Beyond Muscular Christianity

Licensed by Creative Commons (Sean Winters)

If I could do it all over again, I might be a sports historian.

Growing up, I was an indifferent athlete but an inveterate fan: able to play just about every sport, but none of them well (though I did manage to letter twice in baseball, which tells you a lot about my alma mater‘s baseball program in the early 1990s); thrilled every time I visited someone with access to ESPN. Early in my computing days, I test-drove our new word processor by writing a family newspaper that was surprisingly heavy on college hockey coverage. After encountering a Bill James book in our local library, I spent adolescent winters inventing my own baseball players and teams just so I could play out games in my head and compile statistics. In high school I forced my father and two uncles to join me in a four-person fantasy football league, mostly because I had to have a team to bear the awesome name of “the Chris Crosses” (this was 1992, mind).

As with many other of my interests, this one was pursued entirely independently from my religious beliefs and practices. Then my lifelong passion for sports reached its lowest point even as I was developing into a European and diplomatic historian and starting to think through what it might mean to be a Christian teaching and writing about history. (And if you’re looking to lose interest in sports, I highly recommend going back in time and being a Minnesota Twins fan between 1993-2000.)

But soon after coming to Bethel, I got it in my head that I should develop a history of baseball course, looking over the great tensions of US history through the prism of the National Pastime. Alas, I’ve yet to find space in my courseload to fill with such a class, but noodling with that notion in the environment of an evangelical college has led me to be a bit more aware of Christian perspectives on sports.

While (speaking as a non-specialist) it doesn’t seem that religion has preoccupied sports historians in the same way as race, labor/capital, gender, nationalism, and other topics, certain religious themes do pop up in even general histories of sports. #1 being a late Victorian movement known as “muscular Christianity,” which strongly influenced everything ca. 1900 from major league baseball to college football to the revival of the Olympic Games and the invention of basketball.

As it is described by scholars like Clifford Putney, “muscular Christianity” peaked from 1880-1920 (though the phrase originated in 1850s England) as a response to at least two problems supposedly afflicting Anglo-American Protestantism.

First, advocates like minister Josiah Strong, psychologist G. Stanley Hall, and some guy named Teddy Roosevelt “hoped to energize the churches and to counteract the supposedly enervating effects of urban living. To realize their aims they promulgated competitive sports, physical education, and other staples of modern-day life” (Putney, Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920, p. 1). As I’ve noted in a recent post, baseball especially tapped into an urban yearning for the (more healthful) countryside.

One other leading Christian figure associated with such goals was the revivalist Dwight Moody; however, Putney notes that Moody was out of step with other muscular Christians in one hugely important respect: he did not denigrate the role of women in the church.

For the most significant problem that Strong, Hall, and others sought to address by promoting a new, athletic ideal of Christian manhood was what they termed the “woman peril”:

Believers in this peril were concerned not only about the disproportionate number of women in church but also about the “feminizing” influence that churchwomen supposedly had on various aspects of Victorian religion, including denominational hymn books, which muscular Christians found overly sentimental; popular images of Jesus, which they viewed as overly feminine; and the ministry, which they believed was full of effeminate men. (p. 3)

Jason Noble Pierce at a 1924 football game at Fort Benning
Rev. Jason Noble Pierce in 1924, handing out the game ball on behalf of one of his parishioners (Pres. Calvin Coolidge) at the start of a football game at Fort Benning - Library of Congress

As another example of such concerns, see a 1912 booklet entitled The Masculine Power of Christ, by the Congregationalist pastor Jason Noble Pierce. It begins, “How much of a man was Jesus Christ? Was he distinctively manly and virile, or was he effeminate and weak?” (p. 1) Later, Pierce answers, “The life of Jesus is at every point suggestive of strength. He withstood the severest temptations. A man’s tempations are different from a woman’s” (p. 11).

Re: Jesus being “manly and virile”… As Philip Yancey has noted, for all the variety of images of Jesus among the world’s Christians today, there are certain constants: he is seen as tall, handsome, and in good shape, a “perfect specimen of humanity.” But such are modern assumptions not necessarily consistent with Scripture. Yancey points out that many medievals believed Jesus was a leper himself, and some earlier Christians thought him a hunchback. (Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew, p. 87 — on the following page he adds that Jesus, who cried openly and shared his fears with others, “lived out an ideal for masculine fulfillment that nineteen centuries later still eludes most men.”) Garry Wills assumes that Jesus would have been in the “slight and frail” mode of holy men like Francis of Assisi, in part because “Hurt people are not drawn to the aggressively healthy, to the televangelist’s plummy voice, the fire-hose gush of bonhomie…. God’s chosen are the suffering ones, whose inner luminescence is emphasized by the fragility of its container. The idea that Jesus was a great athlete or captain of industry or persuasive salesman does not square with the fact that he was too weak to carry his own cross, though that was a normal part of the penalty of crucifixion (Lk 23.26) (Wills, What Jesus Meant, pp. 22-23).

Now, I don’t want to overlook the positive contributions of muscular Christianity. First, much of their non-sporting vigor was directed at philanthropy and social reform. (Pierce himself saw Jesus’ concern for the poor as a chief example of his strength, and dedicated part of his booklet to an attack on child labor.) Second, muscular Christianity pushed back against the ascetic tradition, which, at its most radical and unbiblical, viewed the body itself as evil. Third, it had an educational dimension that, to its credit, refused to treat intellectual formation as separate from or superior to the development of spirit and body.

James Naismith
James Naismith (1861-1939)

The exemplar here is Dr. James Naismith, the muscular Christian who created basketball. “Not content with inventing this new sport,” points out theologian Alister McGrath, “Naismith developed the notion of coaching, which he viewed as a form of spiritual mentoring or discipling.” But Naismith’s holistic philosophy of education was itself embedded in a particular concern for manhood, based as it was “on the idea that sport was in itself an activity embodying the values of Protestantism, so that basketball [he also invented volleyball, I should add] could be seen as a means of transferring, actualizing, and nourishing Christian character within a masculine context” (McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution, p. 370).

The muscular Christians constantly walked a fine line: they sought to cultivate virtue, but not so much that being virtuous would sound, well, virginal.

Christy Mathewson
Christy Mathewson (1880-1925) - Library of Congress

Take the greatest muscular Christian in baseball history, pitcher Christy “The Christian Gentleman” Mathewson. Sportswriter Hugh Fullerton later called him a “clean, right-living man,” so full of integrity that umpires would trust him to make close calls if they weren’t sure, but he hastened to add that the pitcher was “100 percent male he-man. He smoked a bit, drank a bit, at times gambled and swore” (quoted in Donald K. McKim, “‘Matty’ and ‘Ol’ Pete’: Divergent American Heroes,” in The Faith of Fifty Million: Baseball, Religion, and American Culture, eds. Christopher H. Evans and William R. Herzog II, p. 59). Mathewson’s own wife insisted that he was a good man but not a “goody-goody.”

Compared to its characterization of a “manly” Christ and its hysterical ranting against a “woman peril” in Christianity (a theme that still echoes today), the simple enthusiasm that muscular Christianity had for the beneficial effects of heated competition may seem a relatively innocuous legacy for modern-day Christian athletes and coaches. But ethicist Eric Gregory suggests that Christians should feel more ambivalent about sport:

It promotes sinfulness, it encourages pride, it causes us to demean others, to lose sight of higher things in a false struggle for glory. On the other hand, as iron sharpens iron, competition seems necessary to aspire to excellence. Aquinas talks about how our passions, our human nature, thrive under pressure, adversity and challenge. I think it is an interesting theological question whether or not competition is part of the Fall rather than God’s good creation.

Gregory is quoted near the end of a recent New York Times column by writer Mark Oppenheimer, the featured subject of which is a 51-year old Episcopalian seminary student named Sam Owen, who played tennis competitively as a teenager and then returned to the game at the same time he answered the call to the priesthood.

Remarkably, on the same day of the U.S. Open the New York Times ran both the Oppenheimer column and an article about a Catholic priest from Nigeria by way of Wisconsin who moonlights as an umpire at tennis tournaments.

Oppenheimer found Owen struggling to navigate the tensions between Christianity and sports:

I worry about whether I am being a Christian out on the court. How can you be Christlike when you want to beat the hell out of your opponent?…

The idea is that as Christians we have to love everybody. But that’s not realistic. There are difficult people and difficult interactions. And tennis is a microcosm of life.

Owen also worried that the tendency of athletic competition to inspire rage would make it difficult to fulfill Paul’s injunction to live peaceably with others, so he strives to bring “Christ to the court — that can be honoring the guy who hits a good shot. And being generous with line calls. Call the close ones in. So maybe you lose a few!”

What do you think: Should Christians hesitate to take part in sports? Which Christian athlete or coach provides the best model of such participation?

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