Last week I wrote about how Christians might respond to the sports idolatry practiced "out there" in the larger culture. That was an easy target. This week, I'd like to think about the baseball bats in our own our eyes.

At the dawn of the 21st century, we find ourselves immersed in a culture drowning in sports. A whole section of the daily newspaper, and entire weeklies, are dedicated to reporting on it. Cable channels broadcast games 24/7/365. Sports fuels our nation's economy; one example: CBS paid the NCAA $6 billion (yes, that's a b) for the rights to televise March Madness for 11 years). Companies use athletes to sell products, and community organizations use sports stars to promote character. Our language is littered with sports metaphors ("you knocked that presentation out of the park"), and pop culture instantaneously adopts the latest athletic choreography (from high fives to chest bumps to the tugging of jerseys).

Christians have long ago given up being concerned about all this. The movie Chariots of Fire portrayed what used to be a genuine struggle for many Christians: whether to participate in a sporting event on Sunday, the common day of rest and worship for Christians. Today the movie seems quaint, and the first reaction of Christian and non-Christian alike to Eric Liddell's dilemma is, "Lighten up, Eric. Just go to the early service!" These days many Christian athletes play only on Sundays, and are watched by millions of other Christians who rush home from church (or even skip church if necessary) to watch them play.

Sunday sports is not the issue here. This shift simply suggests that we are so immersed in a sports culture now that it is tough to gain perspective. It also suggests that, given the environment, Christians are bound to burn incense to the sports god now and then. But without a literal idol or incense to burn, what does sports idolatry look like for the one who says he believes Jesus is Lord? What are the signs that one's interest in sports is sabotaging one's faith in the Creator of sports?

Some point to the participation in Sunday sports, as either player or spectator, as a sign. Others count the hours one spends in sports versus church or prayer or serving the poor. Others still compare our household displays of sports memorabilia with displays of religious imagery in our homes. External measures can tell us something, to be sure, but devotion to Christ cannot be measured mathematically.

Others examine the heart. When playing or watching baseball seems more fun than worshipping God, they say, it's clear that one's godly affections have been sabotaged. But it's a modern—and I'd say perverse—notion that worship is supposed to entertain us. In fact, the church has never been able to compete with the carnival or circus in delivering fun to the folks in the pew. That's not its job. So there is no sense in browbeating ourselves if we enjoy ourselves more at Wrigley Field than at First Baptist.

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Others still suggest that the problem arises when a person finds meaning in sports. But we all know devout Christians who are called to spend their lives in the realm of music or the arts or architecture or forestry or horticulture whatever, and who see in those ventures continual signs of God's handiwork and grace. They love the church and would never think of giving ultimate devotion to anything but the Lord God, but they nonetheless find that God speaks to them powerfully through these mediums.

I could go on, but the larger point is becoming clear. It is mighty difficult to tell if sports—or knitting or cooking or gardening or fishing—has begun to replace one's love for Jesus Christ. This requires patient spiritual discernment, which in turn requires the Christian community—either a small group, an accountability friendship, or a spiritual director. It also requires fierce honesty with oneself.

But it also requires trust in God's grace. It is impossible, given the saturation of sports in this culture and the weakness of human nature, for the Christian sports fan to keep his loyalties straight day in and day out. The sports god is an enticing deity: he offers splendid moments of transcendence while never demanding that we take up our cross, forgive our enemies, or serve the poor. No wonder that we sometimes spend too much time with this benign god.

But if we've met the true God, we'll eventually be disappointed by this idol. In the end, a god who makes no demands is a god who doesn't love. He only wants to use us, not mature us into the image of Christ. So, we prodigal sports fans will find ourselves returning to the Father time and again, seeking forgiveness for falling for the promise of transcendence without holiness. And our gracious Father, true to his word, will embrace us and throw us a party, where there will be chips and dip, and joyful conversation, and even some friendly banter about who is going to win the World Series this fall.

Mark Galli is managing editor of Christianity Today.

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Related Elsewhere:

Galli's previous Play Ball columns include

The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan | Understanding the idolatry in sports. (March 01, 2005)
March Madnesses | The layers of insanity know no end—thank God. (March. 18, 2005)
Spectating as a Spiritual Discipline | For those who have eyes to watch, let them watch something more than highlight films. (March 11, 2005)
The Grace of Sports | If Christ can't be found in sports, he can't be found the modern world. (March 4, 2005)
Baseball Isn't Entertainment | The sooner we stop thinking sports are about the spectators, the more enjoyable the games will be. (Feb. 25, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)
Salt and Light in the Arena | It's going to take more than a few good Christians to clean up sports. (Feb. 18, 2005)
Rooting for T.O. | Why Terrell Owens irritates most of us most of the time. (Feb.. 11, 2005)
Freedom Between the Goal Posts | Sports is much more important than our culture lets on (Feb. 4, 2005)

Play Ball
From 2005 to 2007, "Play Ball" examined the relationship of sports and faith: sports is important precisely because it is a form of play, that is, a manifestation of the Sabbath. Contributors included Mark Galli, Collin Hansen, Mark Moring, and others.
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