FAITH AND CULTURE
From Andy Crouch’s wonderful Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP; $20.00) to Steve Turner’s fascinating Popcultured: Thinking Christianly About Style, Media and Entertainment (IVP; $17.00) to thoughtful DVD curriculum like the artsy and insightful For the Life of the World (Gorilla Productions; $59.99 our sale price $35.00) and so many more, we’ve reviewed a lot of resources over the years to help people of faith live in the world, intentionally connecting faith and life, even “engaging culture” as the saying goes these days. Any day now we will have the brand new self published book by abstract artist Makoto Fujimura, the exquisite Culture Care (Fujimuro Institute; $20.00) and the fabulously upbeat, insightful new book Becoming Worldly Saints: Can Your Serve Jesus and Still Enjoy Your Life? by Michael Wittmer (Zondervan; $15.99.) On and on they come, great books meeting this deep felt need for guides and assistance in navigating our contemporary culture with grace and fidelity. From the arts and entertainment to our work and civic lives, from the influences of mass media and technology to the pressures of consumerism, we feel stressed, or curious; we may want help, we may want inspiration for making a difference. We all need to be more intentional about practicing the presence of God in the ordinary stuff of daily living.
We often come back to the rubric of John 17, that followers of Christ are called to be “in the world but not of it” or the Romans 12 language of being “non-conformed to the ways of this world.” Paul says there in that magnificent letter about God’s grace that we are, therefore, to have renewed minds, which, apparently, helps us serve God in the day-to-day, our very bodies being living worship services.With renewed minds and sanctified imaginations, we can live differently, in the world. This, by the way, is why even now we are working a bit every day ordering books to sell at the big Jubilee conference in Pittsburgh which is the flagship event in the country on this vision of a “transforming vision” and whole-life, culturally-relevant discipleship.
And so, as perhaps just one case study, let’s think for a bit about sports. It’s Super Bowl weekend, and most of us will be tuned in, if only for the ads (a subject for another day.) It is a near religious event in America. This is not the place to deconstruct and “read” the good and the bad of Super Bowl Sunday, itself, but we can, at least, suggest some books about sports to help us think through this side of life with some sense of a theological worldview.
We have, of course, devotionals for athletes and books for parents of kids who play sports. We have some fine testimonial type autobiographies by athletes, and most of these are fine. We’re Tony Dungy fans, just for instance, and carry all of his stuff. During baseball season, I was happy to promote To Stir a Movement: Life, Justice and Major League Baseball by Jeremy Affeldt (Beacon HIll Press; $21.99) a great example of a professional ball player who is using his fame not only to play with joy and integrity, but to work against contemporary slavery, sexual trafficking and such. And you know that one of our favorite customers, Ethan Bryant, has written a book I love, a memoir of a summer going to Royals games called Run Home and Take a Bow: Stories of Life, Faith, and a Season with the Kansas City Royals (Samizdat Creative; $12.99) and the very interesting Catch and Release: Faith Freedom and Knuckleballs (Electio Publishing; $15.99) about him playing catch to raise money to stop slavery. What a fun idea, a book around the world of sports, but not about watching, or even playing the real sport, but about this lovely game of having a catch. We’ve reviewed these in the past and suggest them again.
But what do we make of the state of contemporary sports, the good, the bad, the ugly? What other resources might a serious Christian athlete, or sports fan, read to help ponder and discern a God-honoring “cultural engagement” in the world of high powered sport?
Here are just a handful I pulled from our shelves. Some are old chestnuts, tried and true, a few are new. Some are fairly sophisticated, almost academic theology while a few are deeply pious, mature appeals to glorify God in all we do, even in our sports fan lives or our game playing. Some offer fun insight or cultural analysis. I will list a batch, and end with one I was stunned by, that I read almost in one sitting, taking short breathers, and unable to stop. I am sorry I didn’t write about it sooner, but the words just didn’t come; I didn’t know how to tell you how moved I was by it. Against Football by Steve Almond is one helluva book, and I want to tell you about it now, ironically, as we prepare for the big game this weekend.
All of these are on sale for 20% off. Just use the order form below, and we’ll deduct the discount off the regular retail prices we list. Listing these books illustrates of one of our passions: finding resources for people in a certain side of life which help to bring that aspect of life into relationship with the gospel, to be aware and intentional and thoughtful, exploring what might be called a Christian perspective. These might help. Hut, hut, hut, hike! Go!
Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of the Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports Marcia W. Mount Shoop (Cascade) $16.00 This is one of the best books on faith and sports I’ve read, thoughtful, critical, engaging, and — critical as it is — written by a very knowledgeable, passionate woman who has great love of sports. She is a Presbyterian pastor with a PhD from Emory and her husband is a beloved college coach (John Shoop.) Her “calling audibles” blog invited others into the conversations she and her husband were having, often about key, critical concerns, asking big questions, including concerns about the sexism that pervades the industrial sports complex. Another respected coach wrote a glowing introduction, inviting us to come to grips with the issues revealed in this book. As Bomani Jones, an ESPN Commentator says, “Shoop has been close enough to this insane world to know how it works, but removed enough to clearly and honestly discuss what’s right and wrong about the games we watch and the machines that drive them.” She’s got some good stories, too — shouting at hecklers at Soldier Field, getting kicked out of a wives of players Bible study — which further makes this a fascinating, feisty, valuable book. Wow.
A Brief Theology of Sport Lincoln Harvey (Cascade) $17.00 This, too, is an excellent new work, advancing the discourse about how Christian theology relates to sports, and how we can think faithfully about how we consider games and athletics. Harvey is from England, so is a besotted soccer fan (a fan of Arsenal, no less!) This is serious theological stuff (one chapter is called “A Liturgical Celebration of Contingency”) and is yet a very interesting read. Harvey obviously loves the games he watches, and he asks us to ask ourselves tough questions about what we love, and why. As Luke Bretherton of Duke Divinity School writes, “Wonderfully insightful, historically rich, and theologically punchy, this is vital reading for anyone who plays, watches, or is utterly bemused by the world of sports.” A bit heavy at times, and is, truly, a theology of sport.
The Reason for Sports: A Christian Fanifesto Ted Luck (Moody) $13.99 Moody Publishers, as I’m sure you know, have a great history of being rather fundamentalist, focused on the first things of the gospel, an evangelical urgency about exalting Christ, and (because Moody was so committed to the urban poor) doing work in the inner city, with the occasional book about racial reconciliation. They are a mainstream, solid, evangelical press, with clearly Christian doctrine and practical stuff on Christian living. And here — really! — is a funny, upbeat, curiously-wide-ranging, oddball book, a manifesto for sports fans. It’s fantastic. Can sports bring some sort of inspired vision? Can we appreciate goodness, common grace for the common good, so to speak? Does God in God’s world smile about our simple joys as we watch and cheer? Kluck says yes, and although he is a conventional, youngish, evangelical Christian, he is passionate about this business of being a high octane sports fan, and has written a book that anybody, religious or not, could appreciate. As Mark Galli nicely puts it, The Reason for Sports “helps think about sports Christianly without Christian cliches and worn out sports piety. He’s an athlete and a fan whose writing implicitly reminds us why God created sports: for the joy of play.” I agree with the ESPN host who said “”This is not your normal sports book. Nor is it your normal Christian book.” Short, sweet, helpful. If you know anybody who is a gonzo fan, you should get them this book!
Kneeling in the End Zone: Spiritual Lessons from the World of Sports Josh Tinley (Pilgrim Press) $15.00 We have promoted this before, and think it is one of the more mature guides to the inspiration we can get from watching or playing athletics. Dr. Greg Linville, who teaches Sports Outreach at Malone University writes that “As a vocational sports theologian, I strongly relate to Tinley’s desire to communicate God’s game plan for life as he connects the theological dots… as observed through sport. Many of Tinley’s sporting metaphors and athletic stories would bring a smile to the face of the Apostle Paul who was the first follower of Christ to realize the effectiveness of sporting metaphors to teach and illustrate spiritual principles.” But yet, don’t think this as only an inspirational, devotional volume for jocks, and not only for football players — Kneeling in the End Zone looks at the profound and the ugly, the beautiful and the absurd, and attempts to use sports as a bit of a lens to clarify theology and faith. It is, as I’ve said, one of the better books of this kind. There are transcendent moments in sports, and Tinley helps us see that.
Game Day for the Glory of God: A Guide for Athletes, Fans, & Wannabes Stephen Altrogge (Crossway) $10.99 I often tell sports fans, parents, coaches, and players that this really is the best introductory book of which we are aware about what we should know about a Christian view of sports. It is short and passionately gospel-centered, inviting us to resist idols and put God first in everything, even our game day. Good for fans, of course, for high school or college atheletes, and certainly for parents wanting to help their kids get a solid, Godly perspective. Altrogge lives and pastors in Western Pennsylvania, by the way, so is, quite naturally, a fan of the Pittsburgh Steelers. A great, inspiring little book.
The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport Robert Ellis (Wipf & Stock) $37.00 I know this is thick and a bit pricey. But it looks very mature, and very good. The author of what might be the best serious book on sports — Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports on Baylor University Press ($29.95) — Shirl James Hoffman (who also writes about kinesiology) raves. Shirl Hoffman writes, “Ellis masterfully weaves a thread through the church’s inconstant history with sport, dissects sport as a modern cultural phenomenon, and armed with a prodigious arsenal of evidence, dares to ask whether the transcendent moments of sport might actually be experiences of God. A must-read for anyone hoping to understand how sport fits within the Christian tradition.” For serious readers.
Welcome to the Terrordom: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports Dave Zirin (foreword by Chuck D) (Haymarket Books) $16.00 You maybe know that 80’s era rappers Public Enemy blazed into the world of hip hop, known for the 1989 “Welcome to the Terrordom” anthem, a call to arms against a world gone mad. It is from that song title that this book gets it’s title, and it is no accident that the passionate social critic Chuck D of Public Enemy even wrote the foreword. Zirin, a left wing journalist who truly loves sports, and is a good sports journalist, exposes the scandals and dangers “looking past the shiny surface to what’s really happening in the locker room, the boardroom, the arena, and the stands.” He’s angry at things we should be angry about, and is optimistic about some other things. It is a bit dated, but if you are interested in the politics of sports, so to speak, the critique within Welcome to the Terrordom is powerful. Zirin sometimes writes for The Nation, and is smart and sassy and important.
From Season to Season: Sports as American Religion edited by Joseph L. Price (Mercer University Press) $25.00 Mercer University Press has a whole line of books about sports and religion in American culture. Wow. Dr. Price who edited this (and he has several good chapters himself) is a Langdon Gilkey scholar, so has tools to develop a mature and thoughtful theology of cultural engagement. And he’s a sports fan (and a college President, too) Here, he brings together a handful of scholars, each offering a particular paper on various aspects of the sporting experience in North American culture. From professional wrestling to hockey in Canada to basketball and various specific themes — “The Pitchers Mound as Cosmic Mountain” and “The Final Four as Final Judgement” and “The Super Bowl as Religious Festival” — this is all truly fascinating. The title itself comes from an essay on “The Rhythmic and Religious Significance of American Sports Seasons.” What a collection to help us discern the times…
In Praise of Athletic Beauty Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (Belknap/Harvard University Press) $22.95 I’ve mentioned this before, and think it is a fine contribution to the library of the serious thinker about sports. It is, I suppose, mostly a book about aesthetics, and it is eloquent and literary. It is asked why we have such fervor, when in awe of athletic prowess, and it answers this fundamental question by drawing deeply on the history of philosophy, trying to explore what is evoked and what moves us by seeing good performances. In Praise of Athletic Beauty invites us to embrace our enjoyment, offering a philosophically sophisticated explanation of the beauty of it all. Not for everyone, yet, I think, it is very important, and those who are serious about developing some kind of normative viewpoint on athletics, would be wise to ponder this complex, beautiful book.
Inside Out Coaching: How Sports Can Transform Lives Joe Ehrmann (Simon & Schuster) $25.00 We have raved before about the fantastic sports biography, the tale of former Baltimore Colt Joe Ehrmann, as told by Sports Illustrated writer (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Jeffrey Marks, called Season of Life. It’s truly a great book. Now, here, Joe Ehrmann tells his own story, and about his work as a coach (as we learn in Season of Life, he leaves pro ball, goes to seminary, and starts coaching an urban youth league, teaching boys to be “men for each other.”) I have some sharp, thoughtful friends who work in campus ministry with athletes and coaches and they all use this routinely. It is one of the best examples of a profoundly Christian orientation, a clear sense of calling and vocation, but yet written for a mainstream audience; Ehrmann is clearly a man of deep and serious faith, but he does not wear it on his sleeve or resort to the aforementioned “pious sports platitudes.” This is a gem of a book, and every career should be so fortunate to have a leader this articulate who has thought hard about the good stuff they can do in their particular field. Coach or not, this is a great book for anyone interested in sports, and certainly anyone interested in sports ministry. Hooray!
The NFL Unplugged: The Brutal, Brilliant World of Professional Football Anthony Gargano (Wiley) $25.95 This has been widely reviewed, enjoyed by serious football fans, and the author is esteemed for being a fine writer and powerful reporter — and a pretty passionate, opinionated, regular sports guy. This really does have the inside scoop — raw, unplugged, brutal. From what really happens in huddles and pile-ups to how coaches speeches work (to help or deflate players) to what “the dark place” is, this is extraordinary. How far will some players and coaches go to win? What is training camp really like? What goes on behind the NFL curtain, in the lives of the players. Gargano is a South Philly radio guy, and this is is “a front row seat to the agony and the ecstasy.” If you love football, you won’t be able to put this book down.
Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto Steve Almond (Melville House) $22.95 This was one of the most amazing books I’ve read all year — I was going to award it one of the Best of 2014, but wasn’t sure what category in which to name it. I really intended to, but just, oddly, never listed it. It really is one of those books I will never forget.
This passionate little volume strikes me not only as a brilliant and shocking and provoking and interesting book on football, by a fan who has become a critic (over the awful facts about financial corruption, injustice, the tax exempt status of the billion dollar NFL, the sexism, the racism and more, but mostly over the matter of concussions) but also as a case study in moral dilemmas. That is, Against Football is a book about ethics. It deserves a major review, but I’ll just name two quick things: firstly, it is a cry of the heart by a guy who is an over the top fan. Not unlike his book about being a true fan of rock music (Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life) or his charming book about indie candy makers and his passion for tracking down these delightful sweets (Candyfreak), Almond is a great, great, truly entertaining, creative writer; he’s punchy and solid and fun, and he loves, loves, loves his (get this) Oakland Raiders. And sports in general, and football in specific. And those (“wretched”) Raiders. Only a fan as obsessed as he is, with as many great chapters about the joys and meaning of sport fandom, could get away with this kind of radical critique and still be taken seriously. Almond has a broken heart, because he loves football, but now hates it.
Secondly, and this is important, his main point is that it is unethical to watch football. He develops this moral argument with the aforementioned shocking facts, and with the aforementioned broken heart. He believes he must give up being entertained by watching a corrupt sport that — it is now a fact that cannot be denied — causes great, great harm to many of the players. He doesn’t make the pornography connection, but he might have; it must be said that it is wrong to be entertained by watching the degradation or violation of others. Violence is wrong; being entertained by what we know is harm being done to others, makes us morally complicit. Mr. Almond has his list of reforms, and it is worth reading just to consider and advocate for those, but he is, at this point, no mere reformer. Watching professional and college ball is like watching the gladiators; it is immoral, and we ought not partake. The stats about brain damage are remarkable, and he is trying to call us to responsible action, knowing what we know. As a true fan, who thinks that in it’s “exalted moments, is not just a sport but a lovely and intricate form of art.” So, he wants to “honor the ethical complexities and the allure of the game.”
What does it mean, Almond asks,
…that the most popular and unifying form of entertainment in American circa 2014 features giant muscled men, mostly African-American, engaged in a sport that causes many of them to suffer brain damage? What does in mean that our society has transmuted the intuitive physical joys of childhood — run, leap, throw, tackle — into a corporatized form of simulated combat? That a collision sport has become the leading signifier of our institutions of higher learning, and the undisputed champ of our colossal Athletic Industrial Complex?
Agree or not, this is the most passionate, compelling, cogent, and, oddly, interestingly enjoyable book making this hard case that has yet been written. It would be a hammering screed in somebody else’s hands, but Almond is so skilled and charming a writer — colorful and vulgar and funny and crass and even tender at times — that he can be captivating in his moral prophecy. Against Football is one of the most compelling, provocative, interesting books about social ethics I’ve read in a long, long, time. Again, it is making demands on us, asking about complicity. It is my view that no informed sports fan can be seriously engaged in these conversations and debates without having read this book. I’ve read all of Steve Almonds books, fiction and non, and despite his R-rated vocabulary, know that he has a very, very profound moral center. One reviewer mentions his “astonishing wit, intelligence, and decency.” This searing book explores the biggest question facing sports fans today. Read it and weep. And then decide.
If you aren’t sure, check these out: Here is one interview, to show his literate side, and why he was drawn to racking this muck. Here is an hour long youtube discussion with Almond and the brilliant Gregg Easterbrook, whose book The King of Sports: Why Football Must Be Reformed (St. Martin’s; $15.99) I suppose I should also have listed, now that it is out in paperback. Do watch the first moments of this video, hearing Almond read from his preface which will give you a sense of his eloquence, passion, wit, and convictions.
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