A problem or concern with those the most enthusiastic about their faith in God is not that they are necessarily zealous but rather that they expect you to embrace their interpretation regarding those issues where those sincerely holding to the essentials of Christianity can view a particular moral conundrum differently. Take for example the issue of sports.
No Christian in their right mind will deny that professional athletic spectacles can potentially get out of hand to the point where those participating in them can be tempted by explicit sins such as greed, corruption, and even idolatry. However, in his essay “Professional Sports An Abomination To God”, theologian Michael Jeshurun argues that the sincere devout Christian ought not to have anything to do with sports beyond an occasional pick up game or ball toss in the backyard. In his condescension, Jeshurun provides a number of detailed reasons.
Jeshurun begins his analysis with an examination of the act of “Tebowing”. The name of the gesture is derived from Tim Tebow's practice of kneeling with head bowed in a posture of adoration following the completion of a play deemed successful on the part of the penitent supplicant.
To Jeshurun, it's not enough that a professional athlete amidst the hustle and bustle of the gridiron takes a moment to direct his thoughts as well as those with eyes upon him towards the reality of a higher overseeing power. To Jeshurun, the prayer is not complete unless the athlete enunciates a lamentation of his transgressions and heaps condemnation upon the venue in which the athlete finds himself. While he's at it, perhaps the athlete ought to rend his garments and adorn himself sackcloth and ashes. A little flagellation might also be in order. That would raise at least an eyebrow of interest in San Francisco.
Jeshurun's basic argument is that the Christian ought to avoid professional and organized athletics because sports is an idol and a work of the flesh. His first evidence raised in the attempt to prove such is Luke 16:15 proclaiming, “That which is highly esteemed among men is an abomination in the sight of God.”
Jeshurun writes, “This verse alone should settle it once and for all whether 'professional sports' is well pleasing to God or an abomination to Him.” Without additional context, that verse might not apply in every situation but more a general principle that applies when a particular activity or situation is inherently evil.
There is overlap where both God and man highly esteem certain things. For example, both God and even the unredeemed that have not succumbed to outright debauchery value a good name as counseled in Proverbs 22:1. Both God and a number of non-Christian belief systems value the married heterosexual two parent household as the foundation of a stable family.
Next, because a sizable percentage have elevated sports to an unseemly position in their lives, that does not necessarily mean that sports is inherently evil or that the Christian should not participate in them. For a number of the criticisms leveled against sports could be directed just as easily at organized religion in general and even Christianity in particular.
As a statistic, Jeshurun cites a 1983 survey that 7 out of 10 Americans watches, reads, or talks about sports every day. Another statistic from that year lamented by Jeshurun from the World Almanac and Book of Facts states that, of 2000 students polled of whom they admired most, there was not a single name on the list that was not an entertainer nor an athlete.
What is so wrong if coworkers discuss sports? Isn't that preferable to a religious war breaking out in the office? And such a topic is certainly more pleasant to discuss than either your coworker's hemorrhoids, the fact that he needs a Viagra, or that it's his wife's “cranky week” on the calendar.
As to the statistic about children, what is to be expected? They are children. Aren't their answers supposed to reek of stupidity?
Regarding these kinds of surveys, those taking them can't really win. If the respondent answers truthfully, they are reamed a new one for answering in a way that displeases either the pollster or the polemicist co-opting the researcher to make a point. If the respondent attempts to game the situation by telling the researcher what the researcher wants to hear but does not live their life in a manner reflective of the answers provided, they are reamed yet again for the transgressions of deception and hypocrisy.
Following the elaboration of this statement, Jeshurun provides a number of examples as to why he concludes that professional athletics is idolatrous. He first turns to the preeminent and learned theologian Howard Cosell.
In reflecting upon the devotion of Dallas Cowboy fans, Cosell decreed, “The Cowboys are more than a football team; they are a religion.” To show that this just wasn't a fluke on the part of a sportscaster renowned for his flair at turning a colorful phrase, Jeshurun cites an incident where 75.000 fans of the Devner Broncos showed up for a game despite a blizzard that crippled a metropolis like Denver that was no stranger to harsh wintry conditions.
What can one say? The world is full of people that don't have common sense that do plenty of things they should not that endanger their lives largely because they are told to. There are some that would risk their life and limb to go to church in foul weather when they would be better off staying at home.
For example, one particularly snowy Sunday in the mid 1980's, my unabashedly devout grandmother decided that the weather was too cold and treacherous to risk the pilgrimage through the elements to the Baptist church my grandparents attended about 15 miles away. But come perdition or high water (or on this case about five inches of snow), my grandfather insisted he just had to have his Sunday edition of the Washington Post (by that point the Washington Star had folded and most good Christian folk were still leery regarding the Washington Times at that point as “that Moonie newspaper”).
My grandmother relented to the request, thinking it would be no more than a 5 to 10 minute trip to the corner neighborhood convenience store. She waited and waited. As her mind balanced that fine line between concern and worry, she called my parents wondering where grandpop could be.
Given this was several decades ago, I don't recall precisely whether my dad set out to the corner store looking for him or that Dad himself might have been at work that day. Irrespective, the entire family spent that morning quite unsettled until grandfather returned home around 12:45 PM.
For you see, he hadn't just ventured forth to acquire a newspaper. To paraphrase the title of Bilbo Baggins' adventure, my grandfather had gone all the way to church and back again without telling anyone where he set out to which he insisted wasn't even his wife's business despite the questionable weather.
Admittedly, that anecdote veers a bit from the main point but will be tied into this exposition for a matter of emphasis. Just because it might not have been the wisest thing for my grandfather to not only drive to church in treacherous weather but also not inform my grandmother where it was that he was going, his antics did not invalidate the central claims of the Christian message and their benefit in the life of the individual when parsed in a balanced and reasoned manner. Likewise, when free individuals without direct coercion decide to pursue sports in instances when participation could be a detriment does not invalidate the legitimacy of professional athletics altogether.
Jeshurun attempts to further buttress his arguments with a number of additional criticisms that could just as easily be applied to religion. A number of these aren't even necessarily incorrect in and of themselves if looked at from a different perspective.
The first reason given by Jeshurun is that professional sports is based on greed. Jeshurun writes, “When the well known evangelist Billy Sunday turned his back ... on a baseball career in 1893, he gave ten reasons for leaving. Reason number two was 'Because it develops a spirit of jealousy and selfishness; one's whole desires are for professional success regardless of what befalls others.'.” Jeshurun continues, “As a matter of fact, sports teaches us to be happy when our opponents fail or when another player is injured so that I can be promoted to his position.”
And organized religion does not? It's just that organized religion has been better at formulating a series of pious platitudes that an individual can enunciate that mask the true intentions of the individual verbalizing them and can position the individual from the perspective of the most spiritually profound light possible.
For example, in many churches, the same handful of people hold the recognized positions of leadership for year after year, decade upon decade. For anybody new to be allowed to try there hand at anything, eventually someone has to not so much be but out to pasture but rather six feet under it. Even if the congregation is magnanimous and free of cliques, there is only so much opportunity to go around in terms of teaching positions or for talent to even be developed if there is a single Sunday school class with that either taught by the pastor or head deacon.
The next argument as to why the Christian ought not to participate in sports is because professional athletics is full of covetousness. Most Christians think of covetousness as wanting what someone else has to such an extent that one is willing to fall into explicit sin in order to obtain the obsession. Apparently Jeshurun's definition is quite a bit different.
He writes, “Covetousness is one of the definitions of modern professional sports. Loyalty to the team or country is out of the question. Unlike the true Christian who is not for sale (because Christ has already bought him) the professional sportsmen will play against his own for a price!”
That barely makes sense. Despite the easily drawn and often at times appropriate analogies, contemporary athletics are not the Roman gladiatorial spectacles or even the Thunderdome of the Mad Max series. We are not quite yet at the point where the assembled crowds chat “Two men enter. One man leaves.”
As a hardline Calvinist, Mr. Jeshurun has probably published a number of diatribes against Roman Catholicism; however, his economic vision is not that markedly different than the viewpoints expounded by Pope Francis. For both of these theologians have cloaked barely disguised anti-capitalist sentiments in the garb of other issues.
For example, an athlete owes “the team” no more loyalty than the common laborer the average employer. Like an employee, the professional athlete agrees to provide services in terms of performance in exchange for compensation for an agreed upon time.
Is what Jeshurun prefers some sort of economic feudalism? In that particular sort of system, the laborer is not allowed to ply his craft or trade in an environment where he can negotiate to obtain either the working conditions or compensation most suited to his liking. Instead, the human capital is bound to either a particular piece of land or even member of the nobility. Such can only be dissolved through extraordinary legal effort.
Equating that the labor of the athlete should not be for sale because the true Christan has already been bought by Christ doesn't even make sense. These two concepts aren't even related.
One is in the sphere of the economic. The other is in the realm of the soteriological or in relation to salvation. Should messianic metaphors be applied to other aspects of existence that the Scriptures were not intended to be applied to so literally?
For example, if Jesus is the bread of life, should we condemn those connected with the production and consumption of the more mundane conventional baked good? Likewise, since perfect love is found in Christ, should those that desire the emotional and carnal love that flows from the marital relationship with a human spouse be looked down upon in contempt?
Relatedly, Jeshurun emphasizes that “Professional sports stinks of commercialism.” Why is commercialism always spoken of as if it was a bad thing? Fundamentally, commercialism is simply the making available of products and services in exchange for currency.
Jeshurun writes, “Today, by contrast, the commercial aspect of professional sports is all pervasive...Star players are granted million dollar contracts merely for permitting a company to use their name...The names and logos of businesses appear...everywhere. The stadiums are literally plastered with advertisements.”
What in society is not? Even religion has not escaped this tendency. Granted, those such as Jeshurun certainly denounce the likes of Joel Osteen, Brian McLaren or Rick Warren. But don't the fastidious dogmaticians also commercialize in their own ultrapious manner?
For example, these critics might not take in the book sales of these headliners listed above. However, many times before their respective denunciations draw to a close, they will put out their own outstretched hand hoping you will feel guilty enough to deposit at least a financial pittance.
Christians often receive in their mailboxes --- both physical and electronic --- every week numerous direct epistolary fund raising appeals that would put them in the poor house if they complied to the extent demanded by each. Many are from large institutional ministries that would rival global corporations in terms of organization and the number of professionals on the payroll.
However, size is not always an indicator of brashness. For in many cases in terms of ego, at times it can be hard to beat the missionary letter. In these epistles often sent to nearly everyone the missionary has ever known irrespective of whether or not the aspiring itinerant has even extended the targeted common human decency or courtesy in decades, the recipient is expected to reply with a token of financial gratitude for essentially just having had their own particular culture demeaned in favor of a less developed one, had the legitimacy of their own profession of faith called into question because they themselves are not pursuing some career along the path of ministry like the missionary in question, and that this piece of dreck in the kingdom of God is being extended a privilege that they are even worthy of being permitted the opportunity to contribute to this sanctified undertaking.
Jeshurun writes, “What is it that professional sports thrives on? You guessed it --- PRIDE! 'He is the best; WE are the best; WE win the most; hit the best; run the best; the best defense; the best offense; the best goalkeeper.”
Do not professional religionists in their respective spheres strive for this as well? Does not the Christian minister strive to hone their rhetorical craft in order to gain the widest possible audience? Even among ascetics, don't those prone towards acts of humility and mortification attempt to be the best at such? Doesn't every church that forms with the exception of a congregation that sets itself up in a previously unreached area say, “Hey, we are just maybe a smidgen holier or closer to God than the church right down the street”?
Jeshurun further condemns, “Professional sports stars are frequently in the news for their moral perversions, for rape and assorted charges, for public drunkenness, for drug arrests, ugly divorces.” Sadly, how is this appreciably different than what goes on in the circles of professional religionists?
When one ponders religious figures that have fallen into carnality, one cannot help but think of the Roman Catholic molestation allegations that came out probably in the 1990's or the televangelist scandals of the 1980's. However, in profound honesty, hardline Baptist and Reformed leaders have behaved little better. Despite talking a good game, a number have comported themselves in a manner that would make the employees of the fleshpots along the Vegas strip blush.
For example, supporters were shocked to learn of R.C. Sproul Jr.'s confession that his name ranked among those exposed in the Ashley Madison data breech. However, his wandering imagination seems as quaint as Jimmy Carter's Playboy confession that he had lusted in his heart in light of the transgressions alleged regarding others.
Interestingly, these shocking transgressions don't simply transpire among those that happen to profess traditional trinitarian orthodoxy and strive to live by the moral code of spelled out in the great commandments. Rather it seems these acts of lewdness are also committed by those that profess and advocate the most thoroughgoing varieties of the faith invoked to call into question the soteriological sincerity of anyone that fails to aspire to the same level of rigorous external devotion.
For example, most are no doubt familiar with the Duggars. To this family, it simply wasn't enough for the parents to homeschool their children in order to prevent their brainwashing at the hands of secularist progressive educators. Rather, the daughters were expected to wear dungaree skirts dragging the floor while growing their hair nearly as long. And out of well over a dozen children, not a single was seemingly allowed to pursue higher education of any organized variety be it traditional secular, religious, or even apparently unaccredited correspondence training.
Yet from the news that leaked out in conjunction with the Ashley Madison data breach it was learned the one Duggar son didn't just cheat on his wife with call girls famous among enthusiasts for alternative exhibitionist entertainment commonly referred to as “porn”. He also apparently couldn't keep his hands off his prepubescent sisters.
Some might reply that the example of one individual unable to keep his most depraved inclinations in check does not refute the values stood for by the Duggar family as a whole. After all, parents are not responsible for the decisions of their adult children.
However, if one steps back for a moment in reflection, one cannot help but notice that this kind of disturbing pattern appears to be endemic among those upheld as leaders in the sorts of circles in which the Duggars operate and are extolled as the ideal family.
Amongst the homeschool movement, it is not enough for individuals and families to aspire to the Biblical ideal of reserving sex for marriage and trying to avoid particularly raunchy entertainment. One is considered not “good enough” in the eyes of God and man unless one goes all out in pursuit of an extensive list of externalities.
In particular, one is viewed as little better than a brothel whore if you are a young women or a patron of such an establishment if you are a young man if you date rather than allow your parents to select your spouse for you by the age of 25 at the latest. Anyone waiting much later than that to wed is probably some kind of homosexual and guilty of compromising the number of compliant missionaries one will likely procreate as divine breeding stock.
Of course these rules did not seem to apply for decades to Bill Gothard. Despite teaching that the married were to be viewed as superior to the single and that taught nowhere in the pages of Scripture, Gothard himself never married. And really why should he have? For along with being heralded as a superstar of the faith in the theological circles in which he operated, Gothard was regularly having any number of his base desires at least momentarily satisfied by imposing his carnal affections upon one intern after another. Just don't you dare hold hands in a darkened movie theater or kiss your gal goodnight afterwards irrespective of how many toes Gothard is alleged to have sniffed.
Other ministers insisting that hardcore fundamentalism is the only form of Christian life acceptable in the eyes of God haven't done much better in setting a good example. For example, First Baptist Church of Hammond, Indiana and the accompanying Hyles/Anderson College in some respects make Bob Jones University look like Animal House in terms of the extra-Biblical standards imposed upon those that attend. At the height of his power, Pastor Jack Hyles would call the deacons forward before the congregation to basically swear a loyalty oath expressing a willingness to die at their pastor's command.
Had these ecclesiastical functionaries fulfilled this obligation, they would have done so for someone that was probably every bit a pervert as Hugh Heffner. At least Old Heff had the decency to leave God out of his lechery. For you see, it was not enough for Pastor Hyles to get the hots for the church secretary and run off with her in a classic church adultery scandal. Instead, the horny clergyman concocted an elaborate theory that the church secretary was his true celestial companion with whom he shared a bond more profound than that which he shared with his wife. In a gesture of magnanimity not seen most likely since the early days of Mormonism, Hyles was willing to swap wives with the husband of the church secretary if the parties had been amicable to the arrangement (no doubt with a copious and enthusiastic laying on of hands as well).
It will be retorted that Jack Hyles was just a single man that went astray into these temptations following a life of dedication as a servant of the Lord in the Independent Fundamentalist movement. He cannot be scrutinized as some kind of example from which patterns or theories of prediction can be deduced.
Maybe not. Yet one cannot help but begin to speculate if something is happening here systematically when Hyle's successor and son-in-law Jack Schaap fell into a number of behaviors nearly as shocking and perhaps even more so. After all, similar moral failings are invoked by Fundamentalist pulpiteers as proof regarding the theological interpretations and ecclesiastical traditions they find distasteful such as Roman Catholicism.
Given his faults, one has to give Jack Hyles at least a bit of credit that he had the decency to prefer skirts closer to his own age or at least over the age of consent. For it seems that his son-in-law preferred to let his freak flag fly in the company of minors or around those over which he was in a position of educational authority.
The first sign something was amiss was when Schaap spoke before a solemn assembly at his church's Bible college about the importance of shaft polishing. Perhaps it must also be pointed out that for rhetorical emphasis the oration was accompanied by a gesture more suited for a bawdy Saturday night comedy club rather than a church sanctuary. For it was not that much different than what got Pee Wee Herman arrested at a porn theater in the early 1990's.
Yet it would seem that Pastor Schaap was more than a homiletical exhibitionist deriving his jollies from pulpit shenanigans. Seems that he also, like Bill Gothard, could not resist the allure of young maidens. As a result, the defrocked Schaap now sits in a prison cell for going after jail bait hook, line, and sinker.
It would be reasonable to ask what does all of that have to do with professional athletics, idolatry, and why Christians ought to have nothing to do with such pursuits? It was a detailed way of pointing out that a number of those very behaviors and depravities that Mr. Jeshurun rightfully condemns taking place in the arena of compensated sports also occur in the realm of structured spirituality (or what might more commonly be referred to as organized religion) that the dogmatically enthusiastic such as Mr. Jeshurun suggest that we not only make an important part of our lives but rather must be in explicit exclusive constant consideration of during every waking moment.
As such, if his suggestion is that as a morally concerned or ethically aware individual that we ought not have anything to do with something where a number of its foremost practitioners or adherents end up committing unseemly or even heinous acts, does that principle also apply to outwardly manifested expressions of religion as well? After all, to the individual raised in the fear and admonition of the Lord, the ensnaring temptations of sports are rather obvious to spot. It is often those in life's more explicitly spiritual arena more likely to lure even the most devout slowly into compromise and even outright doctrinal error.
Seemingly the Christian is obligated to remain part of the visible church in terms of participating in organized religion despite the numerous dangers prowling for victims in the shadowy corners. Then why can't the believer utilize a similar variety of judicious discernment in regards to professional athletics?
One ought to indeed be cautious of the extremes to which sports is taken by some in contemporary postmodern American society. However, nearly the same thing could be said of a religious devotion so encompassing so as to crowd out the other good things that the Father in Heaven has created or allowed to develop as part of His world.
By Frederick Meekins