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The Super Bowl Gospel

Why we need to rethink the relationship between faith and sports.

Standing on the field at Gillete Stadium, having just defeated the New England Patriots 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game, Ray Lewis repeatedly proclaimed to a national television audience, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” quoting Isaiah 54:17.

Between pre- and post-game prayers, eye-black adorned with Bible verses and end-zone prayers, faith has long had a prominent place in American sports. And in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Lewis’ evocative proclamations have reignited one of our nation’s most contentious conversations: What is the role of faith in sports, and what relationship should exist between these two cultural institutions?

The cover of this week’s Sports Illustrated is adorned with a picture of a shirtless Ray Lewis, half-submerged in water, gazing into the distance with hands joined in a prayerful posture along with the provocative headline, “Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?”

Too often faith is used to justify sports accomplishments rather than faith transforming the way that sports are played.

The centerpiece article, penned by New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer, tackles the “paradox of big time football,” highlighting some of the tensions between football and the Christian faith. In particular, Oppenheimer points out the reality that both the NFL and Christian churches make their home on Sundays, “and 50 years into [the] national experiment of mixing the two, it is not at all clear that faith has won the day.” Moreover, he suggests that the violence inherent to football is “deeply at odds with Christ’s message.”

There is certainly no shortage of questions in the sports-faith debate. Oppenheimer’s are erudite and penetrating, but Lewis’ proclamations (and the many others like it) raise a deeper, more troubling question. Namely, do the frequent appropriations of faith in the world of sports misrepresent the Gospel?

Lewis, as he proclaimed Isaiah 54:17 with euphoric fervor, was essentially claiming (in God’s own words) that no weapon formed against him could prevent his victory. However, Isaiah 54, in its original context, was a statement of restoration spoken to small nation of people who had been conquered by an imperial power, witnessed the destruction of their sacred places and been exiled into a foreign land. When God said, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” it came in a message of comfort to a suffering people facing the real possibility of extinction.

But there is more at stake here than the simple application of a biblical text out of context. Lewis’ appropriation of Isaiah 54 was a virtual reversal of the essence of the text itself. One says, “God will strengthen us as the conquered.” The other says, “God will empower me as a conqueror.” In other words, it was a complete reshaping of a biblical text according to a modern, Western, individualistic, competition-based worldview.

This is not an indictment of Ray Lewis, because Lewis’ statement was simply a high-profile example of a widespread trend in American sports. It’s one bolstered by the masses, as a new study says that 53% of Americans agree with the statement: "God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success." And football players depictions of faith are often used as an explanation for their success.

Can a biblical text about faith amidst hardship be transformed into a motivational affirmation of personal achievement?

A prime example is the use of Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me,” which often appears on eye-black and wristbands as an affirmation that God can provide an athlete the strength to overcome all obstacles in competition. However, this interpretation strays from the literary and historical context in which it was first written.

Paul wrote the letter of Philippians from prison under the cloud of imminent death, and he delivers this oft-quoted text as commentary on his ability to find peace and contentment even amidst seemingly hopeless circumstances. Once again, while making the trip from the page to the arena, we find a biblical text about hope amidst hardship transformed into a motivational affirmation of personal achievement.

The problem here isn’t that faith and sports can't coexist. The problem is that too often faith is used to justify sports accomplishments rather than faith transforming the way that sports are played.

And as a former college athlete myself—one who admittedly wrote crosses and Bible verses on his wristbands—I believe this distinction can pave the way for a very different American football story.

American soccer player Jozy Altidore demonstrated this on-the-field, off-the-field integrity earlier this week. A professional player for AZ Alkmaar in the Netherlands, Altidore was subjected to continuous racist abuse in a Dutch Cup victory over FC Den Bosch. While refusing the referee’s offer to cancel the game, Altidore played on and bore the abuse with stoic courage. He played to win—as was his job. Then following the game, he spoke with grace and forgiveness saying he hoped the abusive fans could “become better as people” and that he would pray for them. And his actions exemplify that it is not inconsistent to fight for victory on the field, then treat his opponents with the utmost integrity and respect after the clock runs out.

There is no arena of life where Christ is not present and at work, and the world of sports is no exception. Faith can be heralded on the field, but perhaps not in the way we have come to expect.

Maybe, in addition to encountering Jesus in proclamations of victory, we should also look for him in less romantic, less triumphant moments. It would be interesting, for example, to see biblical references heralded in interviews about crushing defeat. The Bible has no shortage of encouraging words for the disappointed.

And maybe, while end-zone prayers and Bible verses are bold tributes, perhaps it is biblical actions—like those of Altidore—which testify the loudest.

12 Comments

Mary Garland Considine

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Mary Garland Considine commented…

When the Ravens lost last year, Ray said to his team, "God doesn't make mistakes." He indicated that this is what was supposed to happen. My take of Ray is God is always with him and he wants to do God's will, but it doesn't mean he (Ray) will always win, just that he wants to do what God wants him to.

Don Winters

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Don Winters commented…

Great article. From individualism to misplaced nationalism the biblical story continues to be hijacked and reinserted into another story -- A story in which God is the force to advance our agenda.The call to transformation is lost in this idolatrous relationship.

Jenni Weatherly

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Jenni Weatherly commented…

Thank you for this piece--very well thought-out. And you're quite right; it seems in the hype we forget that Scripture also says that when we are weakest, that is when, in Christ, we are strong. There are no uniform cases, of course, but I personally found that my greatest spiritual growth came when I was the least successful in my sport.

Anyway, again, great work!

Nick

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Nick commented…

What about the need of believers to always related their lives to a christian sport athlete, actor, superstar, etc. It seem we can't live our faith just by focusing on God, and we always need someone to step up and lead us while Christ should be the inspiration. I know not everyone thinks like this, but this superbowl, I saw so many christians too much excited for lewis, praying God may help him so that he can be a testimony. A testimony... a guy that was suspect in a murder case, that has 6 childrens with 4 different girls... people might think I'm judging him, and will tried to make me remember nobody's perfect, but for me that's a deja vu. If we want to related God with sports. I pray that our actions speak louder than our words.

Dan Hunter

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Dan Hunter commented…

Pretty good article. I have a couple of questions and comments on this subject though. For starters, why must we always try to bring down anyone who is doing whatever they can to give honor to God? Would we be happier if Ray Lewis would give glory to himself? We all know he's not perfect, and I won't state the obvious about no one being perfect. Wait, I did say it. But whatever. Anyone who is without sin let him throw the first stone. Also, for those of us who claim to be believers in Christ. I think people look at us and say. Look at them, they don't even like each other and they expect us to follow their "Christ"? I also wonder, have we ever read the story of David the man after God's own heart? Wasn't he an adulterer and a murderer? Ray Lewis inspires me not because of what he has done but regardless of what he has done. Our God is a God of second and even third chances unlike us. And I would love for Him to use me even if people think I'm not worthy or qualified to do so. And I rather be like him doing something than staying on the sidelines criticizing and doing nothing to share the good news of the gospel. Lastly, if we claim to love God but hate our brother, then we are liars. For how can we love God that we don't see, and hate our brother that we do see. Ray Lewis needs our love just as much as we all do.

Nick

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Nick replied to Dan Hunter's comment

I totaly agree with you, we need to love our brothers, especially when the world is watching us, but at the same time, how many times we saw a believer on the spot sharing his faith going down for nasty stuff. Maybe he (ray lewis) is not the same as before, and I have no wish for him to go down in his after career. But what kind of image do we give to the non-believers when we proclame things that we don't actualy do, not sure it's a great image too. How many pastor when down for pornography, adultery, seeing prostitute, stealing money, etc. We need to love our brothers and support them when this type of stuff is happening, but we need also to remember the severity of God. My main point is what's up with the need for believers that have big christian model in sport? I understand it is good to have rolemodel with who we can compare our life. But as for Ray Lewis, I don't hate the guy, I just don't see why so many christian worship him. Because he is proclaming the name of God? Is that what it's all about?

Michael Schutz

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Michael Schutz replied to Nick's comment

Dan, I get your struggle in this...I have to say it irks me when athletes (or others, for that matter) give the impression that they won because God was somehow on their side. Misusing Biblical passages to give that impression, even when they don't intend it, doesn't help, I don't think. I think it's great that Lewis is seeking to give glory to God; I do think that it's very very difficult to do that in the context of winning, and I think he came off as giving that impression.

At the same time, it's not hateful to try to address the question of whether someone's theology and practice is in line with Scripture. Disagreeing (even in public) does not equal hating. (Though, I think we can agree we've seen far too many examples of disagreeing de-volving into hating...)

I think the larger issue in this is not Ray Lewis' personal statements, but the fact that his line of thinking is entirely consistent with today's prosperity gospel. My problem is not with Lewis as a person, but with the whole notion of "I am materially blessed because I'm a favoured child of God".

And this is where I hope that my theological disagreement doesn't come off as hateful or as personal attack, because it leads, for me, to a more troubling notion...Lewis said in his interview with Shannon Sharpe that he is innocent of those charges to do with the murder because "God doesn't use people like that". I'm making no assertion as to his guilt or innocence - I have no idea. But to use as his proof that, "I'm successful because it's God's will, and people who sin like that can't be successful because God won't bless them, therefore I'm innocent" is dangerous theologically, not to mention practically.

Firstly, the last part just isn't true. As you said, Dan - David was a adulterer and murderer, yet because of the totality of God's grace, God considers David a man after His own heart. Abraham was an idolator; Moses was a murderer; Noah got drunk after getting off the ark; Gideon was a coward; the list goes on and on. God absolutely uses "people like that". It's the only kind of people there are - sinners!

Secondly, the logic in that thinking isn't consistent with Scripture, either. The entire book of Job refutes it, never mind Jesus' own life and teaching, and Paul, etc.

I'm being too long-winded, so I'll stop. I did want to capture the wrestling I have with both the issue itself and the way in which issues like this are discussed - I think we have to speak the truth, and speak it as lovingly as possible.

Dan Hunter

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Dan Hunter replied to Michael Schutz's comment

Nick, I totally agree with you. We should all do according to what we're preaching. However, I'm in no position to say Ray Lewis is not. I can only speak about my personal life. And I must say that some times I don't do according to what I know. Sometimes I make mistakes and fall short of what I know I should be doing. And this is the reason why I try to stay away from saying who's doing right and who's not.

I think on the Scribes and Pharisees who looked good and perfect on the outside but where dead in the inside. And I also think on the text that says that I must be careful if I think I'm on stable ground for I might fall as well.

And about worshipping Ray Lewis. I don't worship the guy, I respect and admire him for what he's doing. I don't think he has it easy. Think about it. Here's a guy who didn't grow up with his biological father. Didn't grow up in a "Christian" home like most of us. Didn't know what it meant to be a man. And here he is. Doing the best he can. And all we can do is judge him or hate him for that? I think its time we move pass some of these things. He will make mistakes just and we all will. But I pray we show him love and help him out the same we would like to be loved and helped. Oh and lastly, its not about Ray Lewis. Its about Jesus Christ.

Michael, I totally agree with you too. But I can't criticize Ray too much. I don't judge or criticize him with the same rule I judge and criticize myself. Why? I believe I know better because I grew up in a "Christian" home, he didn't. Does he have an excuse to do whatever? Of course not, but we should keep everything in context.

I am with you on the whole thing of misusing scripture as well. Although I know I have done so myself. But I like it when a brother would come to me personally and tell me. Hey, Dan, I don't think the comment you said was on point or something like that. And if they prove it to me with scripture then its up to me to accept it or not. And as I've do so, I've fixed mistake on that particular subject.

One more thing though. I wonder what we think about all the TV shows, music videos, movies, etc. that are ridiculing Jesus Christ? Do we get as irritated about that as much as someone who's trying to do right? I have a bigger issue with all of the above more than Ray Lewis. If we haven't noticed, our culture is going from bad to worst. And we need as much good examples as possible to improve our situation. So instead of throwing stones at one guy and hoping for his failure. I rather and choose to do my part and stand up and be the light we (disciples of Christ) have been called to be.

In conclusion. I thank God that Ray Lewis has done what he has done. Why? Because its forcing those of us who are still on the sidelines, those of us who are still living our "Christianity" in the shadows to have to step out. Right now is Ray Lewis, before it was Tim Tebow and Jeremy Lin. Who's next to step up?

Michael Schutz

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Michael Schutz replied to Dan Hunter's comment

Amen, Dan. We are all called to watch our own selves closely, as well as to lovingly point out error in brothers and sisters in Christ. It's a both/and that happens for each one of us.

I think one of the challenges for our culture is that this kind of theological discussion is difficult to do in public (ie. on the Internet) - the public nature of it seems like infighting to the rest of the world, and it's harder to have the conversation outside of a face-to-face relationship. At the same time, if we can focus on gently discussing, seeking to build one another up, it can be a great witness too. And you're right, would that we all took a page from these men to be bold in proclaiming Jesus, whatever our station of life.

Dan Hunter

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Dan Hunter replied to Michael Schutz's comment

Amen my brother, Michael. You're completely right.

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