A Brief Theology of Sports

A number of years ago I was a speaker at a camp for young people. When the first group game time came, one of the leaders began by telling 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 this week at the camp they would be introduced to non-competitive games. There were no points, no winners or losers, just the joy of play. But there was one serious problem – the games were totally and completely boring. 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. I’d like to present a brief and broad theology of sports. 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 issue of sports, I have added two further words to expand our consideration – incarnation and salvation (both which are, of course, tied to creation, fall and redemption).

Creation – God could have created everything to be gray and serviceable. Rather, He created 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 be a reflection of His person and, in particular, His beauty. It is a masterpiece of function and form. The creation 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 creation 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 play 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 are a reflection of 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 an order to them and have rules by which they operate. Just as there are consequences for rebelling against the created order (such as disregarding gravity), so there are consequences for not following the rules in sports. Sports reflect the nature and principles of the 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 every thing – 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 the use of steroids, of fixing games, of corking bats, of bench-emptying brawls, and a host of other things.

Incarnation – We are embodied beings and the incarnation validates that our bodies are more than merely 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 disciplining of the body 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.

Sports are one way that we honor the truth and reality of the incarnation and glorify God by using our bodies in God-honoring ways.

Salvation – The history of salvation is a drama. A drama, to be effective, depends at the least on knowledge, motion and timing. In the drama of salvation, the Lord had a game-plan, knowledge, before the beginning of time. At the creation this game-plan was put in motion, what we know as the people and events of unfolding history. And it was all done according to God’s timing – Galatians tells us that Christ came in the fullness of time. That drama continues today. It is what C.S. Lewis called the true myth.

Today, actors/actresses in drama need to know their lines (knowledge), they need to know where they are supposed to be in a scene (motion) and they need to know when they are to play their part and say their lines (timing). Great drama also has that sense of being a true myth.

This dramatic notion of knowledge, motion and time is reflected in sports. The knowledge is seen in the plays and strategies that are a part of sports. The motion is seen in the carrying out of those strategies and they are only successful if the timing of everyone involved is correct. Sports portray drama action and also have that mythic aspect to them. It may be that part of sports appeal comes from the fact that they are universal in being part of human life. Some would say that sports transcend entertainment and take on a meaning that is significant and important in the lives of people who enjoy and devote time to sports.

The heart of our salvation is the saving work of Christ – he gave himself for us, body and blood.

Sports are one of the only arenas in life where you can offer your body for the good of others. Many plays in sports – a block, a diving catch, a physically demanding gymnastic routine – are the giving up of the body for the sake of the team. This is a display of the gospel.

Redemption – Redemption is the delight in restoration. When that redemption is accomplished completely at the consummation it becomes glorification – that will be full joy and unhindered delight. The joys and delights of this life are gifts of grace. They are never completely satisfying but they give a taste of what that complete satisfaction will be like.

Sports, for the fans, are one of those gifts that bring joy and delight (also at times disappointment so we learn how to deal with that in a healthy and godly way). They are to be enjoyed in themselves for what they are – a gift of grace. The enjoyment never lasts or is total but it is a taste of that complete satisfaction that causes us to long for more. So while a sport can be enjoyed in itself, it points us to more than just this momentary enjoyment; it reveals the longing for everlasting joy. The sports fan who recognizes this greater purpose is viewing that enjoyment from a biblical perspective. Temporal enjoyment is a gift but it is not an end. When treated as an end, it borders on the idolatrous. We must train our joy to be experienced as part of God’s purpose.

Like all other things in life, we are to take sports captive and make them obedient to Christ. Sports viewing and sports participation can become transforming activities when we view sports as one of the ways that God is extending to us His grace and in recognizing that it is a means to long for the greater joy that only Christ can give.

There is much more that could be said. I have not even touched on Paul’s use of sports’ language and his use of sports as a metaphor for the spiritual life. I have not talked about how sports can be used as an evangelistic tool to spread the gospel. I have not mentioned how sports should blend physical strength and courage with meekness and love. I have not referred to the relationship between sports and our spiritual warfare. But I hope I have given enough to make you think – and perhaps to think of sports a little differently than you have before.

Sport and the Russian Revolution

“People will divide into “parties” over the question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports.”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

At the start of the twentieth century sport had not flourished in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as Britain. The majority of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours each day on back-breaking agricultural labour. Leisure time was difficult to come by and even then people were often exhausted from their work. Of course people did still play, taking part in such traditional games as lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). A smattering of sports clubs existed in the larger cities but they remained the preserve of the richer members of society. Ice hockey was beginning to grow in popularity, and the upper echelons of society were fond of fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment most people would never have been able to afford.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day. However, during the early part of the 1920s, before the dreams of the revolution were crushed by Stalin, the debate over a “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed take place. Two of the groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.

Hygienists
As the name implies the hygienists were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits – like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For a period of time the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

Proletkult
In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

Bolsheviks
It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party were friends and comrades with those who were most critical of sport during the debates on physical culture. Some of the leading hygienists were close to Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar for the Enlightenment, shared many views with Proletkult. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games arguing that they “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

It is clear that that they regarded participation in the new physical culture as being highly important, a life-affirming activity allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the revolution, sport would play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

This tension between the ideals of a future physical culture and the pressing concerns of the day were evident in a resolution passed by the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920:

“The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential element in the overall system of communist upbringing of young people, aimed at creating harmoniously developed human beings, creative citizens of communist society. Today physical culture also has direct practical aims: (1) preparing young people for work; and (2) preparing them for military defence of Soviet power.”

Sport would also play a role in other areas of political work. Prior to the revolution the liberal educationalist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task is to free the female body of its fetters”. Now the Bolsheviks attempted to put his ideas into practice. The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”

And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from across the globe would come together to participate in a whole range of events including processions, poetry, art and competitive sport. There was none of the discrimination that marred the ‘proper’ Olympics. Men and women of all colours were eligible to take part irrespective of ability. The results were very much of secondary importance.

So, were the Bolsheviks anti-sport? They certainly did not seem to go as far as Proletkult’s fervent ideological opposition and, as we have seen, were prepared to utilise sport in the pursuit of wider political goals. No doubt there were many individual Bolsheviks who despised sports. Equally many will have greatly enjoyed them. Indeed, as the British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart observed, Lenin himself was a keen sportsman: “From boyhood he had been fond of shooting and skating. Always a great walker, he became a keen mountaineer, a lively cyclist, and an impatient fisherman.” Lunacharsky, despite his association with Proletkult, extolled the virtues of both rugby union and boxing, hardly the most benign of modern sports.

This is not to say that the party was uncritical of ‘bourgeois’ sport. It is clear that they tackled the worst excesses of sport under capitalism. The emphasis on competition was removed, contest that risked serious injury to the participants was banned, the flag-waving nationalist trappings endemic to modern sport disappeared, and the games people played were no longer treated as commodities. But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like.

The position of the Bolsheviks in those early days is perhaps best summarised by Trotsky in the quote that opens this chapter. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the “best system of sports” or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather it was for the mass of people to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and in that process create their own sports and games. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”

Stalinism
The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the values and imperatives of the society changed so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitist model of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to have said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union and the quest for records resumed. Many of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges.

Eventually sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement ensuring that the medal table at each Games became a measure of the relative strength of East and West. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, so it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Sport in Russia may have ended as a steroid-enhanced caricature, but how far removed that was from the vision of Lenin when he said: “Young men and women of the Soviet land should live life beautifully and to the full in public and private life. Wrestling, work, study, sport, making merry, singing, dreaming – these are things young people should make the most of.”

Society’s Shift From Free Play to Sports

Most of us have seen the movie “The Sandlot” and remember growing up with summers filled with adventure and freedom. I think we all believe that there has been a severe shift from free play to organized sport. Many of us believe that the one of the problems is technology and another is the two extremes of parent involvement (either too involved or lack of involvement). I think that they are not only part of the problem but have a symbiotic relationship in the drive of kids from free play to organized sport or no sport. In fact, I believe that this technophile generation’s technology addiction is a symptom of the lack of parent involvement.

One of the theories of sport sociology is that sport is a reflection of society. We also can agree that sport teaches many things including cultural values, coordination, fitness, competition, how to follow rules, and at times, nationalism and reinforces them through play. As a brief look through the sports sociological portion of the sociocultural domain of sport sciences, I believe that the shift from free play to organized sport is a reflection of our current society and its drive toward the future.

Just as with much of our current condition, we must look back to key points in history that have had immeasurable influence on today. In our time, the two major events is often the Industrial Revolution beginning in 1760 and the Great Depression from October 29, 1929 to the beginning of World War II. The industrial revolution brought about many great achievements to society, which resulted in more jobs. These new jobs allowed individuals to work towards success and truly embody the American Dream of the ability to achieve one’s dreams. From 1840 to the 1920’s, society became technologically advanced and the world became more prosperous than ever before in such a short time. This time period saw the invention and proliferation of the radio and the popularization of organized sport. Professional sports could now be brought into the home. However, with the stock market crash in October of 1929, many businesses failed and many individuals lost their family’s earned savings. People now had to work harder for less. Kids during this time had to make do with what they had and often it was simple. Kids saw their parents work hard and hope for the future. Kids were left to dream and imagine. This resulted in much free play with simple sports equipment like sticks and sandlots and whatever could be scrounged. Kids dreamed of playing “the big leagues” while they worked to help supplement family income. Free play at this time was king as it was simple and could be made up with what was at hand.

The beginning of World War II saw many of these kids being drawn into the conflict in Europe and the Pacific. This was the end of the Great Depression as the world’s industries turned toward national pride and began to support the war efforts against a common goal. Families began to recover from the Depression and began to become affluent again. As time moved on through the war and further into the 20th Century, families realized that another time of hardship could happen and resolved to make sure their children did not have to suffer at the same level again. Thus began the push to develop and train children from an early age to go to college, gain a trade or succeed in sports. At first, the push was simple. However, as time progressed, each child was pushed harder to gain the competitive edge over their peers. Parents were the driving force through their determination to help their children succeed. School became a time consumer that involved time at the school itself and at home with homework. As the competition increased, sport also became part of that edge. Interestingly enough, during this time the world saw the proliferation of the television in homes. Families became affluent, enable them to purchase these luxury items. Sports was now in the home through both mediums of television and radio. This timeframe brought legendary sports heroes like Pele, Muhammed Ali, and Joe Dimaggio into the homes and imagination of the world. The heroes were compared to their predecessors like Babe Ruth and kids began to aspire to be like them.

Jump ahead to the 1980’s and beyond and you will find the beginning of the computer age. Information began to flow into the homes and hands of every individual with a computer, phone and tablet. The world found itself in a new high of affluence. The children who grew up during and shortly after the Great Depression were now the parents. They wanted to be able to give their children what they were unable to have. Often this meant both parents were working outside the home. These working parents now had to find a safe place for their children to be after school until they got home from work. Coupled with the drive for kid’s success, kids were placed in sports programs at school or through an after-school program.

When children were home, it was after a long day at school and afterschool. The parents were too tired to engage with their children and often turned to television to decompress from work. Kids now did not have the time or energy to play outside. When they had time, they would be told to either do homework or practice. When not preparing to succeed in the classroom or field, kids were plied with technology and mimicked their parents by soaking themselves in technology and information exchange.

With the rise of organized sport and affluence, there rose a new industry of sports products to support the highly specialized sports kids were playing. No longer could a kid be cool with a “hand-me-down” glove from dad or brother. Commercialism has now brought forth a drive for only having the newest and the best. The specialization of sports meant that specialized equipment and facilities made it difficult for children to play on their own the sports that they were once playing with a stick and an imaginary field.

So how does all of this tie together? Parents are less involved in their children’s lives as they are too busy trying to be successful. As part of the parent’s success, they want their kids to be successful. This is due to the new world view of what qualifies as success and happiness. At the beginning of the industrial revolution, these success and happiness were defines by relationships and family. Now, success is tied into money and position, and happiness is tied into materialism.

Our society is moving toward more regulation and less freedom. It is also moving toward more oversight in every part of our lives. Sports is a microcosm of that. Play has moved into more organized sports as a reflection of society’s move towards more regulation, oversight and the shift in what defines success and happiness.

This is a brief overview of how history has affected sports and has shaped sports as a study of the current sociology. In no way am I saying there should not be organized sport, as it is a very valuable tool in society for many reasons. However, the underlying principles in the shift from free play to sport must be addressed.

We are now seeing a generation of kids being taught that success is defined by work and that play in the form of sports, must be regulated. We need to take responsibility, as parents, for our families and set clear boundaries on when technology should be allowed to be used, and place a major emphasis on success and happiness not being defined by money, job, title or material things.

Can Anyone Learn to Sing? Discovering Your Voice

Can anyone learn to sing? Yes, if you have the patience to practice and learn. The most common questions for the novice when learning how to sing is how important is singing in tune and/or in pitch. Well, the answer is that it is very important, otherwise you might as well be singing nonsense. A song that is sung out of tune rarely resembles the original.

Many people consider themselves tone deaf and incapable of ever singing in tune – hogwash. Anyone can learn to sing if you still possess vocal chords. It is a skill just like any other – put in the time to learn the fundamentals and you will get better. Practice is all it takes. Train your ear to identify proper pitch and notes and you will eventually (and almost magically) find yourself singing in tune on occasion. Be patient and give yourself the permission and time to learn proper breathing and singing technique.

My Voice Hurts People When I Sing
Does this sound like you? Fear not, in all likelihood you have just not discovered your real singing voice. The first and foremost task for the novice is discovering his/her own unique singing voice, accepting it and unleashing it upon the world. Finding your voice is easy while accepting it is often difficult.

It is important to note that you don’t always get what you want. Imagine that you discover you have a perfect voice for singing country music but you hate country music. When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.

The world of sports is filled with gifted individuals doing things and all the while wishing they were better at something else. There are Basketball players that watch Hockey because they wish that was the sport they were good at (and visa versa). Baseball players that wish they were Football players, Soccer players that wish they were Golf pro’s and it goes on and on.

Music is very similar and that’s why so many musicians listen to different music than that which they create. Simply put, you must accept your own unique voice and style even if you don’t like it. Eventually as your skill level improves, so too will your ability to sing other types and styles of music. Besides, I bet you will warm up to yourself (LOL).

Now, if you find that you have a voice you hate in a genre of music you despise then what can you do to sleep at night? I got one word for you – fusion. That’s right, take whatever genre you are good at and fuse it with the type you want to be good at (country-rock, classical-metal, thrash-jazz, blues-pop etc). Just go for it and see if you can make it work – anything goes – just be creative and have fun.

Where Do I Find My Voice?
If you have been yodeling like a wounded dog for as long as you can remember, there is a good chance you simply have not discovered your natural singing voice yet. So how does an aspiring singer go about finding their true singing voice? Exploration and practice are the primary methods for achieving this.

Learn to sing by working with a professional for a short time; it is the ideal way to discover your voice. They can provide immediate feedback and help identify where your voice sits naturally. Check your local community centers for classes and/or look in alternative newspapers to find someone with experience. If this is not a viable option (locating and paying a human being) for you then use a good online program.