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A Review of
Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports
Marcia Mount Shoop
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2014
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Reviewed by Bernie Schock
In Touchdowns for Jesus, Marcia Mount Shoop offers a unique perspective on the inside world of big-time college athletics, especially big-time football. She is a trained theologian (PhD in religious studies from Emory University), an ordained Presbyterian minister, and her husband has coached in the NFL and NCAA Division I football.
Even though Marcia Mount Shoop and I may not agree on all issues, I appreciate her efforts to find “God’s fingerprints” in the world of sports. She believes that God is involved in complex ways in the details of our lives—even our sporting lives—and she is on a “quest for truth that can both convict and transform us.”
Part of this quest is a search for why some of our deepest emotional outpourings are found in the sports world. Why do some of us care so deeply about the outcomes of these games? When I was a young man living in Dallas, Texas I became a fan of the Dallas Cowboys. When they lost the 1971 Super Bowl game to the Baltimore Colts, I was devastated. How could they lose when the defense had seven—SEVEN—takeaways? A few days later I became angry with myself: Why was I so torn by a mere football game? That question initiated a personal search to understand the meaning of sports for me and our culture. (See, for instance my recent book, Raising Champions: How to Help Your Child Grow Through Sports).
Though she believes our involvement in sports provides a mirror of “our most tenacious and dangerous distortions,” this is not just a rant condemning big-time sports. She wants to reveal what is wrong with these sports while pointing to what good is possible. This is commendable because she and her husband have seen the ugly side of sports: “people threatening John at restaurants, making obscene gestures at him at traffic lights, calling her house with threatening phone calls when the team didn’t cover the point spread,” etc.
In the midst of one of these ugly experiences, a Christian friend tried to console her with the thought that we live in a fallen world. When she followed this advice, it left her “with a growing disdain and anger toward the human race.” Later she concluded: “That didn’t feel good to me. My life in God’s mystery calls me over and over again to find spaces of generosity.” I find her response to her friend’s advice a bit perplexing. My own experience as a Christian is that it is freeing to be reminded that I live in a fallen world so that I have reasonable expectations about how other people will treat me. Though I can hope that they will recognize and allow God to transform their sin, I am prepared to live in a world where that often doesn’t happen.
She later expressed concern that we not see people “as cookie-cutter examples of human fallenness.” When I label people as fallen, though, I don’t expect them to express their fallenness in the same manner. As she rightly observes “everything from our genetic makeup, to the cultures we inhabit, to our unique habits and preferences condition our entanglement with the world.”
I understand Mount Shoop’s desire to be generous toward others when they sin. Traditionally Christians have talked about hating sin and loving sinners. This is still a valid distinction to make so we aren’t self-righteously condemning others’ sins while ignoring our own.
In her chapter “Man Up” she expresses concern for how masculinity (and femininity) is defined in the world of big-time football. Though I mostly agree with her definition of traditional masculinity in American culture (35), I wish she had also defined a biblical manhood, possibly beginning with Jesus’ statement concerning the two greatest commands: loving God and loving others. As Christians we have not done enough to define what it means to love in the sports world.
In her chapter “Touchdowns for Jesus”, Mount Shoop does not have much positive to say about the ministries of Athletes in Action and the Fellowship of Christian Athletes. She believes they define the faith too narrowly, where “one way of believing is held up as the only right way.” (Was it in an FCA Bible study that she was asked to leave because she expressed a different view of Christian marriage?) My experience with FCA has been much more positive—it helped me and many of my athletic friends find a relationship with Christ that we didn’t find in our churches.
Mount Shoop is also disturbed by Christians who want to trivialize what happens on the football field. She counters: “If Jesus doesn’t care about football, our love of sports becomes at best a guilty pleasure and at worst a sinful waste of time.” Instead she believes “that if Jesus were here today . . . , he would make it his business to be well acquainted with something that holds our attention and elicits our passion the way big-time sports do. I have a feeling that Jesus would be able to inhabit football stadiums much like he would inhabit modern-day churches – with compassion, with hard truth, with an offer of healing, it was some parabolic wisdom that would knock your socks off.” To this I can only say, “Amen!”
The author is also troubled by the potential for a Christian coach to abuse his power over his athletes: “If a coach in a state-funded university tells a player that he would be playing better if he would accept Jesus as your Savior, that is an abuse of power. If someone addresses the team at a mandatory meeting at a state university and tells them the team will win more games if they all follow Jesus, that is an abuse of power. When someone abuses power to pressure people about their faith everyone is diminished.” I agree that when such things happen—does it happen often?—it doesn’t help people build a genuine relationship with God.
In her final chapter Mount Shoop lays out a plan for the redemption of big-time sports so that sports can offer us “the gifts of vitality, of community, and of transformation.” Her emphasis on building healthy, long term relationships reflects a Biblical perspective. Through sports “we learn to carry each other’s burdens. We learn to do our part for something greater than our own self-interest. We connect with others in ways we can’t in other contexts. Sports can bring people together across class, race, and life circumstances.”
No one doubts that Americans have a passion for sports. But not many have sought to understand roots of that passion. Marcia Mount Shoop’s book is important because it seeks to answer that question.
Bernie Schock teaches at the University of Sioux Falls and is author of: Raising Champions: Helping Your Child Grow Through Sports (2014) and Parents, Kids and Sports (1987).
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C. Christopher Smith is the founding editor of The Englewood Review of Books. He is also author of a number of books, including most recently How the Body of Christ Talks: Recovering the Practice of Conversation in the Church (Brazos Press, 2019). Connect with him online at: C-Christopher-Smith.com