After one vault on Tuesday, Simone Biles took herself out of the US gymnastics women’s team competition. A day later, she withdrew from the all-around, “in order to focus on her mental health,” read a statement on the USA Gymnastics' Twitter account.
Simone also blamed the twisties, where, as TheWashington Postdescribes, athletes “lose control of their bodies as they spin through the air. Sometimes they twist when they hadn’t planned to. Other times they stop midway through, as Biles did. And after experiencing the twisties once, it’s very difficult to forget. Instinct gets replaced by thought. Thought quickly leads to worry. Worry is difficult to escape.”
While the majority of fans have reacted to Biles’ departure from these marquee competitions with support, it did draw scorn from some, who see her decision not to compete as quitting or a cop out. As with everything else these days, Biles’ decision became part of the culture wars. And no doubt her decision will make its way into countless sermon illustrations this weekend.
This week on the show, we wanted to talk about how our discussion of elite athletics shapes the way we think about Christian discipleship. And when we hear words like sacrifice and redemption in our culture, it’s most often in a sports context. How is that shaping the way the church is talking about those words?
Brian Gamel is a postdoctoral fellow at Baylor University’s Faith and Sports Institute, where he is writing a book on athletic imagery in the New Testament. He also wrote a piece for Christian Scholar’s Review earlier this year called “‘Whoever Wishes to Become Great’ – Sports, Glory, and the Gospel.”
Tim Dalrymple is the CEO and editor in chief of Christianity Today. He is also a former elite gymnast: When he was a sophomore at Stanford, he was the NCAA’s top-ranked gymnast and a likely Olympics contender, until an accident on the high bar broke his neck and ended his athletic career.
Gamel and Dalrymple joined global media manager Morgan Lee and executive editor Ted Olsen to discuss Paul’s athletic metaphors, a biblical theology of the body and sport, and what it means to actually support athletes in your church.
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Email our guest: Brian_Gamel@baylor.edu
Music by Sweeps
The transcript is edited by Faith Ndlovu
Highlights from Quick to Listen: Episode #275
On Wednesday Biles tweeted, “the outpouring of love and support I've received has made me realize I'm more than my accomplishments and gymnastics, which I never truly believed before.”
Tim, did you have a similar kind of reworking of your sense of self after your accident?
Timothy Dalrymple: The first thing that I would say is that part of the backstory here is that gymnastics over recent years in recent decades has really fostered a prevailing culture of scorn toward the body. I remember growing up in the gymnastics space where I was constantly hearing the heroic tales of people who had suffered injuries in some cases, quite serious and gruesome injuries, and nonetheless persevered and went out and competed for the good of the team.
Whether these stories were actually true or not, I do not know even to this day, but I would always hear about people in the Olympics. There was a Japanese gymnast who broke his leg and still had to compete on a couple of events for the team to win. That was the vision of heroism that was propounded within the gymnastics space.
You could have your hands bleeding all over the bar, jump down and tell your coach, “I'm not sure I can go anymore because I've popped a blister and I'm bleeding everywhere.” And they would just say, “stuff chalk into your hair, then get back up on the bar.”
I remember one time showing a coach that my hands were bleeding, and he slapped my hands and just said, “toughen up, get back up on the bar.” There were countless occasions, (this is exceedingly common at the elite levels of gymnastics) when I had to compete with fairly serious injuries, a cracked sternum, tears in my pectoral muscle, severely sprained ankles. I had a fracture in my lower back when I was 12 and competed on that for a couple of years. Even after I broke my neck, the response of my coach was, “well, we all break bones now and then, you can still compete for the team.” That was not immediate. It was a couple of months later when he was trying to get me to contribute to the team but there was this very severe and pervasive attitude of scorn toward the body. A lot of that is even worse when it comes to women's gymnastics. A lot of the girls that I competed with internationally came out of the Karolyi system and the kinds of pressures that they dealt with were extraordinary.
That led to all sorts of body image issues, eating disorders. One young woman that I knew who had already been named to the Olympic team for rhythmic gymnastics lost an ovary. They were weighed every day and told they needed to lose more weight, et cetera. This sort of deeply unhealthy attitude toward the body that unfortunately also got reflected in abuse of female gymnasts is all a part of that story. Simone is overturning what had been a long-settled set of priorities within the gymnastics world in a very healthy way.
To get exactly to your question, yes, being one of the best in the world has got to be an enormous part of Simone Biles’ identity.
I was not one of the best in the world. I was not yet competing at that level, but I was one of the best in the country. When that was taken away, it prompted a long season of searching for what my life was going to look like next. I don't find it at all implausible that she would struggle to believe that people actually care about her beyond her accomplishments, because the prevailing atmosphere was that you were valuable if you brought in medals.
Tim, you had mentioned that you feel like Simone’s decision is a sign of something positive that's happening in the sport. Would there ever have been a time for you where you might have looked at that and thought, "No, mind over matter," and pushed through these things and just accepted some of the elite gymnastics doctrines around some of this stuff? What might have prompted you from holding those perspectives to then reevaluating that?
Timothy Dalrymple: Yes, making your body absolutely subservient to your will as it was very much a part of the ethos and having someone withdraw, not for reasons of physical injury. I think as a young gymnast I might've shared in some of those unhealthy attitudes. When I look at what Simone did, when you lose confidence in yourself, and let's say you're a golfer, and suddenly you find yourself overthinking every aspect of your golf swing. Whatever the sport we've all had experiences like that. But then imagine that if your golf swing was not exactly on you were going to die, that's kind of the situation that she's in, she's doing extraordinarily dangerous skills, more dangerous than what anybody else performs.
If you're starting to question yourself and lose your way in the middle of the air when you're doing triple twisting doubles and skills like that, you're risking catastrophic injury. I have felt that when I was 12 or 13, I probably would have bought into a lot of the negative attitudes, but if I could go back to when I broke my neck and, and say, “I didn't really feel quite comfortable competing for that triple backflip.” That's what I injured myself on in the competition, it was a relatively new skill for me. I also had concerns about that particular bar on that day, which looked loose to me and once I jumped upon it, it didn't feel right. Yet there was such an ethos of pushing through toughing it out, being courageous in the midst of these sort of circumstances. I pushed through and I broke my neck as a result.
That changes your life to surgeries, chronic pain. If I could go back and be like Simone and say, “this doesn't feel quite right, I'm going to pull out for now,” of course I would absolutely do that. That's the healthier thing to do. There's also a broader context of USA gymnastics and its history of perpetuating abuse and the role that Simone has played in that conversation that I think is relevant here, but, just simply on the grounds of mental health doing what is best for the team, preserving her own health for the long-term. She's showing that there are some things more important than winning.
One of the verses that I hear sometimes from a number of Christian athletes is this; 1 Corinthians 9:27, “I beat my body, I bruise my body and make it my slave. . .” How did you hear that verse in your gymnast days and how do you hear it now? It's something that is very much in sports but very much across Christian ministry. Missionaries and aid workers and other folks who are overseas, who have a view of sacrifice that pushes them not to sleep and to work 20 hour days. They wrestle with this question of what is sacrifice, self-care, what does it mean to keep my body under control so that I won't lose out on what I really want to accomplish.
Timothy Dalrymple: This would have been a different circumstance if we were talking about war. Let's say being there for your platoon, as it's going into gunfire. This would have been even a different circumstance if you were talking about self-sacrifice in order to follow the call of God into the mission field, even in the face of extraordinary danger to yourself. There are ways in the midst of those things to care for oneself as well. But what we're talking about here is someone who already had a lot of gold medals, who was under pressure to go out and win another one for our entertainment.
Firstly, if she felt that it was profoundly risking catastrophic injury, and secondly that it was actually going to give a worse outcome for her team and it was better for her to let others compete as she saw the pieces falling apart in her mind and her routines. Thirdly, at the end of the day, she was competing on behalf of an organization that had failed her so much.
I think she was right to decide that that kind of sacrifice and that kind of risk was not worth it in this instance.
Brian, how are you looking at that in your work on athletics and the New Testament?
Brian Gamel: The funny thing is that the 1 Corinthians 9 (1 Cor 9.) passage is the densest area for athletic imagery in all of the New Testament. 1 Corinthians 9, 24 to 27 (1 Cor 9:24-27.) has more athletic imagery per square inch than any other part of the Bible. It becomes a classic text that people turn to. But because it has all that imagery in there that many of us like to use, and that we feel connected to, we are often quick to jump to that passage and ignore everything around it. The first thing I would say about understanding that passage is that whenever any author, including Paul, is using metaphors, or when they're speaking in parables, not all the details carry over, not every word or image has the same kind of significance. We see this in Jesus' parables, and we see this in the way that any metaphor is used. Earlier, for example, in that same passage, he says, “do you not know that in a race, all the runners compete, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to win.”
What he's not suggesting is that of all the Corinthians, only one of them is going to win and they're all competing against each other. I would argue that he's actually making the opposite point and if we look at the larger context of that passage, we have to ask, what is 1 Corinthians 9 (1 Cor 9.) doing in the middle of 1 Corinthians 8 and 10, (1 Cor 8; 10.) it starts with this conversation about food sacrificed to idols, he's writing what he thinks about that.
And then we have this weird interruption where he talks about being an apostle and doesn't he have the right to go around with a wife and to get money from people. He then continues talking about food sacrificed to idols and the question becomes, where is this coming from? Where is this whole interruption coming from? This athletic imagery what's that doing there? It seems to me that the reason that passage is in there is that Paul is using his own life as an example of what it means to give up your rights for other people. Do the Corinthians have the right to eat food sacrificed to idols? Yes, he would say, but then you're missing the point if that's the end of the conversation. He uses his own life as an example of what it means to have the right, for example, to request money from the churches that he ministers to, but not use it. By exercising, that kind of self-control and that kind of discipline to not exercise that right then what he is doing is he's participating in the call of the gospel, which is a joy.
This whole encouragement in that section is an admonition to the Corinthians to not compete. In fact, if we look at the whole context of the letter, what we see is that the Corinthian church is ridden with different factions and different groups, all competing against each other for honor and privilege, and status.
If you look at the passage in-depth, what you see that Paul is doing is using athletic imagery and using the idea of a competition to avert competition. He seems to be using the language of competition to argue for the Corinthians’ non-competition or that they should prepare as one getting ready to compete so they can avoid competing.
It’s as though Paul is directing their competitive desires and inclinations and channeling them with this language to subvert it.
Brian, you wrote a piece for a Christian scholars’ review, where you are talking about Jesus having a similar point in his response to the disciples when they're arguing about who would be the greatest, and you draw a distinction there between the pursuit of athletic greatness and the pursuit of athletic excellence and that we sometimes misunderstand Jesus as well on that point. Without getting into the whole detail, can you summarize that for us?
Brian Gamel: That article was born out of a class section that I teach at the Faith and Sports Institute. We have a series of non-credit courses and the one I teach is on the Bible and sports. It's exploring this idea of greatness for glory and I think that what often happens in a sporting context, as well as the non-sporting contexts is that people are driven to this idea of greatness and they hear that passage in Mark where Jesus attempts to redefine greatness, “whoever wishes to become great should become a servant. And whoever wishes to become first must be the slave to all.” They think I understand what he's doing here. He's just turning the pyramid upside down. If you really want to be great, you should be a servant. But I feel like that is missing the point of what Jesus is saying. In that understanding is still a desire to be great and greatness in the way it was defined in the first entry was exclusionary.
It's the desire to be seen as great. It's the desire to be heaped on top of other people. It's a zero-sum idea and. The desire to be great then becomes corrosive for true discipleship. It seems like to me, what Jesus is saying there is that “if you have the desire to become great, then what you need is an antidote to that is to make yourself less important”. The call of the gospel is to become unimportant, unseen.
However, that does not mean that there's no drive for excellence and that is where athletics and sports have a role to play. We can still be excellent in our pursuits, whether it's playing the tuba or doing a math problem or being an athlete. The difference I would say is, do we feel the need as Christians to compete, to be seen as great, or simply to do excellently what God has given us the gifts to do.
When you're talking about sports with lessons for the rest of life, things that someone seeking greatness might do might also look like things that someone pushing into excellence might do. So how would you advise someone wanting to give themselves a gut check on their motive about whether they're pursuing deeper excellence or whether they're pushing deeper into seeking greatness for themselves?
Brian Gamel: One of the things that Tim mentioned earlier that I appreciate is relevant here, which is the understanding of identity, and that is something that affects all of us, whether we're athletes or not.
Where do I find my sense of identity? Where do I find my sense of self? I find this to be the case, whether I'm pursuing a vocation as an athlete or as a scholar or whatever it is that I'm doing. The desire and the temptation to over-identify with our vocation or the things that people put on us is enormous.
I guess the question I would ask in those moments is, what's my identity? Who am I and where is that grounded? We at the Faith and Sports Institute have this high school retreat for student-athletes that we run every year.
One of the labs that we have them compete in is where we put them in competition and we rig it to where it's not fair, where calls are made poorly and as that's happening and they're getting frustrated, what their mentors are asking them is what is your identity? Where's your identity, what's your identity statement? If you don't have that figured out before you get in there, it's easy to fall prey to the idea that if I don't make this swing or I don't make this dive, or I don't perform exactly the right way that I will die, and maybe I won't die physically. Maybe I'll just die socially.
That's great. Tim, how about you, any thoughts on how you've learned to distinguish between the pursuit of excellence and the pursuit of greatness?
Timothy Dalrymple: Yeah, let me start by saying that because I feel like some of my comments have been fairly negative towards some of the unhealthy aspects within gymnastics culture, particularly, but also may be within the athletic culture and the call to victory more broadly. I also want to say though that my gymnastics was a profoundly consequential school for faith.
I feel as though I learned so much about the faithfulness of God through the ups and the downs. There are so many occasions where gymnastics brought me smack against my limitations and pointed out my need for God in ways that I will never forget. It was a kind of laboratory of faith for me.
I hardly know who I would be today without that. I've written in other contexts rather dramatically that if an angel were to stand in front of me and say, “Hey, I can take away the broken neck and all of the consequences, but I would also take away the entire gymnastics career. Would I say yes?” The answer is, “no”, I wouldn't agree to that because my experience in sports became such a thoroughgoing part of my identity. I don't know who I would be at, apart from it and I cannot regret how I believe that it has deepened me and broadened my perspectives and strengthened me.
Even after I broke my neck, this gets into the language of excellence, there was an older gymnast who came to me in my sophomore year at Stanford at the time. He was an older Stanford gymnast. He came and said that “you've learned how to be excellent in one thing, now take everything that you've learned and go be excellent in other things.” We approach the Olympics as though it's all about this one shining moment of gold medal glory, but it's really about a very long journey, years, countless hours, and all that you learned along the way and the vast majority of people in sports will never make it to the Olympics. Even the vast majority of Olympians will not win a gold medal. With over 10,000 athletes, something like 339 gold medals will be distributed. So, the vast majority are going to be quote-unquote losers in a certain sense, but so shaped by the pursuit of excellence that it changes the rest of their lives. There's something immensely valuable about that. When I was younger, I was raised within the church, and I believed that I was pursuing gymnastics glory because it would give me a platform to bring glory to God.
But it is the case that the fact that I would gain glory for myself along the way was also a motivating factor. That's human, that's what it's like to be a teenager. Over time it is not the pursuit of renown that has stuck with me, but the pursuit of excellence that has shaped my character in ways that have had consequences well beyond my gymnastics career.
Tim, as someone who takes their faith very seriously and obviously had a very profound experience doing this sport, at least in our culture and context, where have you found over the years that the sports metaphors that get introduced in Christianity fall short and kind of misunderstand something really important about sports?
Timothy Dalrymple: I don't think it's just the sports metaphors. I think we're in a need of a broader and healthier theology of athletics if you ask me. I hope that Dr. Gamel would agree with me on that. I would go to certain passages for sure. A favorite for me was Joshua 1,” be bold and courageous. Have I not told you no one will be able to stand up against you all the days of your life?” That's kind of something that feeds into that call to victory. But a broader theology of sport would also emphasize the value of the body, to get back to some of the things that I raised earlier around like the pervasive scorn for the body that you often find within gymnastics context and also certain other sports that I would hope that parents of athletes who are Christian, Christian athletes, Christian coaches, would convey a sense that Christianity values the body.
It is not a religion or a philosophical system that teaches that the body is some sort of worthless thing to be transcended but is instead a temple unto God and part of God's good creation and the soul and the body are inextricably intertwined. I would hope that that would be one thing that we could bring as Christians into the sports field, a renewed and healthy vision of the value and the sacredness of the human body.
Brian Gamel: Yes, I agree with all that Tim has said there and more. I agree that a healthy focus on the body is useful. Many see spirituality as somehow transcending the body or leaving the body behind. This is an old and pervasive idea that our bodies are somehow lower or less useful or less spiritual than the mind or the soul or the spirit.
I think athletics can help reconnect with that idea. I would also say that some of the metaphors that you used or some of the language that gets used, the problems with them become twofold on the one hand, this idea about offering glory to God is rooted in this assumption that God wants this kind of act from us or that God desires that kind of act as though God needs our renown or our recognition or the fame that we would offer God. I would maybe challenge that notion that God doesn't need glory from us. God doesn't need us to win glory to give to God. God's own fame and recognition are secure in God's own self.
In this way when we pursue athletics not an attempt to win glory, then what we're doing is we're not engaging in athletics, instrumentally. We're not doing it so that we can do something else, but simply to enjoy what it is in itself. Theologically, you can make a strong argument that play as an activity is something from God. This is something my colleague, John White talks about all the time with the Faith and Sports Institute, that we were made to play.
One of the ways we humans have organized play is a sport. That is an end in itself. It is autotelic and that means that we can enjoy it for what it is, but, but when we see it as simply a means to something else, even a spiritual means, I think it can become corrupted. We then attempt to do something for God in a way that God has not asked us for. That's one thing I would say about the idea of those kinds of metaphors going wrong.
As a follow-up on that because there's a great profile of Biles that ran right before the Olympics started in the New York Times and it got in some of these means and ends questions not from a Christian perspective necessarily. But just Biles carrying a load of being iconic and spokesperson and we talked about that tension between excellence and greatness. Biles did have at least some sense that to be great means to be a servant trying to compete on behalf of more than just herself. There is a line in the New York Times profile where she says, “I'm going out there and representing the USA, representing the world champion center and representing black and brown girls all over the world.”
The article also talks about how she's trying to use her platform for good speaking out on abuse, speaking out on racial justice, and other issues. But a lot of it was her saying, “athleticism has now given me a platform, to speak on behalf of others.” How does that connect to some of these questions about the body as means to advocate and what are the differences between seeking excellence as a representative for God and doing it for yourself? How do we know how those look differently?
Brian Gamel: That reminds me of questions I often get in a seminary context or with undergraduates when I'm teaching Intro to Bible, Intro to Theology classes, and they will often ask questions about a certain activity or a certain belief or a certain way of doing something and they want to know what's the biblical way of doing this? The problem with that is that it's almost impossible to answer that upfront in the sense that oftentimes the right thing and the wrong thing if we're going to label them, can look the same from the outside.
It's very difficult to know what motivates a person, how they're being formed or shaped. Even though I just said that I think that instrumentality can become a problem with sports. I would also not want to say that there's no instrumental value in sports or that it can't be used for some other good purpose.
The problem for Christians becomes when that's the only value that it has, or it's simply seen as dispensable, there's this idea of seeing sports as an idol or an icon. We either worship it and we are just in awe of what it can provide for us. Or I'm beyond that. I don't need that anymore. I simply just do sports because for some of the reasons, and that seems too simple to me. I guess in all things though, as far as motivation and what counts or what's authentic, it reminds me, I'm drawn back to this quote by Richard Rohr in one of his books where he says that “all great spirituality is about letting go. But instead, we have made it about taking and attaining, performing, winning, and succeeding. That spirituality becomes a show that we perform for ourselves, which God does not need. True spirituality mirrors the paradox of life. It trains us in both detachment and attachment; detachment from the things that are passing away so that we can attach to the substantial. But if we don't acquire those good skills in detaching, then we can quickly attach to our own self-image and that self-image becomes a kind of religion for us.”
I fear that oftentimes this is what happens for many people, is that sport can be used as a great tool for detaching from what is passing. Tim has alluded to how this operated in his own life. We learn to detach from the things that are passing and that are temporary to attach to what is substantial. If sports is used in that way, it can become a great tool for us. But often it becomes the opposite. It's a way of attaching to our image, our own performance, our own sense of self, our own identity. That becomes poisonous ultimately.
How are you both viewing sports in light of the pandemic? A number of athletes have talked about themselves and how there are a lot of really intense questions that COVID-19 made them ask about their relationship with their sport. Several of them considered quitting and probably some people are not at the Olympics this year because they decided to not go through with continuing to do that sport during that.
But I do think COVID has made us reevaluate a lot of what our society values and finds important. To what extent did the pandemic make you ask questions about how our society centers sports? And are there questions about this that you think the church might need to be introspective and ask itself as well?
Brian Gamel: One of the things I've thought about during the Olympics and during the time of the pandemic as a non-elite athlete myself is the way that we talk about athletes, all the rest of us. There's a handful of people all over the world who are the very best at what they do in their sports program and the rest of us often becomes spectators. But the language that we use to describe them becomes important. A common way that we tend to define these elite athletes is as machines. We use that language all the time that he or she is just such a machine, look at how they just push through, look at how they perform flawlessly.
I understand where the image comes from and why we use it. But the problem is that there's freight with that imagery. It carries an implication behind it. In this case, there's a couple, one is that true machines are one-dimensional. They just do one thing and they do it well and they do it repeatedly.
We see this with Simone Biles, this expectation that this is what she does. She should just go out there and perform for us for entertainment because she is this kind of machine, without thinking about the other consequences that come with them. That's what happens in the pandemic as well.
Yes. Maybe it's not the safest thing to gather a bunch of people when we're still trying to contain a worldwide virus. But we've already waited a year, and this is owed to us and that's the other aspect of understanding a machine; is that it’s a tool for us to accomplish our goals. That’s why we have machines, it's that we can use them to do what we want them to do. Thinking about athletes that way, even though I know it's supposed to be a compliment, can be dangerous. We're seeing the multidimensionality of athletics because of the pandemic and maybe seeing that this language is not quite so very helpful.
Timothy Dalrymple: Yeah, it was very interesting as the pandemic began to shut down different sectors of society, that it almost became real for people when professional sports was being shut down. There was a huge reaction, I believe it was the NBA that had to shut down first and it was like this is changing our world in ways that are going to be profoundly uncomfortable.
It was the removal of professional sports and then it was, how quickly can we have an NFL season? Even if there's nobody in the stands, can we put basketball players in a bubble? How can we continue to have this source of entertainment and inspiration?
For a lot of people, their participation in sports, even as a spectator, has a kind of euphoric experience at its best. When you see your team or the person that you're rooting for really accomplish something and you see dreams that are fulfilled or when your team defeats their dreaded rivals, there's something there that feels transcendent to us that takes us outside of the dreariness of everyday ordinary existence.
There were very practical consequences of moving the Olympics back by a year, for instance, they are gymnasts I know who probably would've made the team a year earlier but had injuries and so they weren't able to make it, the injuries that they suffered in the intervening year and so they weren't on the team after all and people who were on the upswing and who made it in 2021 would probably not have in 2020. But you also get this collective sense of longing as we drew close to the Tokyo games, and they began to see a spike in COVID cases, and it became possible that the games would be delayed yet again. I just felt like a lot of people were holding their breath and hoping that it would be able to go forward almost like the dangers to Japanese citizens didn't matter as much.
As I said earlier, I have an extraordinary appreciation for athletics and everything that it can teach us, but there's also no question and I think that the COVID pandemic really exposed us, that it has come to kind of an idolatrous place within our culture.
A follow-up Brian, on one of the things that you had mentioned as far as the machine imagery, what would you say is the biggest pitfall that you have seen Christian leaders fall into when they are talking about sports? Especially when athletes in games and so forth come up in sermon illustrations and I guess I would say, is there anything, if someone's going to talk about Simone Biles from the pulpit this week that they should not do just to make this super applicable.
Brian Gamel: Let me start by answering your first question and to say that one of the things that happens a lot with people using athletic imagery is that it is still used in a way that isn't even uniquely Christian, for example, one of the most famous well-known passages that get used by lots of Christians in athletics is Philippians 4: 13 (Phil 4:13.), “I can do all things through him who strengthens me”. This is another phrase or verse we look at in the class and if you just do a quick Google search for this phrase and see how it appears in marketing or branding, you'll see that this is all over Christian apparel and it feels like that the way it's often used is almost as a token, that as long as I am faithful as a Christian if I'm giving God God's due, that I will be utterly successful at things that I pursue in this case sports. I think that's why it's often used in a sporting context. I'm able to do this to accomplish this. The operating assumption behind that is that if I am a good Christian, it makes me better at this activity at least in what I would have been and maybe even better than other people.
That's a dangerous assumption to make that is not obviously what the passage in Philippians is talking about and none of the metaphors that are used in the Bible are meant to indicate that. As far as Simone, using her as an example, I would say that we tend to like these ideas of athletic imagery in certain church contexts because they are inspiring.
This is something that Tim mentioned about why we watch athletics, it is euphoric. I went to Duke, and I loved when Duke destroyed UNC. It was so exciting and don't talk to me in the days that the Tar Heels beat us, I didn't like that. But having said all that, the danger becomes in not understanding how those metaphors, that language can be unchristian or even anti-Christian, for example, using Simone Biles as a sermon illustration can become a way of saying if you try hard enough, or if you don't try hard enough, you're going to fail or you're going to succeed. Don't use those as sermon illustrations. Don't use her decision to quit as a way of saying you can get all the way to the end and drop out. That is not an appropriate illustration to use as a sermon in the same way that it's not appropriate to say that when Paul says in 1 Corinthians 9 (1 Cor 9.), “do you not know that in a race, all the runners run, but only one gets the prize,” hey, only one of you is going to win so you better toughen up. Those are both inappropriate ways of using those examples.
There's a way in which actual Christian language has been adopted by sports culture and then gets fed back into Christian language. The word redemption, for example, is used to talk about someone who either was performing poorly or perhaps they had an injury and now they're good again or they lost the previous game, and they won this game and therefore they are redeemed.
Similarly, if you ask a lot of people for an example of sacrifice, you're probably going to get a sports example of giving something up to be better at your sport than you would a kind of traditional burnt offering sort of sacrifice.
Is there a way in which the church can capitalize on these cultural understandings of these words, or are we in much more of a stage of needing to correct cultural understandings of those words? Tim, as someone who has heard those words used a lot on both sides of the coin, I'll start with you.
Timothy Dalrymple: I'm mindful of the millions of people across the country who are coaches, who are investing in the lives of young people as they are learning what it looks like to work together as teams, learning what it looks like to strive for excellence, and I know the profound effect that coaches had upon my life and in particular one or two who were with me for many years.
A lot of that language just reflects the fact that there is kind of a pseudo-religious, transcendent component, as we've been talking about to athletic experience, and we get these stories of striving against overwhelming odds and achieving something miraculous.
We have stories of good and evil and our local rivalries. We have the language of redemption and salvation and even David and Goliath and so forth. There has been this remarkable intertwining of religious language and sports language. It does open up the opportunity for people who are youth pastors, people who are coaches for parents really to bring some aspects of the biblical story to life and some aspects of Christian theology to life.
I'm not averse to the use of sports metaphors. It provides opportunities for us to flesh out more overtly and richly theological Christian conceptions of those terms in a manner that young people might be able to connect with.
Brian Gamel: Yeah, I would say in addition to that I don't think that I'm necessarily bothered by the use of those phrases since both of those terms, whether it's redemption or sacrifice, were non-Christian terms before they were Christian terms. These were terms that were appropriated by Christian authors to use as examples and metaphors to describe something that they needed to describe with language that was familiar to the people around them.
Ultimately that's where the sports metaphors come from as well. It's helpful here to make note that the use of that kind of athletic imagery and metaphors in life precedes Christians by a fair margin just as a very short little recap of the history of sports, the Greeks were the very first people to do sports. For the very first time, you have people exercising and training and they're not in the military, which seems crazy. Why would you run if you don't have to fight somebody? Why would you just wrestle somebody if it's not for your life? The Greeks developed this tradition of competing it became all-consuming.
Quickly what happens is that the philosophers of that time, after several generations begin to use that imagery, they adapt those ideas of the contest and they adapt it to life and they say, the true athlete is the philosopher, which of course, they'd say that since they're the philosophers and then say that the true athlete is the one who competes against their passions with rationality and with reason. The stoics and the cynics then actually began using the language about life as a race and the stoics would say that life is a contest. It's an argon that God has called us to, and they will use that language.
That language is all very familiar to people in the ancient world so that it can be picked up and utilized by Christians. Whenever that language is being used, whether it's athletic imagery or other imagery like redemption or sacrifice, what's important to remember is that what's uniquely Christian about it is how the authors of the New Testament utilized that language. Redemption was a very common term for buying back a slave and sacrifice was something that the cultists participated in, whether you were Jewish or part of the Greco-Roman world, you were very familiar with those kinds of ideas and you would have been very familiar with sports if you lived in any kind of large Hellenistic city.
When we're looking at the way that language gets used, what's helpful is to see the way that it's Christianized or what larger point is it making, in what way is that metaphor serving to help us understand God and the spiritual life better.
As we bring this discussion to a close, I've read different articles and interviews from Christians who are artists who are often calling for churches and their fellow Christians to better support the arts and I don't think I've ever read those for athletes, which may suggest that the church is doing a good job supporting athletes, but what would be a uniquely Christian way to support professional athletes. What would that look like? Is that telling them hard truths that they're not getting anywhere? Is that changing the discourse of how we talk about these things? Is this giving them more of a platform to share their message?
Brian Gamel: I don't have a comprehensive answer to that except to say that the way that the church can be of service to athletes is helping to remind them about what's true. As we mentioned before, the overwhelming temptation to over-identify with your vocation is so strong already, no matter what you do. As an athlete, it's even stronger, it's even more intense. For the church to be able to tell people that you were loved, and you were cared for, and you were valued independently of what you do or accomplish is enormous. You were asking earlier about how might you use Simone in a sermon. Maybe the question to ask is how might she have felt in that moment when she decides I'm going to stop, I'm going to not compete and all the pressures, all the words, all the things that were rising up in her and as a Christian, we might ask, where is God in the moment where you decide to say no to something and there's going to be these enormous consequences where people are going to be disappointed. I can say that the church's response is that God is there and present in that loss and in that sense of suffering and even that sense of rejection, more than ever. That we can as a church remind athletes that even in your loss and your dis-identity, that God is present, not just in the glory and in the honor and the spectacle and in the training montage that we see in movies, but also in the loss and the pain and the loneliness.
Timothy Dalrymple: Yeah. I'll start by talking about how it can support amateur athletes. The power that a coach has to participate in the formation of identity through sports is remarkable and local sports, getting involved in your kids' teams, or if you don't have kids or don't have kids at those ages, nonetheless, getting involved in the local teams is an amazing opportunity to show them that they are loved and valued and supported and in a lot of cases to provide for kids who may not have the most positive home lives and the most positive experiences to reach out to them and be the hands and feet of Jesus.
When it comes to professional sports athletes, or let's say athletes among the top in the world, it was remarkable to me when Simone Biles, after she had withdrawn from the team competition posted something that ended with the words, we hope America still loves us.
She was saying they were proud to get the silver medal and we hope America still loves us. The fact that she would even question that it does speak to that sense that athletes can have that they are only valued for delivering victory. The church's witness should be profoundly counter-cultural on this point, and I would love for the church to be the loudest voice saying, yes, we value athletes as human beings. We value their physical health. We value their mental health and we do not see their identity solely in their achievements, but God views them as sacred, as created in his image and God has a plan for them that goes so far beyond whether or not they make the medal stand in their particular event. The church should have a much richer vision of who they are and what their life could mean and how they could continue to unfold the will of God so far beyond their athletics career.
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