Monday, April 5, 2010

Book Review - Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports by Shirl James Hoffman

*           *           *

As Professor Emeritus of Exercise and Sport Science at UNC-Greensboro, Executive Director of the American Kinesiology Association, son of a Baptist minister and seasoned athlete, Shirl James Hoffman is more than qualified to address the issue of Christianity’s relationship to sport.  In his work Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, he addresses many sides of this issue.

Good Game begins with a thorough introduction, drawing a picture of how sports and faith have been interwoven for centuries, referring to Frank Deford’s hybrid term “Sportianity”.  Hoffman’s goal for the book is “to examine how Christians, and especially evangelicals, have managed to live in these two diametrically opposed worlds, even to the point of harnessing one to serve the other.”(p.11)

The first half of the book is devoted mostly to the history of sport’s relationship with Christianity, beginning with “the dawn of a faith that made its appearance in the context of sports-crazed societies.”  Hoffman discusses this in great detail, not only giving a history lesson but also a study in religious sociology as well.  I found this portion to be very interesting and educational.  Sports and the Church have been inextricably linked for millennia.

The second half of Good Game contains Hoffman’s commentary on the current state of Sportianity.  Some of the issues he addresses are:

  • Evangelism in sport, including chaplains
  • How much should a Christian develop a “killer instinct” as an athlete?
  • Hyper-valuing and under-valuing God’s creation, our bodies
  • Prayer’s role in sport
  • Christian athletes as role models
  • The value of championships and awards

It is in this second half that my interest took a turn.  I went from being a student, learning about the history of the early Christian church, to a contemporary reader, seeing the perspective of a fellow believer.  The number of notes I had been taking began to increase dramatically and my attitude toward the subject became more passionate than I’d expected.

I am not and never have been athletic.  In fact, for most of my life I’ve battled my weight and my lack of desire to move my body and take care of the temple the Lord has given me.  I’m frequently ambivalent about sports in general. I’ve never watched a hockey game, nor did I attend any basketball games as a student at Wake Forest University.  Like Hoffman, I believe that sports centered on fighting are unnecessary.  I watch the Super Bowl for the commercials.  When I married my sport-loving husband, my father rejoiced—he finally had someone in the family with whom he could discuss sports (because my brother and I certainly wouldn’t)!

Having said this, I must say I was surprised at how much I disagreed with much of Hoffman’s statements regarding current church practices and beliefs regarding sports and the care of our bodies.  He spends quite a few pages taking a condescending view toward practices with which he has little empathy.  Hoffman takes a derogatory tone toward evangelical sports programs like Fellowship of Christian Athletes (an organization that was a blessing to me as a high school student, even though I wasn’t an athlete) and fitness centers at large church facilities.  He paints with a very broad brush, assuming that most Christian programs linked with sports or fitness are a waste of time, resources and true opportunities to minister to the world.  In his view, participants in Christian weight-loss programs are merely masking vanity with their Christian faith.

I agree that some church programs may overdo their emphasis on sports, such as becoming aggressively competitive in inter-church softball leagues or rescheduling the church calendar around the airing of the Super Bowl.  Not every member in my own First Place 4 Health program has joined with 100% pure motives.  However, my beef comes in Hoffman’s seemingly categorical and sweeping chastisement of the majority of sports and fitness within church life.  I also take issue with his condescending tone towards programs that have been a blessing to millions and have brought many to Christ who would have otherwise been hesitant to walk into a church. 

When Hoffman does offer some suggestions for change, sometimes they seem unrealistic if not completely ridiculous. Any sport that could possibly risk any bodily injury should be avoided, such as basketball, baseball, soccer or tennis.  Tennis(p.183)!  And at the same time, we should always be using that time of activity to minister to others in (what sees as) non-indulgent ways.  So he suggests jogging as an appropriate choice (while he mentions the long-term damage done by running on page 183), and that we should deliver meals to shut-ins during our time out jogging.  I don’t know about you, but when I deliver a meal to someone in need (which I have done many times, independent of any exercise routine), the meal is decent enough that it would never survive a trip on a jogging route!  Hoffman’s jogging illustration may have been intended to be tongue-in-cheek; his other suggestions reveal his disdain for anything resembling a fitness routine, like an aerobics class or even a scripture-quoting walking group. 

While Hoffman is highly critical of the contemporary church, his love of sport is evident.  He just seems to be frustrated with how the Body of Christ is interacting with and over-valuing it.  His mocking tones frequently made me angry, but I believe his intentions are good.  He has a very utopian vision of how sports should be, and I commend him for that attitude.  This book would be excellent for any collegiate sports science class, particularly at Christian institutions, if for no other reason than to inspire thoughtful debate.  We as Christians really should examine the importance we place on sports and/or the care of our bodies.  There’s nothing wrong with these practices in and of themselves, provided they don’t supersede our devotion to Christ.  I appreciate what Mr. Hoffman was trying to present in this expansive work—He truly had me considering some important issues.  What I didn’t appreciate were the words and attitude that seemed to be delivered from a very high horse.

This review is linked with:

This title was provided for me to review by The B&B Media Group, with no other compensation or obligation implied.


  1. I commend you on finishing this book, I probably would not have made it through chapter 1..great review..

  2. Laura this is a wonderful review! I had not heard of this book until now.

  3. Thanks, ladies! It was certainly interesting.


  4. I think the things that frustrated you in this book would have frustrated me too. Good review. I won't be reading this one.



Related Posts with Thumbnails