All this boxing talk has me thinking…
I’ve mentioned before Bill Baker’s outstanding Playing with God, which I cannot say enough good things about. Eric Mazur nailed it on the head in his review for The Journal of Religion and Popular Culture.
Many will be relieved to see that Baker’s work is written in the style of aI used Playing with God in my “Religion and Sports” course, and can attest that it works quite well in the classroom. As the weeks went by, though, it became clear that, as with any book of this nature, it is as much about the historiography of religion and sports as it is about Baker’s individual contribution to the discussion. Thus, I discovered that the historical account of religion and sports revolves around muscular Christianity, its rise to prominence, widespread influence, and lasting mark.
retired historian more motivated to tell a good story than the need to justify a
methodological approach or theoretical perspective. It reads well, is
interesting, and is informative without being smothered by jargon, making it
well suited for undergraduate classes in religion and sports, or religion in
American culture generally. For those for whom an absence of heavy theory
is a liability rather than an asset, this work can easily be supplemented by any
worthwhile history of American religion.
To be sure, Baker makes proper mention of Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, and Native Americans. But these groups seem always to be set against a muscular Christian backdrop. In the chapter "Teammates and Soul Mates," for example, Baker makes use of Julie Byrne's O God of Players and NBA coach Phil Jackson's Sacred Hoops. But the chapter concludes with a look at the current crop of Christian athletes who, Baker suggests, pay more attention to displaying their faith than living it. The author elaborates in the conclusion, lamenting that sports “has lost the moral compass that for more than a century taught Americans to honor boundaries, play by the rules, and work together for a common good.” Such was the basic agenda of muscular Christians that Baker believes contemporary athletes would do well to re-discover.
Baker's point is well taken. But the book's content makes me wonder about “everybody else” who lived in the muscular Christian era. I’ll offer one example. In 1908, pugilist Jack Johnson knocked out Tommy Burns to become the first black heavyweight champion. Brash, controversial, creative, and immeasurably talented, Johnson was also a self-described churchman and member of the Methodist Church. In 1910, after his mother died, Johnson praised her memory from the pulpits of black churches throughout America, imploring audiences to cherish the guidance of their own mothers. Despite his moral indiscretions (he drank, smoked, frequented brothels, etc.), Johnson might very well have been an influential Christian athlete for American blacks, much like Amos Alonzo Stagg was for whites.
But Johnson’s religious history, along with many others like his, awaits attention.