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Articles > 2014 > 11 April > Reviews > Book reviews >

The spirit of the game

John Saxbee learns that sport is a holy obligation

A Brief Theology of Sport
Lincoln Harvey
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 non-necessity".

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 identity.

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 meaningful creatures."

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 corruption.

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.

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