In the first installment of this series, I discussed how sports provide clear examples of excellence. In this post I want to highlight another significant way in which sports are valuable.
2. Sports have aesthetic value. Why is it that we are so drawn to sports as spectators? Why are we willing to spend hours of our valuable time going to games and watching them on TV? And why are we so enthralled by game highlights, even of plays that we’ve seen hundreds of times, from Franco Harris’s so-called “immaculate reception” in the 1972 NFL playoffs to Bill Buckner’s booted groundball in the 1986 World Series? Why are Peyton Manning, Michael Jordan, Maria Sharapova, and Tiger Woods household names, even celebrities? I can sum up the answer in one word: beauty. No, I’m not referring here to the physical appearance of these people. The point is that their athletic performances are aesthetically pleasing. We all are naturally drawn to things that are beautiful, and the best athletes satisfy this longing by the precision, efficiency, and even elegance of their performances.
In one sense, this is another facet of excellence within sports which, given Paul’s mandate in Philippians 4, warrants our attention as spectators. But beauty is a particularly important biblical category and thus deserves special attention. This is evident in the Genesis creation account, where God’s first recorded value judgment is an aesthetic judgment. When he declares of his creation “it is good”—repeated no less than seven times in the first chapter—he is calling the world beautiful. Divine concern for aesthetics is also clear from the construction of the tabernacle, as he makes painstaking artistic requirements for the workers and specially endows Bezalel and Oholiab with artistic talents to bring the plans to fruition. Thirdly, the form of Scripture itself is a testament to God’s concern for beauty and aesthetics. The Bible is an artistic masterpiece, a showcase of literary genres, including poetry, parables, song lyrics, and even drama (cf. Ezekiel 4:1-3) and featuring a wide array of literary conventions, including irony, metaphor, simile, and hyperbole. I should add that even the phrase “the glory of God” is aesthetic language, as this refers to divine beauty in its most expansive sense. It appears that the whole point of human existence—to glorify God—is itself an aesthetic concern.
So what does this have to do with a Christian view of sports? Simply this: If beauty is a fundamental biblical concern, then the fact that sports provide vivid instances of beauty should draw our interest as Christians. This, of course, is a strong argument for Christian involvement in the arts (though, given divine creativity, this should need no argument). To lack involvement in the arts is to live a truncated life (and, I would claim, also to be morally stunted). To recognize the significance of aesthetic values is also to see the significance of sports for this reason. I suppose there will always be those who fail to see the beauty in an alley-oop, a triple-axle, or a perfectly executed suicide-squeeze play. But then again, there are also those who are unmoved by Pachabel’s Canon in D, Shakespeare’s Henry V, and Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. In each instance the failure to perceive beauty reveals a flaw in the observer, not what is observed. What such a person needs is to be educated about the subject, whether it is film, a fugue, baseball or badminton.