Tuesday, June 08, 2010

Good Game: A Book Everyone Should be Talking About

Over the past decade there have been articulate critiques of the extent of American Christianity's assimilation to various aspects of American civil religion, particularly with respect to politics, militarism, consumerism, and celebrity. But surprisingly, one of our most ubiquitous cultural phenomena has been largely untouched: the realm of sport. Indeed, the case could be made that sport is one of the most pervasive cultural institutions in American life. It ties together the timid Little Leaguer and the brash Major Leaguer; the awkward, top-heavy foibles in Rocket Football and the bone-crushing gladiatorial spectacle of the NFL; the huddled masses of 6-year-olds playing Parks & Rec soccer and the global religion that is football in a World Cup year; it even incorporates the obese, completely unathletic, couch potatoes who never stray from ESPN and are devoted to Dale Jr. Sport is so inescapable precisely because its force as a cultural institution doesn't require that everyone play, only that they believe.

How strange, then, that such a cultural force has received scant attention from Christian cultural critics--particularly given the way that evangelical Christianity (as with so many other spheres of American civil religion) has eagerly hooked its wagon to this great behemoth (think Tim Tebow).

But finally we have a book that's beginning to change that: Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports by Shirl James Hoffman should be required reading for--well, pretty much everybody. Combining historical narrative (on Christianity and sport from the ancient era to the present), social scientific analysis, and philosophical reflection, Hoffman diagnoses and prophetically criticizes the overwhelming assimilation of American evangelicalism to the distorted culture of "sport" as its come to be (distinguished from the good impulse of "play," which he deeply affirms). By merely instrumentalizing sport in order to "share the Gospel," Christian athletes' evangelistic organizations are the pinnacle of this assimilation. The outcome is another Gospel which Hoffman, following Frank Deford, describes as "Sportianity" and merely serves "as public chaplain to the sports establishment." (With lines like that, one could argue that Hoffman's book is a kind of athletic rendition of the argument critique in Hauerwas and Willimon's Resident Aliens.)

I'm not saying this is the perfect book on the theme. For example, I wish that Hoffman was working with a more robust ecclesiology (its lack is a signal that this is still very much an "evangelical" book). But given the importance of its argument and the insightfulness of its critique, I won't fixate on my worries or criticisms. As it stands, this is the best we have: its very good, very important, and should be read widely.