As we enter the final month of 2022, it’s a good time to look back and reflect on important new books that have been published this year. For those interested in sports and Christianity, five books in particular stand out. These books range in focus from the practical to the academic. But all of them provide thoughtful perspectives and reflections on the intersection of sports and Christianity.
Check out a few brief thoughts for each book below, and see if one or two (or all!) of them catch your interest.
Randall Balmer, Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America (University of North Carolina Press)
Randall Balmer is a well-known historian of American religion. In this excellent and thoroughly enjoyable book he turns his attention to sports, examining the way religion shaped the origins and development of the four major team sports in the United States and Canada: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey.
Check out Christianity Today for my full review. But here is the heart of my assessment:
“Even if Passion Plays does not offer a comprehensive historical narrative, it is a compelling and absorbing book. Balmer approaches his subject from an academic perch yet with a personal touch; he is understanding yet critical of what he calls the “wonderful and enchanted world” of sports. More suggestive and impressionistic than definitive, Balmer’s posture is one of wonder and curiosity as he revels in the potential implications of his findings. It’s that journeying spirit and the strength of Balmer’s clear and accessible writing that make this book shine.
For Christians in the United States who want a better understanding of our sports-obsessed culture, this is a book worth reading. It provides a lively introduction to the historical origins of the sports that we watch and play, while also inviting deeper reflection into the relationship between our religious practices, our sporting devotions, and the social worlds that we share with others.”
Matt Hoven, J.J. Carney, and Max T. Engel, On the Eighth Day: A Catholic Theology of Sport (Cascade Books)
Yes, we at the Faith & Sports Institute are still Protestants and proud of it. Still, On The Eighth Day should be on the book list for anyone interested in the sports and theology conversation. It fits in well as a companion with several other books on the subject that have come out over the past decade, including Robert Ellis’s The Games People Play: Theology, Religion, and Sport (2014), Marcia Mount Shoop’s Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports (2014), and Erik Daily’s The Fit Shall Inherit the Earth: A Theology of Sport and Fitness (2018).
The book is co-written by a group of three scholars: Matt Hoven, a professor of religion for St. Joseph’s College at the University of Alberta; Jay Carney, a professor of theology at Creighton University; and Max Engel, an education professor at Creighton. It’s informed by an interdisciplinary approach that draws on scholarship from theology, religious studies, sociology, and more. While it has academic depth, it’s also written in a clear and accessible way.
To get a taste of the book, check out this blog post and interview with our friends at the SportFaithLife blog.
Gary Scott Smith, Strength for the Fight: The Life and Faith of Jackie Robinson (Eerdmans)
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s death, which makes historian Gary Scott Smith’s new religious biography of the baseball great especially timely. Although we already have a 2017 religious biography of Jackie Robinson written by Michael Long and Chris Lamb, this is still a solid book that deserves a wide reading, especially from anyone interested in the connections between sport and religion in American history.
You can check out my full thoughts in a review I wrote for Religion & Politics. Here’s my big takeaway:
“While Smith provides a great deal of breadth, the depth of his analysis is sometimes lacking. Smith presents a limited contextual understanding of sport history scholarship in particular, and he leans on other writer’s words often, quoting their assessments rather than offering his own interpretation….In Smith’s broader body of work, Robinson is simply the next in the line of great men to receive the religious biography treatment.
Still, despite its limitations, Strength for the Fight is essential reading for anyone who wants a better understanding of Robinson’s Christian faith or a new angle on an often-told American story. With wide-ranging source material, Smith’s book makes it clear that we should not overlook the complex and nuanced ways that the combination of religion and sport have shaped public life. Rather than presenting competing versions of Robinson—one grounded in 1947 and one in 1972—Strength for the Fight shows that Robinson’s Christian faith was not at odds with his social justice activism, but instead was its source.”
Brian Smith, The Christian Athlete: Glorifying God in Sports (David C. Cook)
Brian is a long-time Athletes in Action staff member who is a leading writer and content creator for the organization. He has years of experience with the practical work of sports ministry, and he has also spent years thinking carefully about how Christian faith connects with sports.
I was proud to blurb this book when it was released, and here’s what I said: “One of the things I love about Brian’s writing is that it comes from years of experience as an athlete and a minister to and with athletes. In this book, Brian draws on that experience to provide a thoughtful and practical guide to the questions, concerns, and issues that many Christian athletes wrestle with as they try to live out their faith in sports. The Christian Athlete is an excellent addition to the growing conversation on Christian engagement with sports, useful for both athletes and those who work with them.”
This summer, FSI also developed a unique online certificate class centered on The Christian Athlete. You can learn more about the FSI Online Certificate Program at baylor.edu/truett/FSIonline. And you can keep up with Brian’s writing at his website, The Christian Athlete.
Jeffrey Scholes and Randall Balmer, eds. Religion and Sport in North America: Critical Essays for the 21st Century (Routledge)
Of all the books on the list, this one fits most squarely into the academic category. It’s not the type of book you buy for the sports fan in your life so that they can enjoy a page-turner over the holidays. Rather, it’s the type of book you buy for the academic (or would-be academic) in your life— so long as that person is interested in the study of sports and religion.
Featuring a wide range of scholars from a variety of disciplines, this edited collection provides a snapshot of some of the latest academic work on religion and sports. You’ll get to read pieces by more established scholars, including Art Remillard, Annie Blazer, Onaje Woodbine, and Terry Shoemaker, as well as work from younger/emerging scholars like Jason Smith, Zachary Smith, and Cody Musselman.
I’m one of the newer crop of scholars included, too. My essay, “There Is Talk Of Black Power; Christian Athletes and the Revolt of the Black Athlete,” takes a look at the ways evangelical sports ministries responded to athlete-led civil rights activism in the 1960s.