Sport and the Christian Imagination

One of the most difficult areas of life that I’ve managed is that of my children’s activities. We started young—both as parents as well as enrolling our children in extra-curricular activities. My oldest daughter began gymnastics at 6 before “retiring” as a 12-year-old Level 8 gymnast. We were homeschooling at the time and thought it a good idea to get her out of the house, develop physical skills, and be around peers. Since she has played varsity volleyball and cheerleading. My youngest daughter is very  good swimmer and started competing as a 9-year-old. She’s done very well at her sport, too, excelling at backstroke and butterfly and putting in about 10 hours a week in the pool. Just an inspiration.

My wife and I were well-intentioned enough at the onset. We wanted our daughters to appreciate leisure time for what it is: leisure, not a way of life. We wanted them to learn goal-setting, both short-term and long-term. Swimming and gymnastics have also been a way to foster meaningful relationships and community predicated on what I’ve heard referred to as the “fellowship of the miserable” i.e., being in trenches with the team. There were the obvious benefits of time management and fitness as well. That these sports aren’t seasonal worked into our plan, too. I like the idea that it’s not a matter of just weathering the storm, so to speak, for a season. Rather, year-round sports make a person confront their fears and anxieties; conquer them. And because I feel like I’ve faced adversity every step of my life I figured life’s just hard so we might as well get in there and start swinging. And, to be honest, this has all worked. So far.

Those are the upsides. There are plenty. Of course there are the downsides of time and money. That’s a given. Our generation has welcomed a new term into the vernacular—parental fatigue. We, like anybody, have also encountered instances where we have questioned our priorities. And given what I hear from peers, we’re not alone. Here at I Am Agonisties we talk a lot about the tensions of life. Tension is not a bad thing. In fact, I’ll usually define “balanced life” as “that point on the pendulum to which I wave bye bye as I swing back and forth between extremes.” But that’s OK because to abdicate the tension is far more damaging than remaining engaged—even if remaining engaged is something less than pleasant since less-than-pleasant is preferable to being numb, checked out, and complacent. But just recently I’ve encountered another perspective.

Christianity Today ran an article in its February issue titled “Whatever Happened To Play.” About three-fourths of the way through it I found this under the header “Missing the Point:”

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga pointed out in Homo Ludens that play is based on a certain imagination of reality, and that what’s important is to grasp the meaning of this imagination in understanding how play works in human civilization. If Huizinga was correct, the question of how sports can be shaped to inspire the Christian imagination supersedes all claims about how they help us physically and psychologically or publicize our schools or help spread the gospel. Huizinga affirmed what most sports scholars have long noted: that sports, as a form of play, belong to the realm of the aesthetic, the symbolic, the ritualistic. They fundamentally appeal more to our spirits than to our physiologies. That sports first appeared in culture as a form of religious expression is not an incidental fragment of history; indeed, it may signal their proper place in the created order.

I love the idea that the games we play, gymnastics and swimming in the case of my children, cycling and mountaineering in my case,  inspire the Christian imagination.  This is defined later in the article as a rehearsal “of that Godward directed harmony of body and soul which we call heaven … an expression of man’s hope for another life taking visible form in gesture.” Even as smart as Hugo Rahner is, I think this can be summed up in one word: “hope.”

The article spends the bulk of the time addressing our culture’s enormous pre-occupation with games, football being the chief target. And there are places where the writers leans heavily on cliche. But it’s worth reading just to get to the bit about the Christian imagination and how this idea alone might help us understand why we do what we do.

Referring to a reference I had just made, a friend of mine made a distinction between “games” and “sport.” Scores matter in games. Life matters in sport. I’ve always thought that was an intriguing perspective. And “sport” most definitely has the potential to inspire. Read the article by clicking here.


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