Lincoln Harvey, A Brief Theology of Sport (SCM / Cascade, 2014), 130pp.
In the last couple of years, perhaps partly related to the 2012 Olympics, there has been a flurry of theological reflection on sport in the UK - see special journal editions of Studies in Christian Ethics 25.1 (2012), Anvil (2012) and Practical Theology 5.2 (2012) and Rob Ellis' study The Games People Play (Wipf & Stock, 2014). Amongst this work comes Lincoln Harvey's A Brief Theology of Sport. The title of Harvey's work is a deliberate echo of his theological teacher Colin Gunton's work A Brief Theology of Revelation, who's theology has an indelible mark in this work. The title both highlights the book's key strength and its key weakness. Its key strength is its readability, Harvey's argument is easy to follow, doesn't get weigh down in footnotes or immaterial 'academic' side notes. Its key weakness is it sometimes feels too brief, the reader is left wanting the implications of theological claim to be developed. This might not be a weakness, for in leaving the reader something to do, Harvey offers a good "sermon", in that, he does not to do all the work of application, but lays the ground for others to explore what it means for our discipleship and practice. We must also stress that the title is clear that what Harvey is doing in his book is making a theological argument, which is important when we can too quickly jump to practice. Harvey believes that sport can have a theological rationale in the doctrine of creation.
The book comes in two parts. The first part explores sport within religion and within the Christian tradition. Harvey recognises the ubiquitous-ness of both sport and religion and that they are often intertwined. In terms of the history of the church it has a mixed relationship with sport. For the early church, sport was too embroiled in religious activity of other gods, later sport became a means of supporting the crusades, before being frowned upon by Puritanism, and then from Victorian times onwards, sport becomes a means for evangelism. Harvey demonstrates the popularity of sport, the general negativity from the church, but the occasional 'instrumental use' where it suited the church's purposes.
The second part explores what sport is and then provides two chapters which establish sport within a Christian doctrine of creation. Harvey's argument is that sport exists in and for itself. He writes, in what is a good summary of his argument: 'Sport is not worship. Worship is the liturgical celebration of who God is with us. Sport is the liturgical celebration of who we are by ourselves' (p.94). In this he separates sport from all other activities that 'is not worship' (p.96). Sport is unique in only being for its own sake and 'not directed to the glory of God'. That is a big claim! I wonder how those engaged in the theology of the arts, drama or music might respond, should we see sport like them, or is sport unique?
Chapter 9 offers 'seven avenues for further thought'. Here the brevity is frustrating as Harvey teases us with what in a longer study may well receive at least a chapter each. The seven avenues are rules, competition, idolatry, sport and war, professional sport, gender and sport and good and bad sports. In identifying the problem of idolatry in sport, Harvey identities the sin, but offers no remedy. In discussing professional sport, he argues that 'true sport is amateur sport, professional sport a corruption' (p.105), which begged for further ethical reflection on how Christians might respond or participate in professional sport, which dominates our lives. It is in this section, in a footnote, that a key question is asked of Harvey. Harvey writes that just as sex should not be professionalized, either as porn or prostitution, and so the question is begged (asked by a friend), is his ongoing attendance at the Emirates Stadium to watch Arsenal play football not the equivalent of watching pornography (p.109ff.). The final avenue in terms of good and bad sports felt also tantalising, Harvey suggests some sports could not be defended on theological grounds and some sports will be more faithful (my word) theologically.
In the concluding comments, Harvey highlights what its like to go to the football on a Saturday and church on a Sunday. The argument of the book is that properly understood they should not be in competition, but I wonder if they are more in competition than Harvey allows. He recognises the problems of supporting Arsenal, but appears to live with them, rather than identifying possible ways to subvert or confront them. I wonder if football or other sports shape a person's life much more than a Sunday morning in church.
Harvey is to be congratulated in opening up sport for theological reflection and laying down some key ground work and further lines of thinking. It deserves to be widely read, especially by the avid sport followers in our churches. This reader is left asking for Harvey to help us engage further, developing the lines of thought intellectually, imaginatively and practically (see the introduction to Sam Well's Learning to Dream Again).