February 26, 2024

World Cup book review: A Brief Theology of Sport

One of the few things the British enjoy more than a kick-around is reading about other people having a kick-around. This is reflected in the back pages of our newspapers, which cover sport in such depth you’d think it wasn’t 22 men kicking a pig’s bladder around, but something on which life and death might depend. Maybe it once was.

Lincoln Harvey’s new book is entitled A Brief Theology of Sport. Its cover is illustrated by distinctly 21st century images – supporters in a large football stadium with a big screen above the goal and numbered runners wearing watches in a race. This all suggests that the book will focus on football and contemporary participatory sport from a Christian perspective.

Though we learn of the author’s love of Arsenal on page one, at least half of the book is historical – an overview of sport and religion and an attempt to show how the Church has engaged with sports. It starts by describing sport’s origins in sacred ceremonies in Ancient Greece. The Olympics might now be a secular demonstration of strength, speed and American/Chinese domination but it was originally a religious event. It lasted a week and sport was only scheduled for one day (there’s no word as to whether it could run over into another if it rained). The rest of the week was filled with sacrifices and other things that have since been dropped by the IOC.

So sport and religion started life entwined. Today this link continues, albeit in an unwritten way, with some fans taking their admiration of players and teams to levels previously reserved for gods. But what of Christianity?’The early church had a great deal to think about’, Harvey says with extreme understatement. What with the crucifixion, resurrection and Pentecost to be digested, questions such as can Christians also be Spurs supporters? wouldn’t have got discussed much. Bethlehem United isn’t mentioned in Acts of the Apostles, but that doesn’t mean the disciples weren’t avid supporters, there was just more worry over circumcision and diet.

The first half of the book talks about sport before pausing to define it. Before this everything is mixed in together, whether gladiatorial death matches or football. Clearly there are theological differences between games which end with a slap on the back and a bad luck, and those that result in a corpse.

A summary of Christian belief leads to the theorising that human existence is both essentially unnecessary, yet also meaningful. Sport as liturgy is debated and leads to the conclusion: ‘Worship is the liturgical celebration of who God is with us. Sport is the liturgical celebration of who we are by ourselves’.

Here Harvey’s analysis brings up some interesting questions. Does God make a distinction between worship and sport? If God steps forward and becomes truly present during worship, what happens during sport? Does God step back, allowing us to be ourselves? Does he enjoy watching our efforts and do they glorify God precisely because sport has no reason but itself?

For all those sports fans worried Christianity might be be anti-sport, Harvey’s conclusions will come as a relief. Modern issues such as players’  pay, in the guise of professionalism, get covered briefly, though unfortunately there is no mention of the Church’s view on using the Duckworth-Lewis method for deciding cricket results. (Surely it’s not right). Towards the end there is some thought-provoking contemporary questioning – such as should Christians pay to watch professionals? and warnings of the dangers sport offers for modern-day idolatry.

A Brief Theology of Sport places sport in its historical, theological context and offers the broad and welcoming thought: ‘the rules in sport echo the rule of Jesus Christ’. But it doesn’t answer that biggest of sporting questions…

Why would anyone support Arsenal?

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