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If Sport is a God, then why don’t all my teams win?

June 15, 2010

Describing Sport as a Religion is nothing new – heck, I’ve done it here and here – but this year I’ve started noticing a different trend: Sport as all-powerful and all-knowing.

Like one of the classical Fates (the women with the long hair who variously weave time determining fortune, life span, and happiness) Sport is sometimes given the status of a sentient person, and like some puppet master orchestrates the “slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,”  the triumphant comebacks, and all those victories that just seem right. Am I being a little melodramatic? I mean after all, commentators are known for their colorful (and sometimes strange) metaphors and they get paid to produce outlandishness and memorable descriptions.

This week’s World Cup events have certainly been no exception – although the BBC commentators do have a tendency to dig into the bottom of the barrel sometimes – but I digress.

Earlier this year, on the 24 March, Kevin McCallum published a piece in the online version of Zimbabwe’s http://www.iol.co.za, an excerpt of which reads:

On Tuesday the Absa Cape Epic was stunned at the news that Australian 26-year old former world mountain bike James Williamson had failed to wake from his sleep and died shortly before the start of the third stage.

Later on Tuesday it was announced that Brumbies fullback Julian Huxley would make his return to rugby after being diagnosed with brain tumours two years ago.

Tragedy and triumph, loss and gain, despair and joy. Sport is a measure, a reflection of life and how it hurts so badly and gives such immense pleasure.

This article was titled: Sport – it taketh away, It giveth back.

What I am talking about isn’t really about James Williamson, or Julian Huxley; though the former is incredibly sad and his family and friends will feel his loss for the rest of their lives, and the joy Julian Huxley felt in being healthy again and able to play a sport he loved should not be diminished. I do not wish to make light of the intensity of these events.

You see, when I see that headline I think the journalist is leading me to remember this phrase: “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.”

Even with switching the order I feel pretty safe saying that McCallum was hoping that the reading would “get” the message and see the signposts, as it were. It’s kind of appropriate I guess that this phrase itself is actually a misquotation – for nowhere in the bible does it actually say “The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away” – what it says is this (in Job 1:20-21):

When Job arose, and rent his mantle, and shaved his head, and fell down upon the ground, and worshipped,
And said, Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither: the Lord gave, and the Lord hath taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.

Either way, I think the Journalist is expecting the reader to think about Sport in a particular way. To describe “Sport” as some sovereign entity and the source of providence (like Fate, or destiny), not just “like a religion” but in some way imputing the qualities of a Deity (or God), strikes me as something worth talking about.

Let’s read that last paragraph from the excerpt again:

Tragedy and triumph, loss and gain, despair and joy. Sport is a measure, a reflection of life and how it hurts so badly and gives such immense pleasure.

If the main point of this piece is that Sport functions as a microcosm, even if an intense one, then my concern is negated – although this observation is not limited just to this one article – but if the intention is that it is not Life (or God as the giver of Life) but Sport that “gives” pleasure and is the cause of despair (or even death) then we have something to talk about.

I’ll let you all get back to the World Cup now – after all, your “God” is waiting for you.

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. June 15, 2010 2:52 pm

    Thanks for your post, Anna! What are the practical consequences, then, for being a fan of sport as a Christian? Is it not ‘Christian’ to be a fanatic? Where should we draw the line? What are the signs that sort is moving from being entertainment to being an idol?

    Thanks for the observations and the challenge!

    • Ben permalink
      June 16, 2010 10:50 am

      I think this is an example of a tendency to all things that people greatly love: at some point, they begin to devote their entire lives to the thing, and it therefore becomes an idol.
      The line must be drawn, I think, by considering whether said activity has become something that you do not think you can live without.

      • Anna M Blanch permalink
        June 16, 2010 11:01 am

        Ben, I wasn’t making a point about sport being an idol in the context of this post – though it can be like that for some. I hope to write more about sport as an example of an extremely influential aspect of culture that interacts with the arts as a consequence of its general influence (and therefore ultimately theology as it relates to how people see the world and God) and I think it is problematic to always speaking only in terms of anything being obsessive is bad. This is in part because that is a conversation stopper! There’s nowhere to go beyond that because of course any area of interest, whether it be sport, a hobby, a lifestyle choice, that strays into obsession is not healthy.

        I think there is something more than just sport being an idol going on here – It is about attributing Sport the attributes of an omniscient, omnipotent, omnipresent deity.

        Like all aspects of culture I think it is beholden for us to consider how we relate to it.

    • Anna M Blanch permalink
      June 16, 2010 11:04 am

      Wes, you ask good questions. Questions that I’d like if I can to take up in an(other) post. Sport is pervasive in our culture and as someone who has benefited greatly from participating in sport and derives enjoyment from watching sport I’m very interested in thinking through these ideas more thoroughly. There’s been a couple of books released only in the last couple of weeks exploring the relationship between sport and religion in the US, however even these don’t really explore how we as Christians might think about competitive and professional sport as participants and spectators.

  2. June 16, 2010 11:08 am

    Are you familiar with Ted Kluck’s A Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto? I have not read it, but I think it would be relevant to this discussion, and I wonder what angle he takes. I look forward to further reflection on this in the future.

    • Anna permalink
      June 28, 2010 5:22 pm

      Wes, I’ve found Kluck’s book and while it was interesting in places it is rather a surface view without a cohesive approach. It’s a series of essays similar to this one – taking a discrete idea and starting to figure out how it can be worked out. There’s got to be other stuff out there….

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