During one scene of The Simpsons, Bart is in a minigolf match against Todd Flanders (of the ultra-Christian Flanders family). Homer sees the Flanderses praying before the match and says, "Hey, Flanders! I already did the same thing, and we can't both win!" Since he prayed first, Homer argues, God is on his side.
Questioning just how much God cares about who wins a sporting event is a pretty old joke, but that doesn't make it any less true. I guarantee that after the World Series this month, someone on the winning team will thank God not for his talent but for the victory itself.
While occasionally strange—one didn't hear Green Bay's Reggie White blaming God for the 1998 Super Bowl defeat quite like he thanked him for the 1997 victory—it illustrates the point that sport and Christianity seem to have a natural, ever-present link in American culture. In fact, it may be the area of American popular culture most infused and identified with Christianity.
It hasn't always been that way, as Wheaton College professors Tony Ladd and James A. Mathisen recount. "Evangelical muscular Christianity was possible in the 1880s because of the rapid acceptance of sport in American life," they argue, "especially as it encouraged opportunities for the YMCA on college campuses." But in the early part of this century, evangelical Christians became disillusioned with sport and "disengaged" from it. Chicago White Stockings ball player Billy Sunday, the greatest athlete-turned-evangelist in Christian history, even became antagonistic to his former career.
As Ladd and Mathisen summarize, "When sport moved in increasingly secular directions in the early twentieth century, Protestants moved accordingly—but in two separate directions. While mainline Protestants continued to endorse sport apart from its value for conversion, fundamentalists (including Billy Sunday in 1893) grew increasingly suspicious of sport and minimized its value."
It wasn't until after World War II, when "sport redefined its niche as part of the American way of life," that evangelicals re-established their ties to sport. Ladd and Mathisen credit Billy Graham (as well as other fundamentalists involved in youth work) with much of this renewed relationship.
Today sports heroes are still very much a part of Billy Graham's evangelistic ministry: his Indianapolis crusade last spring, for example, was awash in sports testimonials, with Dallas Cowboy Deion Sanders and NASCAR star Jeff Gordon as "special guests." The crusade chair dropped sports names Reggie Miller and Larry Bird in his report to the media.
Ladd, chair of Wheaton College's Department of Kinesiology and Athletics, and Mathisen, a Wheaton sociology professor, are sympathetic to "muscular Christianity," but they express a number of concerns. For example: "As evangelical muscular Christianity looks to the twenty-first century, it enjoys affirmation from within its subculture but also faces the potential for increasing suspicion from without." Sports Illustrated's columnist Rick Reilly, who sarcastically criticizes Christian athletes who make a display of their faith, is but one example.
Many of the names discussed in the book will be familiar to Christianity Today readers: James Naismith, D. L. Moody, Eric Liddell, Billy Sunday, Bill Glass, and Bill McCartney are among the main characters. And while the book seems to be written to those in sports ministries, those who are interested in the history of evangelicalism in the last two centuries will certainly find much here to stimulate their thinking.
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