Christians grow tired of seeing Jesus Christ – he who willingly made the greatest sacrifice ever offered – portrayed as a somewhat wimpish, pallid and, dare I say, effeminate figure. One recourse among his followers has been to re-imagine the Christian body, the “temple of the Holy Ghost”, as a place of physical, sporting, and masculine strength.
The idea of ’muscular Christianity’ first grew from the writings of Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley. Hughes’ book Tom Brown’s School Days fictionalised and immortalised the work of Thomas Arnold, Christian headmaster of Rugby School in 1830s England, who encouraged the boys in his care to organise and take part in numerous sport and leisure activities. Arnold’s intent was that the boys would grow into strong, principled Christian men, ready to take the gospel to the world, and he believed that active energetic pursuits would be a key tool in their moral and spiritual education.
But adhering to the doctrine of muscular Christianity presupposes an inherent lack of muscularity in ‘ordinary’ Christianity. Muscularity is a byword for strength, power, capacity. Further, muscular Christianity assumes that physical strength is representative of mental and – most importantly to muscular Christians – spiritual strength. But herein lies a paradox.
Weakness is strength
In Christian doctrine it is often the physically submissive and apparently weak response that is praised for its underlying strength of character. To ‘turn the other cheek’ is submissive and yet held up as evidence of great spiritual strength. The apostle Paul said: “When I am weak then am I strong.”
As a Christian, my relationship to sport is therefore complicated. While some aspects of sport are acknowledged as compatible with the Christian worldview, others are jarring and actively resisted. This produces a dissonance that, I would suggest, is the wide experience of Christian sportspeople.
Let me illustrate my meaning with one incident that has influenced my thinking.
A few years ago, as I was playing football, I was waiting to receive the ball in a forward position. I had my back to goal and was set up to ‘hold up’ the play. Behind me was a young man – around 18 years old – who was trying to out-muscle me – I was about 30 at the time. I held him off, perfectly within the laws of the game I might add, until he evidently realised I was stronger and gave up trying. Success for me, you might think. But here’s the rub: I felt a peculiar pang of conscience that I had mistreated the poor lad. I had used my physical strength to dominate and control his personal space and physical body.
That’s sport, you might say – and you’d be right – but that incident has never left me and still bothers me to this day. I felt, in that moment, there was a distance between my conduct and a deeply held belief that all men should be treated with dignity and respect as equals under God. My strength was a weakness.
I’ve often thought about giving up competitive sport altogether: I’m drawn to ultimate parkour and skateboarding as forms of non-competitive physical activity. This year, however, I’ve consented to play a handful of games – officially, I’m retired – in the local Christian football league as part of an outreach to some of the lads in the community.
I wonder how other Christians resolve or mollify feelings of dissonance.
Engagement and disengagement
This dissonance is not unique to me, and is not new; in part it underlies the constantly shifting relationship Christians have with sport.
In their book, Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport, Ladd and Mathisen evidence the case with emphasis on the American experience. Their thesis is that Christians – and Christian organisations – have, for 150 years, undergone consecutive pendulum swings of engagement and disengagement with the world of sport. During periods of engagement, Christians highlight the commonality between the two spheres, while in periods of disengagement many would emphasise discontinuity between sporting and Christian conduct.
The authors show, for example, that at the founding of the YMCA there was a strong belief in the power of sport to build character and teach moral virtue. This, of course, is the traditional muscular Christian view that was imported from England. Then in the Billy Sunday era there was a full swing of the pendulum: sports were now seen as diverting men from more Godly pursuits, perhaps even leading them into the murky worlds of gambling and alcohol.
At present, there is a growth of engagement with sport among Christians. Organisations like Christians in Sport and Ambassadors in the UK, and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in the US, as well as Operation Mobilisation Sportslink internationally, have expanded their reach and influence over the past few years.
Sport and Christianity may be strange bedfellows at times, but, in the Western world, they are bedfellows nonetheless. Until the pendulum begins to move again.
Sport: what’s the point: join the threads team, Christians In Sport, CVM and SPCK publishers in London on 29 June for a discussion on faith, society and sport. Get your tickets here.