That Americans take to sports with a spiritual fervor is no secret. Athletics has even been called a civil religion for how it permeates our daily lives as we chase our own dreams of glory or watch others compete. Few would deny our national devotion to sports; however, many would gloss over it as all of a piece. To do that,as William J. Baker shows us, is to miss the fascinating variety of experiences at the intersection of sports and religion―and the ramifications of such on a national citizenry defined, as Baker writes, “by the team they cheer on Saturday and the church they attend on Sunday.” With nods to modern and ancient history, Baker looks at the ever-changing relationship between faith and sports through vignettes about devout athletes, coaches, and journalists.
Of Gods and Games offers an accessible entrée into some of the larger issues embedded in American culture’s sports–religion connection. Baker first considers two Christian athletes who have engaged sports and religion on fundamentally different terms: Shelly Pennefather, one of the dominant women’s basketball players of the late 1980s, who left the sport for life as a cloistered nun; and Heisman Trophy winner Tim Tebow, who has used his college and pro football careers as a platform for evangelizing. In discussing basketball coach Dean Smith (University of North Carolina) and football coaches Steve Spurrier (University of South Carolina) and Bill McCartney (University of Colorado) Baker looks at how each strove to honor faith amid sometimes complicated personal lives and ever-crushing professional demands. Finally, Baker looks at how faith inspired such sportswriters as Grantland Rice, who sprinkled his stories with religious allusions, and Watson Spoelstra, who struck a deal with God at his daughter’s deathbed (she recovered) and subsequently devoted his off-hours and retirement years to charity work.
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