In Danny Boyle’s vibrant opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics, the most impressive moment was Akram Khan’s muted dance, accompanied by Emile Sandé’s rendition of Abide With Me. In stark contrast to the rest of Boyle’s confident, colourful and humorous exploration of Britishness, and to the International Olympic Committee’s quazi-religious fruitcakery, Boyle had given Khan a one word brief: mortality. The ceremony was full of light and music, apart from the dance, which was dimly lit and very tense. For those with eyes to see and ears to hear the moment posed a quiet question against self-confidence of human physical prowess – what about death?
I felt as I watched this that the moment was somehow redemptive. I did not understand why until I read Lincoln Harvey’s short but impressive book, A Brief Theology of Sport. In it, Harvey manages to say something new about a field of human culture which the Christian tradition has sometimes used, abused or opposed, but mostly just ignored. He does so by opening up the question of what it is to be a human being at all. We are created creatures, dependent from moment to moment. As Harvey puts it, to be created is to be continuously invited into existence, but never to possess that existence by right. We are entirely unnecessary; our creation did not meet any need. Yet we needn’t be nihilistic, there is meaning in our unnecessary creation – we are called into being by love, and that alone offers us meaning. Happily, we can afford – indeed we’re invited – not to take ourselves too seriously.
What does this have to do with sport? In the ancient world sport and religion (and political authority) coexisted in an undifferentiated mix. Christianity, partly through pursuing the Jewish refusal to worship the created rather than the creator, and partly through a less healthy suspicion of the human body, teased them apart. How then did the church respond to sport, since it was at least as enduringly popular and seemingly as hooked into human existence as religion itself? According to Harvey one of two options have always prevailed. The Church either tries to tightly control sport, if not stamp it out, as an often immoral and unruly force, or to use it and its popularity to advance the cause of ‘the gospel’, which could mean anything from toughening up soldiers for the crusades though to the Victorian virtues of muscular Christianity (which, of course, the founder of the modern Olympic movement Pierre de Coubertin deeply admired).
For Harvey, both approaches fail because they fail to take account of the true nature of sport. Via a discussion of the nature of sport as a subset of play, Harvey establishes that sport is like us. You can’t force someone to play – as any PE teacher would testify, even if you make someone perform physical actions resembling a game, they’re not playing the game. Play has to be unnecessary, otherwise it’s not play but something else. Games are also created by internally meaningful rules, without which it wouldn’t be the game, but something else. In these ways, sport is how human beings chime with what we are – again, unnecessary but meaningful. Or, in a phrase which doesn’t necessarily reflect the clarity of Harvey’s prose, the liturgical celebration of our creaturely contingency. The Church shouldn’t control or oppose sport, because it reflects the heart of what it is to be a human being. The Church may try and even succeed in using it but it would literally be a spoilsport in doing so.
Of course, Christians are not the only people to try and put sport to work. Harvey concedes that sport is now being re-infused with a religious aura. We have argued elsewhere that it is being increasingly woven with a series of public/political agendas which – though no doubt admirable in their own right – are extrinsic to sporting concerns. In other words, the religio-political-sporting knot that was loosened by the early church is now tightening.
For Harvey, the task for Christians is simply to play sport for its own sake, and then to remind others that they find sport compelling because it chimes with who they really are. To be all that it is, it needs to be “left alone”. This may be where I depart from his argument, because it is never left alone. Sport is relentlessly drawn into the agendas of state and market. There is a public and political task of creating and maintaining space – sometimes the actual space – where sport can be played. Alongside other interested parties, Christians should be challenging and subverting the frankly corrupt power structures of some international sport, and posing serious questions about the price we’re expected to pay for hosting sporting mega-events, like the Olympics. They take sport all too seriously, drawing the life from it. Equally, for Harvey, professional sport is not true sport – so when he joins tens of thousands of others at the Emirates Stadium for an Arsenal match, he accepts the liturgical celebration of contingency into which he is transported is false and corrupted. It would be interesting for him to enlist Christian sporting agencies in a campaign to cap Premiership wages.
These are minor quibbles – Harvey has written simply and without pretension, but communicated very profoundly about the need for us human beings to step back from the claim that we are the centre of the universe. As he puts it, rather beautifully, “we do not have to carry the weight of eternity around on our shoulders… everything was fine without us”.
A version of this review appears in the May edition of Third Way Magazine.
Paul Bickley is the Director of Political Programme at Theos