New book on sports and faith looks at paradox of winning versus being charitable to others

Matt Hoven winces at how religion is sometimes used in sports, with terms like “sin bin” and “redemption” casually tossed around like practice balls. Such metaphors ring hollow for the University of Alberta professor; to him, they miss the mark. 

“It’s a shallow look at both sports and faith,” he said.

 

His office shelves in St. Joseph’s College are sprinkled with pseudo-inspirational books, which is why he decided to challenge some stereotypes by co-editing and co-writing one himself. 

As a teacher of sport and religion, he’s offering readers a deeper dive into how athletics and faith can intermingle in a meaningful way with Sport and Christianity: Practices for the Twenty-First Century. The new 13-chapter book gives athletes, coaches, managers, referees—and everyone else—meatier academic insight into the tangled relationship between religion and sport.

Focusing on practices for the mind, heart and hands, the book examines the potential of sports and challenges Christian readers to think about how it relates to their own faith-based values.

“People need to think about faith more substantively, as something that has enough gravitas to carry them through life.” 

The leading editor of the book, Hoven contributed his own chapter on lived religion in sports, discussing how athletes live out their faith in different ways. Some have a ritual, like retired U.S. soccer player Clint Dempsey, who, in honour of his deceased sister, would always point heavenward when he scored. 

Often, faith rituals ramp up in meaning when sport gets more intense, Hoven added.

“When there’s more on the line, athletes tend to act more religious. It’s quite common for high-level athletes to have rituals, like goaltenders who won’t step on a line or players who follow the identical pregame rituals for every game. These actions instil confidence and a sense of calm.”

The bookalso addresses a thorny paradox that pits sport’s competitive goal of winning against religion’s call to be charitable towards others, Hoven noted. 

“The elite athlete has lots to gain from victory—fame, money, advancement—so it’s advantageous to do anything to win. But to do that might break moral codes of faith. That’s problematic. Just because you’re praying and asking God for help, doesn’t make what you do necessarily OK or inconsequential.”

That said, religion and sport have been intertwined since the origins of sport, he added. 

“They are both ritualistic celebrations filled with pageantry.”

The ancient Olympic Games started as a religious festival, while jousting matches in medieval times were part of the culture. And in the 19th century, “muscular Christianity” placed value on team sports to promote gentlemanly virtues, and became the forerunner of modern-day sports. 

At their height, sport and religion also uplift people in similar ways. 

“You can get connected to your emotions and feel most alive in both. Sport tests one’s character and endurance, and religion also demands high ethical standards,” said Hoven.

He hopes readers who are religious come away with a more meaningful idea of how sport and faith can mesh in their own lives, both physically and spiritually.

“The body is important in faith. There’s a sense that religious people are otherworldly, but sports can play a role in helping people care for their bodies better. Life is lived through bodily experiences and it’s who we are as humans. In fact, the body is a gift received.”

There’s also something to be gained by viewing sports through the lens of faith, he said.

“When we go to see our kids play hockey, for instance, it’s a community gathered and a way for players to grow through sport. Christians shouldn’t stand back, but must engage in sport. Hopefully people of faith continue to shape sports going forward.”

The book also holds messages for people who don’t consider themselves particularly religious, Hoven believes.

“Faith has a vision for what a human being can become; it fundamentally speaks to why we even play sports. Hopefully in youth and professional sport there is an impulse that tries to promote the best version of ourselves as human beings,” Hoven said, noting that the NHL and other hockey organizations have adopted a Declaration of Principles for that purpose.

“While the league is a commercial enterprise, it recognizes that it has a lot of cultural influence and a responsibility to individuals and human communities.

“Religion can contribute a lot to sport; it has in the past and it can in the future.”

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