Faith & sports not always best friends

By Tom Krattenmaker

 Award-winning Portland-based writer
Recent book: The Evangelicals you Don’t Know
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Soccer fans around the world were glued to the World Cup, and among the takeaways for American viewers is the reality that ours is not the only country where faith and sports form a potent pair. Host nation Brazil pulses with Christian fervor and is undergoing a dramatic shift from its historic Catholicism to highly visible forms of evangelical belief — often seen in the country’s soccer superstars and fans.

The outsized passions at the World Cup also frame the need for a truth often lost in the excitement: Sports and faith invariably blend, but they conflict, too, often at the expense of the latter. Sports-loving Christians, beware.

Just in time for the pinnacle of world soccer mania, a team of Christian scholars, pastors and coaches has prepared a new “Declaration on Sport and the Christian Life.” It extols the benefit of athletics and commends their “rightful place in Christian living.” But it calls on Christians not to ditch the values of Jesus in the rush to go all in on sports.

Violence in sports

Consider violence in sports — a palpable concern in this country in the midst of mounting alarm over football concussions (an issue relevant to soccer players, too). The declaration authors note that in some sports, the risk of severe injury goes well beyond acceptable limits. “We believe the human body is a reflection of the image of God,” they write, adding that violent forms of play “cannot be condoned.”

The declaration challenges Christians to resist becoming so wrapped up in winning that they cut ethical corners. And it confronts another ever-present temptation for fans and players. “God,” the declaration writers declare, “should not be portrayed as favoring one team or athlete over another.”

Shirl Hoffman, author of a faith-and-sports book called Good Game, was one of the 10 declaration writers. “We are concerned about the moral relativism and inordinate emphasis on winning that are sweeping over sports,” Hoffman told me. “With this declaration, we hope to spell out guidelines for an alternative, Christian view of sports that we hope will take root wherever Christians are involved in playing or supporting sports.”

As if to demonstrate the need for the declaration, a new documentary making the rounds in this country shows how sports and faith can sometimes mingle in the most ill-advised ways. Fight Church, the work of filmmakers Daniel Junge and Bryan Storkel, documents the rise of Christian enthusiasm for mixed-martial arts, an increasingly popular sport that takes unfettered violence to new heights (or lows). Turn the other cheek in this sport, and your head might get knocked off.

Incompatible with Jesus

The film follows several pastors who promote MMA fighting as a hook for evangelism and a venue for men and boys to develop character; the pastors even take to the ring themselves. But the hero of the film for many viewers, I suspect, is the fighting minister who, by the film’s end, has retired from the sport out of the conviction that it’s incompatible with Jesus.

Few would call soccer violent. It’s in the realm of priorities and perspective where we find World Cup passions clashing with the values of religion. From the players’ crossing themselves and gesturing to the heavens, you can easily get the misimpression that God cares, and might even manipulate, the outcome. The joy, tears and prayers of the fans also give the wrong idea about what’s at stake in a game of professional soccer, as do the billions of dollars spent on stadium construction in a country with great unmet public need of a less glamorous variety. No, the World Cup is not a matter of cosmic significance.

Since the beginning, purveyors of the Gospel have gone where the crowds are. Often today in our sports-obsessed global culture, that’s big-time athletic competitions. So be it. But for the good of the game and the faith, let’s hope the religious zeal at the World Cup and other sports spectacles is tempered by a large dose of perspective.

There are, after all, more important things than who hoists the trophy at the end of this riveting tournament.

Tom Krattenmaker is a Portland-based writer specializing in religion in public life and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. He is author of Onward Christian Athletes on faith in sports.

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