The spirit of the game
Posted: 17 Apr 2014 @ 12:03
John Saxbee learns that sport is a
A Brief Theology of Sport
SCM Press £19.99
Church Times Bookshop £18
I SPENT Ash Wednesday evening watching England play Denmark at
Wembley, and reassuring myself that this was indeed a legitimate
spiritual discipline. It is good to have that decision both
explained and vindicated theologically, even if, before I read this
book, it had never occurred to me that watching a football match
was "a chance for me to bounce up against my meaningful
Lincoln Harvey teaches Systematic Theology at St Mellitus
College, and so he is not disposed to compromise when it comes to
theological rigour and coherence. So, in spite of its brevity, and
the nature of the subject-matter, he does not talk down to his
readers or patronise them with simplistic pieties or platitudes. In
fact, on the contrary, he might be thought at times to be taking
his love of sport all too seriously - why can't he leave the day
job behind and just enjoy the game?!
Why? Because, as the first half of the book shows us, religion
in general, and Christianity in particular, has had a love-hate
relationship with sport, veering between outright hostility and
positive endorsement. These chapters take us on a lively and
illuminating romp through history from the ancient Greeks to more
recent manifestations of Muscular Christianity. The conclusion is
that, whether the Church has chosen to condemn or embrace it, sport
has remained universally popular because it is key to our
This provides a platform for the development of Harvey's
theological argument in the remaining chapters. His main focus is
on the doctrine of creation and what this tells us about who God is
and who we are. He concludes that creation "is essentially
unnecessary yet meaningful". So is sport, which is why, when we
play, "we are living out our deepest identity as unnecessary but
Having established this analogical relationship between our
being "freely loved into existence in Jesus Christ" and our
engagement with unnecessary but meaningful play, Harvey develops a
theology of sport as "the liturgical celebration of contingency".
He is not saying that sport is akin to worship, because in worship
God "is committed to being present to His people", whereas, in
sport, God steps back, "evacuating the space created by the
liturgical action, enabling the creature to be somehow at a
distance in its own integrity".
This is heady stuff, but it is theology at its best when
interpreting fundamental human instincts and inclinations.
In the final chapters he applies his theological analysis to
such topical issues as professionalism, commercialism, idolatry,
and gender discrimination to show that sport, for all its positive
theological significance, is not immune to post-lapsarian
Whether Harvey is claiming more for coinherence between God's
act of creation and our sporting activity than any such analogy can
appropriately sustain is a moot point. But he claims only to be
igniting a debate, and in that respect he succeeds admirably.
His conclusion is characteristically passionate and provocative:
"All Christians should enjoy being unserious in some way or other.
Sport is a great way to do it. Christians should celebrate it.
Those who don't may need to repent." So it seems that Wembley on
Ash Wednesday was not such a bad call after all.
Dr Saxbee is a former Bishop of Lincoln.