Thursday, January 27, 2011

Idolatry and Basketball

Once, when a friend of mine used the word "idolatry," a high school coach complained that he was always using "big words." My friend replied, "It's not as big as the word "basketball." Perspective is everything.

Like many things in life, sports can be good. It provides exercise, fellowship, entertainment, and more. But, like many things, it can also turn into something that is harmful. We have been warned that it's possible to gain the world while losing our soul. So, while sports are not unique in this regard, they do provide an example of how good things can become bad things when they're not kept in their proper perspective. Anything can become an idol, and idols usually emerge gradually to occupy a greater and greater priority in our lives. Tickets to the big game on Sunday are very tempting.

Christians have long ago given up being concerned about all this. The movie Chariots of Fire portrayed what used to be a genuine struggle for many Christians: whether to participate in a sporting event on Sunday, the common day of rest and worship for Christians. Today the movie seems quaint, and the first reaction of Christian and non-Christian alike to Eric Liddell's dilemma is, "Lighten up, Eric. Just go to the early service!" These days many Christian athletes play only on Sundays, and are watched by millions of other Christians who rush home from church (or even skip church if necessary) to watch them play. [Mark Galli, "The Prodigal Sports Fan: There is Hope for the Idolater," Christianity Today, April 1, 2005.]

I know, it's not polite to raise such questions, but polity aside; it does seem to be a question that Jesus might ask. The question is not really one about what we enjoy. While worship does bring its own kind of joy, it's not the same kind of joy that sports or other kinds of activities bring. The question is more about our priorities and our duty. Every decision sends a message about what is most important; we're always teaching our children something.

The sports god is an enticing deity: he offers splendid moments of transcendence while never demanding that we take up our cross, forgive our enemies, or serve the poor. No wonder that we sometimes spend too much time with this benign god.
   But if we've met the true God, we'll eventually be disappointed by this idol. In the end, a god who makes no demands is a god who doesn't love. He only wants to use us, not mature us into the image of Christ. So, we prodigal sports fans will find ourselves returning to the Father time and again, seeking forgiveness for falling for the promise of transcendence without holiness. [Mark Galli, "The Thirst of the 24/7 Fan: Understanding the Idolatry in Sports," Christianity Today, April 1, 2005.]


  1. One side of this is well presented, but how does Roman 14:5 and Galatians 4:9-11 apply? Now that would be an interesting discussion.

  2. Neither of these passages abrogate the priority of corporate worship, and, when taken in context, neither of them apply to this topic.

  3. This comment has been removed by the author.