More Thoughts – “A Brief Theology of Sports” by Lincoln Harvey

My last post looked at two ideas I found important and helpful in Lincoln Harvey’s book A Brief Theology of Sport. Overall, I enjoyed the book finding it accessible and timely.


Today, however, I want to consider a question I have about the book and I think it is a question Harvey expects because he seems to spend time offering an answer. At the beginning let me state, I am unsure if have I understood Harvey because at times I want to agree with his explanation and at other times I want to disagree (it could be that I’m confused!). Thus, I present this as a question seeking further explanation.

In the chapter on sport as “The Liturgical Celebration of Contingency,” Harvey makes a distinction between sports and worship. It is a distinction I find helpful for various reasons, one I discussed yesterday, but it also raises questions. Let me quote a few passages from the book:

“(Sport) is an event in which the creature, as itself, celebrates itself” (94).

 “Worship is the liturgical celebration of who God is with us. Sport is the liturgical celebration of who we are by ourselves” (94).

“In worship, God in his freedom is committed to being present to his people in this reality…In sport, however, the opposite is the case. God instead steps back, evacuating the space created by the liturgical action…He is in one. He is out of the other” (95).

“Sport is only for sport. It is the one thing that is not directed to the glory of God. That is what sets it apart” (96).

If I understand correctly, these statements arise from the premise that to make sport about something other than sport ruins it. Since sport is “autotelic,” meaning it has no meaning outside itself, to make sport about something changes it from sport to something else. Thus, sport cannot be a celebration of anything outside itself because to make sport about celebrating God, or for the glory of God, is to make it about something else. Sport, therefore, must be the celebration of who we are apart from God, a space where we can exist in nothing but our nothingness (our not ‘Godness’).

If these statements were allowed to stand alone, I would want to disagree with them, but here are a few quotes from the same pages that make want to agree:

“(Sport) is graced creatures living out grace. We chime with our own being” (94).

“(In sport) God instead enjoys watching us being ourselves as we pivot freely between himself and nothingness” (95).

“That is precisely what is so amazing about sport. It is not for God. It is simply the graceful creature” (96).

My question arises from how do the ideas of celebrating ourselves and living out grace fit together? Also, how does God’s enjoyment relate to God’s glory? The following is my attempt to answer these questions (these ideas are built upon Harvey’s points but they are not meant to reflect Harvey’s thoughts, as I said I’m still trying to figure out if/where we agree and disagree):

In a previous chapter, Harvey explained being graced as “we are held in existence only by the divine will that we be” (81). Graced then is the fact that we exist only in a space that is sustained “unnecessarily but meaningfully” by God and “the good news is that there is no territory that is not grace” (81). In this sense, if sport is “living out grace” then it is not a space outside God but the place we exist most completely as ourselves with God. Or to say it another way, the place we exist with God as God intended, unnecessary but meaningful.*

Sport is surely different from worship, as Harvey explains, because in worship we approach God in all his glory. On the other hand, sport is where we approach God in all our glory. Glory that because it is given by him pleases him. Thus, sport is a celebration of who we are in ourselves but not of who we are by ourselves. It is a celebration of ourselves as graced by God.** Furthermore, sport can be celebrated by God as we live out the unnecessary-but-meaningful existence he graced us with in the first place.


*Harvey seems to make a similar point, “When we play – unnecessary but meaningful – we are living out our deepest identity as unnecessary but meaningful creatures” (84).

**Harvey seems to make a similar point (although on this point I’m not sure we are meaning the same thing), “When we play sport, we are celebrating our freely determined form as these particular creatures through a freely determined rule-governed unnecessary-but-meaningful activity” (93).


“A Brief Theology of Sport” by Lincoln Harvey – Thoughts

Disclaimer: I bought this book.


I love sports! I loved playing them competitively, I enjoy playing them recreationally, and I have three little boys for whom I am their coach, their second biggest fan (can’t compete with mom), and often serve as the replay review booth for backyard disputes (takes some imagination but it works!).

Therefore, I was excited to finally get a chance Lincoln Harvey‘s book on celebrating “sport for what it is without confusing it for what it isn’t” (xv), and I wasn’t disappointed. Harvey has written an excellent book, both easily readable and deeply informative.


Over the next couple of days, I will offer some thoughts on the book but these posts are not meant to be a full review. Today will focus on two central ideas stemming from the book and tomorrow will ask one question about the book.

For Harvey, sport is “a subspecies of play” (70). Harvey describes play as “a fundamentally unnecessary-yet-meaningful activity” and explains what distinguishes sport from other types of play is it involves physical prowess and rules (60-72). Most important for Harvey’s theology of sport, however, is the basic characteristic “unnecessary-yet-meaningful activity.” Drawing from the Christian understanding of creation, specifically humanity was created by God as “unnecessary-yet-meaningful” creatures,* Harvey suggests “that when we play – unnecessary but meaningful – we are living out our deepest identity as unnecessary but meaningful creatures” (84). Thus, Christians can celebrate sports as “The Liturgical Celebration of Contingency” (88-96).**

With these basic ideas in mind, I want to draw attention to two ways Harvey helps us think about sports as Christians. First, sports is not worship. Although the two have a “strong family resemblance” (93), Harvey explains, “Worship is the liturgical celebration of who God is with us. Sport is the liturgical celebration of who we are by ourselves” (94). This distinction, which I will question somewhat in my next post, helps us to see one way sports is tainted by sin. Rather, than being a celebration of who we are as God’s “unnecessary but meaningful creation” sport can easily become self-worship. Harvey writes, “Because the Fall impacts our deepest identity, our playfulness is corrupted. Instead of being non-serious, we instead take ourselves too seriously, even to the extent of deluding ourselves that we are God” (103). This advice is needed in the church today and especially for parents, like myself, who are raising children who love sports. We must be able to teach our children how to rightly relate to the sports they play and perhaps even more importantly have the language to teach ourselves how to rightly relate to two of the biggest idols in the church, our children and the sports our children play.

The second distinction is that sports is not a civilized form of war. Here I want to quote Harvey at length:

Sport is often thought to be a civilized form of war, a domesticated outlet for the pre-programmed genetic struggle for survival in the cultivated terrain of civil society, But, because the state of (original) nature is not war but peace, we can say that this way of seeing things is upside down and back to front. Of course, our fallenness means we are constantly at war with ourselves, which makes war seem primary to our twisted minds. But on a properly Christian reading of creation, war would be much better understood as the a fallen state of sport rather than sport being seen as a domesticated form of war.

Though I have thought a lot about the ways I engage in sports as a Christian, I have not given as much thought to how I define sport. After reading Harvey’s book, I started to listening to the ways I, and those around me, talk about sports, and war terminology is by far the most commonly used descriptions. Thus, regardless of whether or not I knew it sports as domesticated war is my default definition of sport. Harvey’s book has made me aware of the fundamental ways this definition shapes the way I talk about and engage in sports. It has also made me begin questioning these ideas and changing the ways I think about sports, talk about sports, and engage in sports.

In the end, the highest praise I can offer the book is that it has changed the way I engage in a very crucial part of my family’s life. Thus, Harvey’s description of the theological task rings true as he has given “voice to reality by speaking in tune with the event of God’s own self-introduction in Jesus Christ” (xiii).


*”Creation may not be serious, but it is not meaningless. Instead, the Church believes that we are created freely out of nothing and for something” (81).

**This quick recap cannot do justice to all of Harvey’s ideas. My suggestion is if you find it interesting read the book!


The Theologian’s Task?

“Theologians attempt to give voice to reality by speaking in tune with the event of God’s own self-introduction in Jesus Christ. It is gospel-shaped speech, and it is no easy task. The difficulty of the task must not become an excuse, however. Christian theologians must attempt to speak with God and their neighbours on the basis of the gospel.”

Lincoln Harvey – A Brief Theology of Sport   


I wasn’t really sure what this book was going to be about (people approach the idea of sports in all kinds of ways), but after reading the introduction I am excited about the direction it is taking. As someone who played competitive sports through college (not always in a Christian way), still plays recreationally and follows sport closely (not always in a Christian way), and is raising three sons who play and watch sports all day, everyday (most the time not in a Christian way), the idea of celebrating sports in a Christian way sounds fascinating and liberating.

On another front, I’m also a little mad I didn’t think of this first. Maybe I can follow up with A Less Brief Theology of Sport?

There will be more updates as I continue reading.