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Play up! And play the game

14 June 2013

Denise Inge considers essays on Christianity in its muscular aspect

Sports and Christianity: Historical and contemporary perspectives
Nick J. Watson and Andrew Parker, editors
Routledge £80
Church Times Bookshop £72 (Use code CT124  )

THE essays in Sports and Christianity form a disparate collection, clearing the ground for more systematic inquiry into the intersection of sport and Christian faith. The American Roman Catholic writer and diplomat Michael Novak contributes a preface, and contrib-utors from the United States, Britain, Australia, and Canada include "sports scientists", theologians, philosophers, a church historian, a Lutheran pastor, and an RC priest, Kevin Lixey, who started an international observatory for sport on behalf of the Holy See, and reviews Pontifical contributions to the debate.

The longest chapter, by the two editors, Nick Watson and Andrew Parker (the founding and the current Director of the Centre for Sport, Spirituality and Religion at the University of Gloucester), offers a thorough overview of literature on sport and Christianity, with sidelong reference to other faith traditions. It concludes with an assessment of fields for future research, highlighting sport and disability, sport and gender, sports chaplaincies, and theological reflection on exercise and health.

Certain themes recur in the volume: the senses in which sport is a rival or complementary pointer to the "sacred"; the parallels between "flow" or "peak experience" in sport and in the arts and ritual action; the theological and ethical questions raised by "disability" sport and by bio-technological enhancement; the proper part played by the body, given the history of Christian devaluation of the physical as against the spiritual; and the place of sport in Christian education.

Victor Pfitzner meditates on St Paul's extensive use of athletic metaphors in his Pastoral Epistles, a topic raised by other contributors. Two eminently readable and informative chapters, by Hugh McLeod on Britain and Shirl Hoffman on the US, trace the 19th- and 20th-century rapprochement between Evangelical Christianity and sport, and the emergence of the "muscular Christianity" that carried Christianity and "civilisation" into the mission field at home and abroad. While McLeod notes the eventual divergence between sport and the Churches in Britain, Hoffman documents the mainten-ance of the link, and the occlusion of the venality and corruption in sport by the implicit separation of private Christian morality from the professional ethics of ruthless, competitive sport in Evangelical America.

Watson discusses disabled sportsmen and -women as a prophetic sign to "the modern sporting Babel"; and Tracey Trothen examines the theological implications of technoscientific enhancements of the body. Chapters by Robert Higgs, Jacob Goodson, and Scott Kretchmar interrogate the relationship between Christian virtues, such as humility or care for others, and excellence in sporting achievement, calling on Alasdair MacIntyre's analysis of virtue.

While this collection does not hazard definitive approaches, it will be an invaluable resource in courses for ordinands, sports coaches, and teachers.

Dr Inge is Honorary Senior Research Fellow at the University of Worcester, and a Traherne specialist.

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