospel and not the other way around. Considering what God has done in and through Christ, we should offer our entire bodily selves to God and not conform to the ways the world says we are supposed to. Paul calls us to action where we understand how we live in our everyday affairs intimately connects to worship. Paul in two short verses makes the case that why and how we worship should re-order our everyday liturgies. This gospel logic is only possible when God graciously transforms the way we think and do life in this age. Consequently, this further implies that we must vigilantly resist the accepted patterns of our dominant culture’s ideologies and habits. He commands us not to accommodate or emulate the actions and customs of our world.

The arc of Romans 12:1-2 addresses all spheres of life, including our participation in the world of sports. I invite us to consider how certain myths, motives and manners intensified in the drama of sports might negatively conflict with and undermine our true gospel identity. All forms of life can unsuspectingly educate and squeeze us into pacts with what Paul refers to as the customs of this world or age (v. 2). The good news demands a sober and alert response to how sports – whether mirroring society’s values or actively socializing us into its own visions of the good life – can contradict what faith teaches. If our adolescent years have taught us anything, it is that the institutions of this world act as a social court, pushing and pulling at our consciences, both condemning and accusing us when we resist or go against what these respective tribunals defend as right and wrong.

As a worshipping community, however, we are called out to live in willful non-conformity to this aeon, which involves nothing less than the gospel engaging with and rebuking deformities in the culture of sports with a divine, “NO!”

Conformity in the world of sports beckons us to fit in, to be set apart as dedicated and real athletes, to commit completely to the goals and norms of sports, and to kowtow uncritically to sports traditions—something which translates into participating in the way things are. For example, participation in big time sports on college campuses determines the schedules, diet, free time, studies, etc, of student athletes. Oftentimes, athletes are steered away from certain majors and therefore vocations, because the academic responsibilities would conflict with their roles as  college athletes. The “athlete” in the student-athlete descriptor eclipses the “student” part, frustrating their future aspirations, skills and career development when sports participation eventually comes to an end. \

Those who embrace the gospel according to sports are praised and certainly satisfy the conditions for becoming champions. The attraction, authority, argot and all-presence of sports evangelize us as Christians to sometimes convert or adapt to the dominant sport ethos. If all work and no play make Jack a dull boy, then all sports and no discipleship make Jill a nominal Christian. Because we neglect to question the misdirected beliefs, strategies, values and actions in this slice of life, we can end up copying the sports culture.

For Christians, what sports authorizes or deems as valid or good does not necessarily translate into a way of life compatible with the gospel. That does not mean every jot and tittle of sports are automatically bent or bad; however, the power of the gospel does not need human glory or excellence to make its mission credible. The gospel of sports fundamentally shifts the gospel of Jesus to how the gospel enables sportspersons to achieve the goals of sport, such as success, winning and discipline. If we pay uncritical homage to sports, then we should not be astonished when we as Christian coaches, athletes, administrators, ministers, fans and parents mistakenly say yes to the pressures, standards, loopholes and objectionable practices that are widespread in the sports world.

Using Romans 12:1-2, I want to diagnose a few “conformity illnesses” in a three-part series in Christian Ethics Today. I believe these ailments can negatively form our imaginations and affect how we think about, feel about and do sports. And for each sickness or conformity, I offer a gospel way forward as something we must learn in order for the liturgy of sports to serve Christian worship.

Conformity #1: Sports are only a game

Howard Cosell famously jibed, “Sports is the toy department of human life.” The swimming pool was where I would go to slip into a simpler world, anchoring relay teams, keeping high elbows, eyeing flashy blue ribbons and eating Jell-O powder mix right from the box during AAU swim meets. Like Tom Hanks in the movie Big, I was a child trapped in a teenage body literally diving into this “toy department” where kickboards became wave-making machines and holding one’s breath was a game within a game. The arena of sports was my release from the real world of geometry proofs, Greek and Latin roots, girlfriends and peer pressure. As a disciple of sports, I inherited, and I was inculcated in the beliefs and practices that the meaning and form of sports were separate from religion or spirituality. Here was a domain that I believed was hermetically sealed off from the logic and will of all other forms of life. I was told that spiritual stuff relates to the sacred dimension – the serious and specific religious duties, devotions, missions and services – while swimming was a recipe of play, physiology, power and physical contests. God’s will pertained to the spiritual world while the will of earthly matters, such as those that sports, operated differently. Sports were tangible and about the profane world, while spirituality was about the unseen world. Sports pertained to the body, which was public and empirical, while spirituality was about the heart and soul, which were the private, subjective parts of our lives.

If various forms of sports are only games, then we should not spiritually invest in these sensual experiences. Keep spiritual things with the spiritual. “Sow to the spirit” or sacred not to the “fleshly” indulgences teeming in our games. I learned, of course, that this sports fare makes for delectable games; but if sports are only signaling earthly activities, then, at their best they only reach the “Friday Night Lights.” Sports are merely this-worldly, secular fun mixed with agon and aretaic lessons, an innocuous space with no other-worldly connections or consequences. In fact, whatever occurs in sport, even if momentarily successful, really does not matter spiritually, since victories, defeats, struggles and training do not relate to soul-making or eternal matters or worshiping God. We love sports because our we see our games as parentheses, set apart from any spiritual interferences from above–making them splendid diversions from gravitas.

Paul’s view of spirituality is countercultural, for he construes all that we do as spiritually connected to God and uses the language of worship. In Romans 12:1-2, God lays claim to our entire selves. Karl Barth, in his commentary, argues that God’s demand on our obedience as worship “admits of no retreat” and “rules out an obedience affecting only the ‘inner’ life of the soul or of the mind.” Barth interprets God’s claim as radically disturbing every part of our humanity so that no part of being human or Christian living is left behind, when God’s mercies break in to create our new gospel identity.

Do Not Be Conformed:

The Christian tradition affirms that human beings at their core are religious, worshiping creatures. The impulse to religion springs from the fact that God created us to know, worship and image him. Paul, in Romans 1, directs us to a truth that implanted within  all human beings is a sense of the divine. We cannot not worship. Even when we venerate cultural idols such as sports, we are still worshiping. In Romans 12, Paul lays out the antithesis to the false worship we observe in Romans 1. Rather than revere creaturely things (Romans 1:21-25), our worship is to be directed to Creator God. Paul elsewhere argues at Mars Hill (Acts 17:16-34) with the Athenian philosophers (who regularly used sports metaphors in their debates) that “in God we live and move and exist.” That means that this view of worship inescapably permeates everything we do and thus bubbles up in our art, music and sports. Paul continues in Acts 17 with an acute observation of how Athenian culture and poetry manifested this spirituality of worship. The spirituality of worship is the substance of who we are and all that we make and do in sports and life.

My Presbyterian upbringing taught me that all life is sacred and belongs to God. Our existence depends on God, and we are responsible to God in and through our most cherished cultural experiences. There is no sacred-secular divide. The kingdom of God shows no contempt for the mundane for it permeates all of life. Therefore, sports are never simply games.

When worship is not understood as basic to our human identity and story, because of our relationship with and to God, then the euphoria and creativity that can whisper, chant, sing and even scream through the refrain of activities such as sports, art,and music are not heard, as N. T. Wright remarks, as echoes of a divine voice. However, if sports are not outside the lines of the sacred, then sports are not a wasted “subdepartment of ordinary life.” Sports are more than a game. Our games are cultivations and constructs of our hands, indicating something about us and our Creator. Peter Berger, in A Rumor of Angels, interpreted the activity of play as an ecstatic experience in which humans gesture and signal transcendence, pointing spiritually to a truly ‘other’ reality. Our human doings are suspended from a reality greater than us. This way of seeing the world is known as a sacramental worldview. Theologically, our daily routines are never independent of God, since we live in a world made by God; so activities such as play are suffused with God’s presence and capable of communicating the divine. Liturgy and life in God’s economy interpenetrate each other. Furthermore, in Christian thought, the Greek and Latin fathers drew from Proverbs 8:27-31 to argue that the Logos plays before God the Father in the act of creation. That means, our freedom as image-bearers to play in our games is analogous to or follows from God’s playful and loving choice to create this world. We play because God plays.

John B. White, Ph.D. is an Assistant Professor of Practical Theology and Director, Sports Ministry/Chaplaincy Program at Baylor University and George W. Truett Theological Seminary.

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