Several years ago, I was a speaker at a camp for young people. When the first group game time came, one of the leaders told a parable based on Genesis 1-3. He described the joys of playing games in the Garden of Eden, where the emphasis was simply on the joy of play. But one day, the serpent entered the garden and tempted the Eden-dwellers with the idea of points. They gave in to the temptation and began keeping score in their games, and this led to all kinds of evils – competition, lust for winning.
Cheating, anger, and fights. They lost the simple joy of play. The leader told this parable to let the young people know that they would be introduced to non-competitive games this week at the camp. There were no points, no winners or losers, just the joy of play. But there was one serious problem – the games were totally and downright dull. Day after day, less and less of the young people showed up for the game time so that at the last one, there were only a handful of young people there.
Is this an accurate portrayal of a theology of sports? Obviously, I don’t think so, and I’d like to present a brief and broad theology of marks. If you don’t like that title, you can think of it as, “Why we should watch the Super Bowl!””
History can be summed up in three words: creation, fall, redemption. So when you are looking at the theology of an issue, you need to ask: What is its relation to or reflection of creation, of the fall, of redemption? In considering the case of sports, I have added two other words to expand our consideration – incarnation and salvation (both of which are, of course, tied to creation, fall, and redemption). Creation – God could have created everything to be gray and serviceable. Instead, He made a great diversity of color, size, shape, smell, texture, sounds, and tastes. Why did He do this? He did it so that the creation would reflect His person and, in particular, His beauty. It is a masterpiece of function and form, and the product is a work of Art.
Art is sometimes thought of as consisting of two types: visual Art – like painting, sculpture, architecture, and performing Art – like drama, music, dancing. The Lord included both visual and performing Art in the creation. Visual Art: flowers, mountains, trees; Performing Art: oceans and rivers, planetary orbits, clouds. Some things in design combine the two.
Sports are a reflection of this creative activity of the Lord. They also combine visual Art (painted fields/courts, team colors, and logos) and performing arts (the actual play). Sports reflect the function and form of creation. There is beauty in a space that is run to perfection, in a well-thrown ball, in a diving catch, in turning a double play. Those things can bring excitement and happiness because they reflect the way the world was created to be. They are a display of Art (or artistry, if you prefer).
The Lord also created things in a specific order, not in a haphazard way, and He placed within the creation laws or rules by which nature operates. Sports also have a mandate to them and have rules by which they use. Just as there are consequences for rebelling against the created order (such as disregarding gravity), there are consequences for not following the rules in sports. Sports reflect the nature and principles of creation. As in nature, this reflection, when done well, honors the Lord and gives the fan joy.
Fall – In the fall, man rebelled by sin, and the curse which resulted from that fall touches every part of everything – there is nothing that escapes. This means that we would expect to see evidence of the fall in sports, and, of course, we do. There are sins of attitude as well as sins of action. The deadliest of these sins is the idolatry of sports – when it holds the highest place in the affection of the heart and in the thinking of the mind. When life is planned around when games are played or when a person’s entire outlook is impacted by whether his team wins or loses, he has crossed the line into an unhealthy and sinful obsession.
There are also other wrong attitudes – when winning becomes the only thing that matters when a person will do whatever it takes to be successful, when personal glory becomes the end-all when people become arrogant or angry. These are all sins of the fall. The fall is reflected in sports by actions such as using steroids, fixing games, corking bats, bench-emptying brawls, and a host of other things.
Incarnation – We are embodied beings, and the image validates that our bodies are more than mere containers for our souls. Even our eternal state will consist of bodies – glorified bodies but bodies nevertheless. The Christian life is not about condemning the body but bringing it into subjection to honor the Lord. Sports are one of the things that help us to do that. Playing a sport requires discipline, and the body’s field for sports can carry over into our spiritual lives. Sports require determination, delayed gratification, a toughening-up of the body. Sports can also teach how to work with a team, how to submit to authority, how to encourage those not as naturally gifted as others, how to hit hard. And they teach patience. Even time on the bench can be sanctifying.