Sports and Theology

the drama of the game

Sports and Theology - the drama of the game

A Change of Seasons

Author’s Note: “Sports and Theology” is returning from a ten-month hiatus. During this time, I completed the editing of my ebook, Clergy Mentoring: The Tie That Binds, and prepared for my family’s move to Salisbury, North Carolina. Thank you for your patience!

Most, if not all, sports compete within seasons. A sports season is clearly defined, beginning with initial practices and ending with a final game, match, or race. The terminology of a sports “season” most definitely comes from the four seasons. No, not Frankie Valli’s music group, but rather winter, spring, summer and fall.

These seasons roll around each year. Regardless of what’s happening on the ground, the four seasons follow with the rhythm of changing temperatures and weather patterns. In similar fashion, sports seasons begin and end during familiar times each year. For example, professional baseball begins with spring training and ends with the fall classic. Each year, baseball fans can rely on when the pitchers report to their teams, when the All Star game is played, and when the World Series will start. The same holds true for other sports, both professional and amateur, each year.

Many people apply a version of this metaphor to a description of their lives. You might hear, “I’m going through a difficult season” or “it’s time for a new season.” I wonder, however, if this language fits. After all, how many life experiences are genuinely repeatable? Perhaps talking about life in terms of chapters, not seasons, makes more sense. Like a novel, our lives follow a narrative flow one chapter at a time. When a chapter starts or finishes (or a chapter’s title) is up for grabs. In fact, the sort of discernment needed to parse the chapters calls on faith, namely faith in God as the giver of life.

My life is beginning a new chapter. Or is it a new season? After all, this is not the first time that I have begun a new pastorate. Nor is this the first time my wife and I have moved with our children to a new community for the sake of my vocation as a pastor.
God is not only the giver of life: God is the co-author of a person’s life story. God’s presence and power are active forces for good. From a Wesleyan perspective, God’s grace does not compromise a person’s free will. Yes, God intercedes, sometimes when we request God’s intercession and sometimes when we least suspect such divine interaction. God calls us to a life of discipleship without coercing our intentions; thus, we do indeed have some say in how our life unfolds, whether a new season (or chapter) will begin or end.

An athlete’s season is only partially dependent upon his or her effort and performance. Other people have an impact on how the season goes: coaches, fans, teammates, competitors, and even journalists. A tennis star can enter a tournament in peak physical and mental condition, but this does not guarantee victory.

Our lives are not isolated, autonomous sprigs. Rather, we are contingent upon the family, friends, and communities who give shape to our moral character. The pen of God’s authorship is beautifully seen in the lives of these people.

On American Ninja Warrior

American Ninja Warrior has quickly become a favorite TV show in our family. Impressive athletes from across the country try their hand — actually their hands, feet, and entire body — at completing difficult obstacle courses. After passing one obstacle course, a contestant moves on to try a more challenging course.

American Ninja Warrior has many reasons to win more fans:
— The show features impressive athletes who would never appear on ESPN’s “Top Ten.” These are dedicated, talented, and passionate people who train diligently. Most are amateurs, but some are professional rock climbers, free runners, and gymnasts. Here’s to diverse athletes sharing the spotlight!
— Fans cheer for every contestant who succeeds.
— Unlike Wipe Out, this show mourns when people fail.
— Instead of trying to eliminate others, each contestant seeks to perform her or his best.
— The obstacle course elements test a wide variety of skills: balance, upper body strength, hand grip, core muscles, and problem solving, just to name a few.

As the title suggests, this show is the American version of the Japanese show, Ninja Warrior, previously known as Sasuke. Yet the title suggests so much more, does it not?!

The first few times I watched American Ninja Warrior, I kept looking for references to ninja warriors. Would the grand prize be a job with a ninja company? A cover article in “Ninja Monthly” magazine? Or at least a shiny sword? Apparently not.

The show should be called Super Insane Obstacle Course Challenge. Something tells me, however, that show title would not attract as many viewers. Instead, the words “ninja” and “warrior” are used, and these words seemingly appeal to something deep within people. Ninjas are historically heralded for their impressive martial arts skills used explicitly to kill people. Warriors are credited for their raw competiveness against any adversary. Again, the competitors on American Ninja Warrior do not fight each other, and they certainly are not out to kill anyone; instead, they compete against the obstacle course similarly to a golfer going against an eighteen hole course.

Would the skills tested in the American Ninja Warrior obstacle courses translate well into become a real ninja warrior? Perhaps, though I hope these contestants never find out.

The season finale airs next week. Will one of these impressive athletes complete all four stages of Mount Midoriyama? If so, then he will be called the first Super Insane Obstacle Course Challenge Winner! Er, I mean… the first American Ninja Warrior!

Hauerwas on Baseball

Stanley Hauerwas, once called “America’s Best Theologian” by Time Magazine, recently addressed a gathering of Duke Divinity School alumni. The setting? A Durham Bulls baseball game! Appropriately enough, Hauerwas (introduced as “the Ty Cobb of pacifism” by the school’s Admissions Director) offered a three minute reflection on “theology and baseball.”

According to Hauerwas, baseball is the best way to teach children morality. As one who appreciates the construct and beauty of baseball, Hauerwas understands a novice baseball player’s need to place one’s self under the authority of someone else to learn. Playing baseball teaches baseball. As Hauerwas puts it, the worst thing a baseball player can do is disrespect the game. Having respect for the game places a value on the game’s predecessors, traditions, and rules.

Baseball is slow. Noting how American culture moves too fast, Hauerwas finished his remarks by claiming baseball as our last hope. He could have easily spoken much longer. Sadly, the stadium’s loud public address announcer drowned out “the Babe Ruth of Duke Divinity School.”

Yet in the end, baseball is meant to be played, and life is meant to be lived to honor, praise, and glorify God. Play ball!

Interesting Point

Steve Rushin’s recent Sports Illustrated article, “Crime and Banishment (page 124, August 19, 2013),” begins this way:

The story of man begins with Adam, banished from his grassy playground for ingesting a banned substance, and continues unchanged to this day, when Alex Rodriguez awaits exile from Eden on similar charges. It’s an ancient human narrative: Biogenesis followed by Bioexodus.

Brilliantly done! Without knowing Rushin’s theological perspective, I thoroughly appreciate his connection between Adam and A-Rod. The rest of Rushin’s article enlightens as usual. Yet this outstanding introduction definitely wins our attention. Here’s hoping for more talented journalists making theological and biblical connections in sporting news stories!

Sibling Rivalry

Before being selected with the fourth pick in the 2013 NBA Draft, Indiana’s Cody Zeller was interviewed by Jalen Rose and Bill Simmons. Rose asked, “what [NBA] players do you look forward to playing against?” The anticipated answer was LeBron James, Kevin Durant, or Carmelo Anthony. But who did Zeller name? Two other players also named Zeller: his brothers, Luke & Tyler!

The sports world has enjoyed a sampling of brothers and sisters: Venus and Serena Williams (tennis), Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko (boxing), Eli and Peyton Manning (football quarterbacks), Stephen and Seth Curry (basketball), the Staal brothers (hockey), and the Molina brothers (baseball catchers) just to name a few. Add the Zeller brothers to that list. Isn’t it interesting how many of these brothers play the same position, too? That’s no mistake.

Cody Zeller continued in his interview saying, “Oh yeah, we go hard. We go after it!” Siblings have a way of escalating the competitive spirit, perhaps more than two ordinary peers. Why is this?

The old story about Cain and Abel (Genesis 4) speaks a word on sibling rivalry. Those two brothers must have grown up within close proximity to one another. We can only imagine their childhood games, telling stories on each other, and attempting to win over their parents affection. Each boy ended up going different routes as adults: Abel as a shepherd, and Cain as a farmer. Over time, Cain’s disposition toward Abel turned evil. As the Scripture says, sin was lurking at the door of Cain’s heart (verse 7). While the Scripture does not explicitly explain why, we can safely surmise that Cain possessed a raging desire to overcome, dominate, and annihilate his brother.

The experience of Cain and Abel — one of humanity’s oldest stories depicting raw human emotions — translates to the sports world. The challenge comes repeatedly to brothers and sisters in competition. How will these athletes act on the urge to “rise up” against a brother or sister?

Remember Jesus’ words from the Sermon on the Mount. When speaking about the horror of murder, Jesus reveals that the emotions of one’s heart may be just as deplorable. Jesus said,

You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, “You shall not murder”; and “whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.” But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement

(Matthew 5:21-22a)

The Summit of Everest

It happened sixty years ago, on May 29, 1953: Sir Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay finally realized the summit of Mount Everest. Being the first person to accomplish such a gargantuan feat means being known forever as the first. This is the case for Hillary; Norgay is known amongst climbers, however barely as a footnote to the broader world.

For Sir Edmund Hillary, the descent from atop Mount Everest led him to a land of immense popularity not just in his homeland of New Zealand, but around the world. Undoubtedly, this monumental achievement rightfully deserves loud applause and standing ovations. Long before Kelly Slater tasted his first wave or Tony Hawk caught air, Hillary climbed to the top of his world. Sir Edmund Hillary’s accomplishment afforded him a unique vantage point for future adventures, philanthropic work, and public appearances.

As a sport, mountain climbing receives barely any notoriety. Yet make no mistake — climbing requires strength, stamina, focus, training, preparation, and practice. Athleticism required? Most definitely! Mountain climbing insists on the trust of at least one other person, like a teammate; climbing, nonetheless, has the feel of an “individual sport.” After all, to make the ascent, the climber alone must position her or his own feet and hands. No one else can.

In a sense, mountain climbing has some similarities to golf: mostly individualized action, dependence upon proper equipment, and a mentality of “me against the _____.” Serious golfers, despite their desire to score better than another golfer, imagine their game against the golf course. In similar fashion, the mountain climber is up against nothing less than the mountain. Found within this matchup is actually a competition within the competitor.

Sir Edmund Hillary himself famously said:

It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.

(That’s Life : Wild Wit & Wisdom, Bonnie Louise Kuchler, 2003, p. 20)

In an athletic pursuit, the conquering action demonstrates extraordinary personal effort. From a spiritual perspective, conquering one’s self happens through humble submission to God. To conquer is not to grasp aggressively, but to relinquish.

Hillary’s keen insight reveals an important dimension about the interior spiritual life. As Thomas a Kempis, the medieval spiritual giant, wrote in his Imitatio Christi, “Who has a harder fight than he who is striving to overcome himself.”

One’s own self — call it ego or personality or sin — too easily prevents the ascent toward communion with God. After all, crawling on your knees toward Calvary takes greater strength than climbing any mountain.

The Bible on Banners

Bible passages appear on banners frequently at sporting events. Nearly every time a football is booted toward the goal posts, a fan proudly raises a poster painted with “John 3:16.” The hope? That someone, perhaps a nonbeliever, might be prompted to read the text.

For a high school football team in Southeast Texas, Bible passages were appearing on banners last season made by the school’s cheerleaders. Some questioned unfurling these banners since tax dollars support the public high school. According to a recent story, State District Judge Steve Thomas ruled in favor of the Kountze High School cheerleaders continuing to make banners for the upcoming season. Thomas determined that no law “prohibits cheerleaders from using religious-themed banners at school sporting events.”

The legality — even the appropriateness or sportsmanship — of making these banners will likely continue; those are worthwhile conversations.

In this post, let’s look into the theological implications of cheerleaders making such banners for their high school sports event.

— First, note the pertinent difference here between public schools and private Christian schools. If cheerleaders at a Christian school made banners with Bible passages, there would be no news story, even if the team played against a public school team. Yes, some people adverse to the Christian faith may be offended, however the banner waved by a Christian school’s team would easily and understandably be viewed as an expression of the school’s expressed mission. Whatever is proclaimed on a banner represents the school, including its teachers, staff, students, and related family members.

— Second, remember the purpose of cheerleaders: to lead the cheers. Cheerleaders have long served an important role for school teams. In many ways, cheerleaders accentuate everything that’s great about school spirit! As such, cheerleaders also represent the school. For many fans in the stands, cheerleaders serve as the face of the school.

With these first two points taken together, one wonders if the banner’s Bible passage best represents the school. In other words, does the banner’s message resound in the hearts of everyone at the school? More than likely, not every family associated with the school is Christian. From a spiritual perspective, this is worth considering, because the Christian faith should never be forced upon a person. Salvation through Jesus Christ is a gift from God, a gift freely offered to the entire world, a gift no one is forced to receive.

At least three other points are worth contemplating:

— All Bible passages need interpretation, including the supposedly literalistic readings. How one fan interprets a Scriptural text will likely differ from another fan seated down the bleachers, let alone in the bleachers on the other side of the field! For example, take the Romans 8:31b… “If God is for us, who can be against us?” How do we interpret this text? I see at least two ways, one faithful and the other quite problematic. The faithful interpretation says, “All who are on God’s team can count on God being faithful; so no matter what happens in this ball game, nothing can overcome you; there are always more important things in life than football.” The problematic interpretation says, “Our team is made of Christians, so that means God’s will is on our side; therefore, your team doesn’t stand a chance.”

— Is this Bible-emblazoned banner the kind that the players bust through during team introductions? If so, then what’s the subtle message being sent? The answer likely lies in whether or not one approved the banner’s creation in the first place. Nonetheless, there is a potential conflict in messages! When a team tears through and destroys a banner with Scripture written upon it — Scripture intended to represent the team — the action unintentionally gives the message, “WEare the conquerors.” Yet Christian doctrine teaches that Jesus Christ is the victorious One, and all who seek to live as his disciples humbly submit to Christ. Perhaps a more faithful action reflecting the banner’s message would be players, coaches, and staff walkout out modestly onto the field, shoulder to shoulder, arms linked together.

— At the end of the day, which banner would you want your child to hoist or play under: 1) a Bible passage or 2) a violent plea to destroy the other team?

Christian Community Creating Teamwork

The Golden State Warriors are playing the most exciting brand of basketball in this year’s NBA playoffs. Much of their success is attributed to the team’s chemistry, sparked by Stephen Curry’s outstanding play and the inspiration of the Head Coach, Mark Jackson. Although, Jackson is much more than a mere coach!

According to reports, Jackson has gladly welcomed the Christian faith into his locker room, practices, and games. To what extent has Jackson set the tone for faith? Has being a Christian become the norm for the Warriors, even an unspoken expectation?

Clearly the team has chemistry. In a recent article, Marcus Thompson II (a local Bay Area writer who closely follows the team) observes how “the Warriors feature one of the more devout rosters, and it has fed into their team chemistry.” Thompson also notes how the pregame chapel services help bond the team closer together.

The emerging theological theme at play is Christian community. Community is typically identified with a local worshipping congregation (aka “a church”), although community is also found whenever two or more are gathered in Jesus’ name (Matthew 18:20). When people find in one another mutual encouragement, faith, hope, and love, Christian community is enjoyed. This is true for neighbors, classmates, and co-workers. And apparently for Golden State Warriors teammates!

The claim mentioned above is provocative: Christian community leads to team chemistry. A commonly held assumption in team sports is worth mentioning: team chemistry frequently leads to winning. So what happens if we connect the two claims?

Suppose we apply a variation of the transitive property:
If A –> B and B –> C, then A –> C

If Christian community leads to team chemistry AND team chemistry frequently leads to winning, then does Christian community lead to winning?

If this holds, then the Golden State Warriors make a compelling case for Christian community leading to more W’s. At face value, this is potentially sensible, congruent, and even faithful. In authentic Christian community, people learn to cooperate, live peaceably, communicate honestly, and care for each other, amongst other attributes. When teammates live these virtues, then the team stands a better chance to play better. No matter the sport, better play usually brings about more wins.

It must be noted, however, that other factors contribute to a game’s outcome (e.g. injuries, home court advantage, officiating, or the performance of the other team). Furthermore, an uncountable number of other teams have won while completely ignoring God. Even more, plenty of teams have enjoyed celebrated chemistry without a whisper of faith.

I appreciate the authentic faith reported for the Golden State Warriors. From an outsider’s perspective, the team is not supposing, “We win because we’re Christians and God loves us more.” Thanks God! As noted in a previous post, this brand of religion is not a slam dunk.

Faith should never be a tool or a technique employed for the sake of winning. A team should not set out to recruit, draft, or sign players based on a test for orthodoxy. “Do you believe in the Trinity? Good. Can you hit a three-pointer off the dribble? Even better.” How dastardly it would be for a General Manager to insist a faith system onto a team! Coercion, after all, has no place in authentic Christian faith. The responsibility, it seems, falls squarely upon the coaches, staff, and players: let everyone’s faith experience be genuine, never implicitly or explicitly forced. Furthermore, people must be given space to express personal variations in their faith without fear of exclusion or loss of playing time.

Watch the Warriors. See their chemistry. And win or lose, appreciate their faith in God… and in one another.

42 and Justice

“42,” the latest motion picture about baseball icon Jackie Robinson, continues to receive high praise. And rightfully so!

The film’s script, acting, and cinematography all come together beautifully. The story-telling, however, is what makes this film special. “But when a story’s content is so compelling and rich, you can’t go wrong,” someone might argue. Perhaps, yet every story features portions to be emphasized or left on the cutting room floor.

Of all the intriguing historical and social currents swimming in “42,” the story-telling raises the viewer’s curiosity to ponder: why was Branch Rickey so determined to add Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers?

Was the motivation purely money? Trying to put African American fans in the stands? A new vanguard in athletic competition? Or maybe a new politic afoot?

All of these factors were likely play. Nonetheless, during one of the film’s most intimate moments — Robinson and Rickey, one-on-one in Dodgers locker room after Robinson was intentionally injured — we discover a deeper story, and this becomes a metanarrative for Rickey. The story goes back over four decades during Rickey’s days coaching his alma mater, Ohio Wesleyan. According to the film, Rickey observed Charles Thomas, a black player, being treated unfairly. (Click HERE for a stirring video narrating this story more fully.)

As Branch Rickey’s grandson said, “There was an awareness that was provoked more dramatically from that event than from any other event in his younger years.”

The memory stuck with Rickey throughout his life. As he grew in power and stature within the world of baseball, Rickey envisioned a need within the sport, indeed within the broader American landscape. Many historians and biographers have appropriately drawn the connections between Rickey, Robinson, and the American Civil Rights Movement. Now is the time to appreciate more deeply the reason why Rickey stepped up to the plate. It’s about God’s justice.

Rickey’s unwavering drive to bring Jackie Robinson to the Brooklyn Dodgers was unequivocally theological, biblical, and spiritual in nature. For Rickey, life’s experience welled up a call for God’s justice. Nurtured within the Methodist tradition, Rickey’s formation carried him to take faithful action with and for Jackie Robinson. But the story is more than stealing bases, hitting homeruns, and winning pennants: the call for God’s justice on the baseball field inspired a broader call for God’s justice in the culture.

Athletic Training and Immorality

Athletic training provides excellent benefits: strength, agility, flexibility, conditioning and skill. These benefits are observable, even measurable with statistics. Yet there are also unseen benefits, including focus, teamwork, diligence, and self-confidence.

Some athletes, like Bo Jackson, use athletic training to channel inner pain and frustration toward impressive personal success.

Do some athletes leverage their training toward harm?

One week ago, two bombs unleasheed chaos in the city of Boston. Over the past seven days, millions of Americans curiously followed the crime investigation. Who set off those bombs? What was the motive? How was it done?

One of the suspects, Tamerlan Tsarnaev (the older brother who died in police gunfire), was once an amateur boxer. What’s more: he was “an amazing boxer,” as one fellow trainer noted. He hit “hard, fast, smooth.” Some, including Tsarnaev’s boxing coach, say he had the potential to become an Olympian!

For me, this begs the question: could Tsarnaev’s boxing contributed toward his alleged immorality?

Note two important points:
— Tsarnaev was not a convicted criminal.
— I am not claiming that boxers necessarily become violent killers.

I am wondering, however, if Tsarnaev’s training as a boxer — namely the countless, focused hours of sparring — impacted his moral constitution. After all, boxing is an individual sport. Me against you. Me against all would-be competitors. Me against… the world.

Boxing’s positive benefits can be seen in youth training gyms around the world. One gym in New Zealand has a twenty year track record of helping troubled youth out of gangs, off the streets, and into a new life! And don’t forget about private gyms, like 9 Round, helping women and men improve their cardio, strength, speed, and weight loss.

Perhaps this is what first attracted Tsarnaev to the sport? We will never know for sure.

On April 15, the final bell rang for three people. Over 140 others got knocked down to the mat. And an entire city blocked, bobbed, and weaved.