The Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto was written by Ted Kluck (ESPN, ESPN.com, Sports Spectrum, co-author of Why We’re Not Emergent and Why We Love the Church) in 2009. It is a difficult book to review, as it is a collection of essays loosely joined together around certain themes. I enjoyed the book and found it captivating, witty, and insightful. Instead of offering a full-blown review, I thought I would summarize the book and offer a couple reactionary thoughts, which are appropriate given the books’ conversational essay style.
Kluck writes about many topics, including Mike Tyson and Tony Dungy; steroids; sin, apologies, and forgiveness; sex; race; and bad sports movies. His hope in writing the book is “that Christians would begin to develop a theology of sports” (p. 15). While he does not explicitly lay out a broad theology of sports, he touches on several specific issues in sports and discusses how Christians can or should think about them. “How do we worship God with this part of our lives? How do sports help us to grow in sanctification? How do we think theologically about the myriad of moral dilemmas in sports?” In loosely answering these questions, Kluck embraces sports and wants Christians to embrace them while thinking about them critically.
I definitely agree with Kluck’s entertaining and provoking discussion of so-called Christian athletes compared to non-Christian ones. I, for one, find it easier to root for either the athlete who blatantly and publicly sins but repents, or the athlete who may be a Christian but who puts his nose to the grindstone and does not draw unnecessary attention to himself or to his Cosmic Genie. I don’t think it’s a good witness for guys to point skyward after throwing a touchdown pass or kneeling after reaching the endzone. Why don’t they do that after throwing an interception or striking out? After scoring a touchdown, I’d much rather have a Christian athlete give the ref the ball and jog quickly to the sidelines without drawing unneeded (and shallow) attention to himself.
Similarly, I, like Kluck, find it easier to root for a hard-working, quiet believer like Mariano Rivera than an outspoken professing believer who is enamored by money and garners no respect from fans or teammates like J.D. Drew. I even have a hard time rooting for a Christian glamor boy, feel-good story like a Kurt Warner or Tim Tebow. Further, to me, Michael Phelps, who exhibited genuine remorse for his pot-smoking incident, is easier to cheer for than Christian Andy Pettitte, who did not show a hint of genuine repentance (read: tried to justify it) for using performance enhancing drugs. Just because one points to the sky after throwing a touchdown pass and the other etches Bible verses in his eye black does not mean I, as a fellow Christian, must root for them. I don’t feel compelled to cheer for the supposed Christian athlete just like I don’t feel compelled to fawn over – or even support – every so-called Christian artist who produces terrible music. I respect the abilities of Warner and Tebow, and am glad they are on the “good side,” but don’t feel compelled to cheer for them just because they are Christian. Kluck’s treatment of this touchy subject is excellent.
One gaping hole in the book is the lack of treatment on Christian athletes’ and fans’ observance of the Lord’s Day. I would love to read a discussion from Kurt Warner justifying his working on the Lord’s Day, but I know I will never get it. That’s why stories like the Scottish rugby player or Eric Liddell are so refreshing. Kluck only mentions the Sabbath in passing, and the way in which he did seemed hollow. In his chapter on fantasy football, he relates how he had to get over his addiction to fantasy sports because managing his team on Sundays seemed like work. While I wholeheartedly agree with this (and have eliminated fantasy football and other football watching from the Lord’s Day), Kluck never mentions the Christian athletes working during their games on Sundays, nor the millions of Christians who watch hours of football each Lord’s Day.
“What we have done, unwittingly, is to take something fun and escapist (football on television) and turn it into ‘work’ on the Sabbath, by making it more realistic…It has also made Sunday feel like a workday. In essence, I am like an NFL general manager, scoping the injury list, and scouring other teams’ rosters…”
While his conclusion is right, he is overlooking a major premise by accepting that something “fun and escapist” (football) is an acceptable activity on the Lord’s Day, not to mention the fact that the players we are watching on TV are working. I’m not convinced that watching hours of professional football – no matter how many Christians are playing – is keeping the Sabbath holy (though there may be some exceptions to the rule). I think it will take a huge but necessary cutting off of entertainment and sports on Sundays for Christians to wake up to this reality, and to devote the Lord’s Day back to the Lord.
Otherwise, I liked the book. It is entertaining, witty, and interesting. One minor gripe is that he uses a form of the phrase “lantern-jawed” at least one million times throughout the book. But he makes up for this by making fun of the myriad Christian titles with “manifesto” in the title. I’d recommend it to any sports fan.