On Sportianity: Whence Our Assimilation?

Last week I had the opportunity to respond to Shirl Hoffman, author of Good Game, when he gave a plenary presentation at the annual meeting of the Christian Society for Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. I’ve been extolling the virtues of Good Game to anyone who will listen, so it was a treat to meet Shirl and engage him in person. The result was a fascinating conversation, along with my colleague, Brian Bolt. Here’s a selection from my response:

I would like to focus on just one theme from his book and his talk tonight: the overwhelming and disheartening extent of evangelicalism’s accommodation and assimilation to the athletic-commercial-entertainment complex that has captivated sport all the way down to Little League.

As Hoffman rightly notes, what we’ve got in the name of Christian “transformation” of sport is the transformation of Christianity, not sport—under the banner of transformation we’ve ended up with assimilation and accommodation. In this respect, sport is just one more sphere of culture where evangelicals have merely created a “Jesufied” version of the status quo. See esp. “sports evangelism.”

But why does this happen? Whence our assimilation? Here I might suggest that Hoffman’s toolbox doesn’t perhaps have all the requisite equipment to diagnose the problem. So let me come alongside with a bit of an “assist” and loan him some tools.

The problem, I’m afraid, might be evangelicalism per se. As I see it, the issue is the reductionistic, non-holistic understanding of salvation that is at the core of evangelical piety. If salvation is basically and ultimately about Jesus & me—about “my own personal relationship with Jesus”—then salvation is a kind of private commodity which (a) doesn’t really touch other spheres of life and practice and therefore (b) can also be accommodated to any other practice (Ultimate Fighting for Jesus!). In other words, this “Gospel” can instrumentalize all sorts of cultural practices without question as strategies to press for individual, private salvation. Most significantly, this yields a Christianity that is easily tethered to American civil religion—and, as Hoffman points out, I think, Sportianity is its own instantiation of American civil religion.

Now, why is this a problem? Primarily because it reduces and misconstrues the Gospel. This private, individualist conception of salvation misses the fact that the Gospel is a social vision. By that I don’t simply mean that the Gospel is concerned with social justice. Rather, I mean more strongly that God’s work of redemption in Christ is aimed at renewing creation by (re)constituting a people—a “peculiar” people who constitute a royal priesthood and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Such a “people” is peculiar precisely because their Gospel-ed way of life runs so counter to the ideals of the empire, so to speak. God calls out (ek-klesia) a peculiar people who are called to embody an ideal of human flourishing that resonates with what we’re made for—and is a foretaste of the coming kingdom. So this people (what the New Testament calls “the church” [ekklesia])will be a strange people who are not at home in the kingdoms of this world—not because they’re hoping to escape material reality and get to a disembodied heaven, but because they are a people who are called to embody a way of life for this world that runs counter to “the ways of the world.” So whereas the world is prone to violence and domination, this peculiar Gospel-ed people is called to peace, even if it means martyrdom. The human who modeled this way of life par excellence is the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth, whose example of cultural engagement was cruciform. The church, as his body, is called to “walk” in the same way.

That’s the Gospel. And if that’s the Gospel, then it can’t be neatly and tidily tacked onto cultural practices and institutions that run counter to this way of life. If the Gospel is not just my get-out-of-hell free card, but is actually the “constitution” for a “holy nation” marked by different practices, then the church will be that peculiar people who are marked by a kingdom-shaped way of life. It will find its expression in a different economics and different politics. It will run counter to the nationalism and militarism and consumerism of our day. And it will change the way we play.

In sum, what I think evangelicalism lacks is precisely an ecclesiology, a robust understanding of the church as that community, that “nation,” that is called to embody a way of life and instantiate a vision of flourishing that runs counter to the disordered kingdoms of this world (and surely contemporary sport is one of those kingdoms). If I could supplement Hoffman’s analysis, I’d hook his critique to a more constructive understanding of the church as a unique polis—a “city” with its own games.