Playing for God

Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry

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Annie Blazer
North American Religions
  • New York, NY: 
    NYU Press
    , July
     2015.
     256 pages.
     $30.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9781479818136.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

In Playing for God Annie Blazer introduces readers to the world of evangelical Christian sporting and sports ministry. In this multi-sited ethnography Blazer takes readers on tour with an Athletes in Action (AIA) women’s basketball team. She exposes readers to the buzz of activity at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA) summer camp. And she leads readers onto the soccer pitch for a season alongside the Charlotte Lady Eagles, an elite and explicitly Christian women’s soccer team. Blazer uses these varied experiences of Christian athleticism to explain key concepts and core beliefs of American evangelicalism and interweaves a history of sports ministry to add context. The result is a well-focused ethnography that demonstrates the breadth and longevity of evangelical sporting culture. 

Throughout the monograph Blazer makes the case that evangelicalism’s mid-century engagement with popular culture—referred to as “engaged orthodoxy”—generated a “flexible evangelicalism that allows for a far wider range of beliefs and practices than the founders of sports ministry imagined” (11). A major thrust of Blazer’s argument is that sports ministry initiatives have unintended consequences, shaping the tenets of evangelicalism in new and unanticipated ways. Such changes include shifting convictions about traditional gender roles for women and reevaluations of homosexuality as a sin. Blazer dedicates the second half of her book to exploring the impact of sports ministry on evangelicalism’s core beliefs, paying particular attention to gender and sexuality. 

In the first half of Playing for God Blazer organizes her chapters around prevalent themes and discourses within American evangelicalism like conversion and witnessing, embodied knowledge and transcendent intimacy, and spiritual warfare and Christlikeness. 

While providing well-chosen ethnographic moments to illustrate these themes, she simultaneously traces a shift in sports ministry from its initial outreach strategy of securing celebrating endorsement in the 1950s, to understanding sport as a resource for Christian worship in its own right. This shift was largely motivated by what Blazer calls “the problem of winning.” Winning posed, and continues to pose, an obstacle for Christian athletes. Will potential converts still listen to the testimonies of a celebrity athlete if he or she ceases winning? If winning is the only way to gain a large platform for spreading the gospel, then is it imperative to win at all costs? Should sportsmanship be sacrificed in order to win?

The problem of winning pushed athletes to locate spiritual fulfillment and connection with God in their embodied experiences. This reorientation allowed athletes to claim a divine purpose regardless of a game’s outcome. The new paradigm of godly sport also provided athletes with a new way to interpret their individual sporting experiences. The sensations of purposeful pain and pleasure, for example, came to signify an intimate connection with God. Playing sports, therefore, became an avenue to both demonstrate one’s faith and to praise God. As one of Blazer’s interlocutors puts it, “I’ve had the joy of soccer since I was a kid. But since then, I learned that this gift came from God and that I can glorify God by using my talents” (188). Blazer explains, “This is significantly different than understanding athletics as a platform for evangelizing because understanding athletic pleasure as godly joy positions sport as religiously important in itself rather than as a means to share the gospel” (188, italics in original).In short, the efforts and innovations of sports ministry made playing sports a way to feel closer to God.

The shift from celebrity endorsement to a focus on the individual player’s experience invited players to interpret all sport-related sensations through an evangelical framework. With the body as a site of knowledge players engaged in spiritual warfare, fending off muscle soreness and fatigue as signs of the devil, and striving to embody a Christlikeness on the field. Some feelings derived from athletic pursuits were not as easily squared with evangelical beliefs, however. Same-sex desire among teammates and frustration with male authority plagued some of the women who had grown accustomed to being in leadership roles or who had sustained experiences of physical closeness and intimacy with other women. Blazer found that not all evangelical athletes were willing to adhere to evangelical ideals of female submission, nor were they willing to condemn homosexuality outright. Such instances prompted evangelical women to negotiate their gender performance and to challenge their evangelical convictions, changing them in subtle yet significant ways.

Perhaps one unintended consequence of this otherwise stellar ethnography is the way whiteness remains an unnamed and implicit aspect of American evangelicalism throughout the text. Blazer identifies her subjects first and foremost as woman, evangelical, and athlete. But race undoubtedly informs her subjects’ self-understanding as well. How, then, does race intersect with the other identities Blazer so attentively dissects throughout the text? I draw attention to the implicit whiteness within Playing for God not to suggest that all of Blazer’s interlocutors were white. To the contrary, Blazer notes in the introduction that several players on the AIA women’s basketball team were African American. Yet an analysis of race is missing from Blazer’s work, leaving a color-blind rendering of evangelicalism that feeds the larger historiographical trend of ignoring race within American evangelicalism. A challenge for Blazer and others writing about American evangelicals is to consider what an analysis of race might teach us about the racial imaginaries of American evangelicalism? And how, in this instance, does race impact sports ministry?

Despite this oversight Blazer delivers an eminently readable book with content that will be of interest to undergraduate students and senior scholars alike. Blazer’s accessible writing style and pedagogical tone makes it suitable for circulation in the classroom and beyond academic circles, allowing readers to clearly understand evangelical concepts even as they change before their very eyes.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Cody Musselman is a doctoral student in Religious Studies at Yale University.

Date of Review: 
November 30, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Annie Blazer is Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary (VA).

Keywords: 

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