A Playful Spirit

A friend recently sent me this link to a post by Peter Leithart, a theologian I admire very much. The link was put on my facebook wall because, I think, I had made one too many passing remarks about the good and virtues incumbent in participating in sports. So this time around I'll make it a little less passing. Time to sit down and talk about this a bit. Touch of espresso, glass of water, light a cigarette.

Dr. Leithart's post, unfortunately, is basically one big question, with a couple of observations tossed into the framing of the question. Which made it irritating to deal with in a facebook comment thread. The observations, however, were good; the questions asked, and the questions suggested, worth addressing. But I'm not going to write a paper. Since this is a blog, all I want to do is frame my own paradigm for looking at the question of sports and Christian virtue.

The main question Dr. Leithart asks is: "Is there any empirical correlation between Christian involvement in sports and Christian courage?" He argues that the patriarchs widely condemned the sports of their days (especially since they tended to kill Christians), that Christians have always displayed courage but have only since the 19th century played sports. Most tellingly, he points out that modern Evangelicals seem far less courageous than Christians of the past, and seem to be much more involved in sports. Here's a lengthy quote (nearly half the post):

Jump ahead to the nineteenth century, and we find a different Christian attitude toward sports.  Charles Kingsley, who with Thomas Hughes coined the term “muscular Christianity,” insisted on the moral and spiritual benefit of sports: “games conduce not merely to physical but to moral health.”  Rugby was ideally suited to the movement, since players inflicted and absorbed pain in equal measure.  Though Muscular Christianity as a distinct movement lost steam, one scholar has said that it “forged a strong link between Christianity and sport [that] has never been broken.”

It is a truism in some sectors of the Christian world that evangelicals are wimpy, unmanly, cowardly.  This, note, is after at least a half-century of fairly massive evangelical investment in sports.  Do the test: Name three evangelical universities without sports programs (NSA doesn’t count).  Perhaps the critics are wrong and evangelicals are manly and courageous every last one of them.  But if the critics are right, then sports don’t seem to have cultivated courage in any noticeable way.  Contemporary evangelicalism combines (perceived) wimpiness and (empirical) acceptance of sports.

And the early church?  There were certainly cowards aplenty in the church during the first four centuries.  But there were martyrs aplenty as well.  Where did they get the courage?  Did the Christians who willingly plunged their hands into the flames learn courage by fighting animals in the arena?  Were the Christians who endured unimaginable torture sportsmen in their youth?  Pushing past the fourth century, did the White Martyrs of Ireland, or the hundreds of monks who ventured into pagan territories to preach the gospel, learn courage on the rugby fields of Eton?  No doubt some martyrs and other patristic heroes had participated in sports at one time or another, but if the patristic writers we know are representative (and they seem to be), most didn’t.  The early Christians had sources of courage that didn’t depend on helmets, shoulder pads, or leather balls.
I'll address several of these points, less in refutal, more in framing them from my perspective. But first I have to respond to Dr. Leithart's closing question, is there any empirical correlation between Christian involvement in sports and Christian courage? The only answer can be, there is not. Most of all because the source of our courage is not our sporting life, or our training, or our upbringing generally. No one, however, would argue against the idea that having a strong loving father helps a boy to grow up being strong and courageous. Is that where our courage comes from? No. But example and training and upbringing are helps to our courage. As sports can be.

The big idea when it comes to Christian participation in sports must be this: Christians get to play. Throughout history men have called many things "sport", but only Christians have encouraged play for adolescents and grown-ups. There are two big reasons for this. One reason has existed since Christianity has. The other has only recently came about, although glimpses of it are seen earlier.

Christianity encourages feasting, generosity, overflow, kindness, and giving. Christianity is the only way of being that could ever be considered frivolous; while a man might be frivolous outside of Christendom, his society is either puritanical and aesthetic, power-focused and hierarchical, or mystical and anti-materialist. No people who has ever built a city has not fit into one or all of these categories.

The exception (and even then, only rarely) are the Christian cities, where occasionally glimpses of the Kingdom of God can be seen, and even these little glimpses radically change life on the earth.

Christians can play because they hold in tension the belief that this life and this flesh are worthwhile and worth cultivating, and at the same time that life is a light thing, which we should be willing to let go ungrudgingly, even joyfully. Life for non-Christians is too earnest, and too stern, to allow for play.

The Roman games that Dr. Leithart mentions might have a thing or two in common with a game of American football, but at the bottom they were not play. They were munera, dedicated to the revered dead. They were, in effect, sacrifices. That which Christians find unpalatable in modern sports is that which goes back to these munera. I am not a scholar of such things, but am willing to go out on a limb and say that there have been no games in non-Christian human history that were not either forms of human sacrifice, or practice for hunt and war.

The games that evolved for hunt and war were games of the nobility, so that buzkashi becomes polo, which today is only a game, but is still for the rich and powerful, a symbol in itself. These games I do not admire. And they are, at the end, practice, not play.

The Christian English engaged in proto-sport/play with their archery. The use of the longbow was common throughout western Europe, from France into northern Spain, and throughout England and Wales. The longbow was not the ideal hunting bow; it worked well for hunting in open ground, but not in wooded areas. The Welsh and English thought the bow was fun. They would spend Sundays shooting...not at animals, but at targets, with plenty of ale, and with friends and family as audience. This was why they had so many more longbowmen than the French ever did. The French had to hire business-like, trained, Genoese archers. This carried on for generations. When enthusiasm for the longbow finally began to die down, enough that the king's armies were affected, Edward III actually made laws commanding practice on Sundays. This was, of course, no longer play, so the laws had no effect. (This sort of state co-opting of recreation, by the way, I believe impacted the way Puritans would look at sport generally, and particularly sport on Sundays).

I called the English propensity for archery proto-play because there was still too much earnestness and utility in it to properly be called play. Men were fed with these bows, and men were killed with them.

Only in the 19th century, as Dr. Leithart points out, did what we think of as sports emerge. And the reason is not "muscular Christianity". The reason was that prosperity had finally met the Christian spirit of play for long enough for it to embed itself in a culture. For the first time in history all classes of men were able to risk breaking a leg over a game, so they did (yes, I know this happened before that, they were associated with Christian feasts, which sociologically is lumped with munera but is more accurately Christian proto-play).
Picture of fun.

So much does prosperity influence sport that we see it even today, with rugby being said to be a hooligan's game played by gentlemen, but soccer a gentlemen's game played by hooligans. Pipe fitters can't afford to separate a shoulder; scholars and engineers can.

The dismissal of Christian sports culture as being a product/relic of Victorian culture is a little too easy. Certainly, every major sport, every major game in the world was invented by an English speaker. Soccer, basketball, cricket, baseball, rugby. And yes, the games reflected the cultures they came out of, in things admirable and less so. As readers of this blog know, I do think that particular sports are incipiently virtuous or (rarely) vicious, and that they are good at teaching us to exercise certain virtues over others (I have not the patience to love baseball). Again, the emergence of these sports in the milieu in which they did was the coming together of several factors. But hopefully the reader is at least willing to consider the idea that without Christianity, there's no such thing as "sports". Shoot, some have argued (and of course, I agree) that before there were Christians there was no such thing as "children". It all depends on how we use the word.

I think that this topic deserves a much deeper and broader treatment, but already this is overlong for a blog post. So here's my deal:

Christians ought to love sports not for their utility, for whether or not they teach courage or some other virtue. We ought to love them because they are play. And play is feasting, and overflow, and frivolity. It is primarily the fruit of what we do. I don't play rugby because of the ways it makes me a better man, I play it out of an overflow of joy.

Certainly there is a loop effect. I practice sacrifice without hesitation. I practice endurance. I practice aggression. And I'll remember that when my kids and I are thinking about the sports they play. But if I ever lose sight of the fact that their sporting life is about play, that that is the greatest thing they can gain from sports, I do my kids a disservice. I don't expect my sons to learn courage from contact sports; I expect them to demonstrate it on the field, along with their joy.


  1. If I only knew you are so interested and knowledgeable in theology of play I would have trade cards with you...my recent dissertation is entitled THE SOCCER WORLD CUP 2010 AS SUB-CREATION: AN

  2. "Christians ought to love sports not for their utility, for whether or not they teach courage or some other virtue. We ought to love them because they are play. And play is feasting, and overflow, and frivolity. It is primarily the fruit of what we do. I don't play rugby because of the ways it makes me a better man, I play it out of an overflow of joy."

    Joffre, I just want to say that this line is quintessentially you, and I love it.

    I also want to say, dude, I like being your friend because having such a great audience makes me want to be better in all the aspects of myself. (yeah, I am drunk, but I have always felt this, my great friend.) You seem to find that eloquent but real, unforced, beauty of perspective.

  3. Pope, I'm honored to have that effect. And happy that bourbon and coke brings out your love for me.

  4. In response to the good theologian, whom by his closing remark I guess was American, I direct him to my post today.
    In response to your saying only Christians have encouraged play in children and adults I would direct you toward the American Indian and the game of lacrosse.

    I did enjoy the read.

  5. I definitely did think of lacrosse. I tried to weasel out of it by saying "city builders". I knew it was on the weak side.

  6. Noble effort in weaseling... though they did build cities. Some really big ones at that.
    ... They also smoked pipes.
    Wait... and chocolate...
    Where are you from again?

  7. I know, I know. I did say it was weaseling. Next time I'll say "with mortared walls." *sigh*


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