A Review of Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America

by Randall Balmer
Hardback: University of North Carolina Press, 2022
The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley

In Passion Plays Randall Balmer explores how religion connects with the origins and evolution of team sports in North America and why– especially among white males– the passionate devotion to sports has surpassed allegiance to traditional religious practice.

Passion Plays : How Religion Shaped Sports in North America

Balmer is the author of 17 other books, including last year’s Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right, in which he debunks what he calls the abortion myth, arguing that race– not abortion– fueled the growth of the religious right. A historian of American religion, he is the John Phillips Professor of Religion at Dartmouth College and a frequent commentator on religion, politics, and culture in an array of U.S. publications. Passion Plays is a departure from his other work, which is primarily about the history and politicalization of evangelicalism in America.

In the introduction, Balmer makes the point that “competitive team sports in North America developed at a time of rapid social, economic, political, demographic—and religious—change” (3) during which the Industrial Revolution altered patterns of work and male association. As workers transitioned from farming to factory and office jobs, they socialized around sports, both as players and as spectators. Telegraph and trains made intercollegiate and professional leagues possible. The Canadian confederation and the Civil War in the U.S. also influenced the development of team sports. Balmer’s analysis includes examples of how various team sports addressed issues of ethnicity, race, gender and sexuality.

Balmer devotes a chapter to each of four team sports—baseball, football, hockey, and basketball—chosen because of their popularity at both the collegiate and professional levels. He links baseball with the industrial revolution, football with the Civil War, hockey with the formation of the Canadian confederation, and basketball with urbanization. In each chapter he explores “the beginnings, evolution, and symbolism” of these sports in ways that  “suggest that the increased passion for sport in recent decades has, for many, displaced traditional expressions of religion” (6).

The book is jam-packed with stories from Balmer’s extensive research, evidenced in a 24-page section of endnotes and 17-page index. Readers will find a wealth of quotes enriching the book. My favorite excerpt, from the discussion of moral debates about football during its collegiate beginnings, was from Andrew Dickson White, president of Cornell, who in 1894 received a request from student players for his permission to go to Cleveland to play football against the University of Michigan. He answered, “I will not permit thirty men to travel four hundred miles merely to agitate a bag of wind” (36).

When Balmer links religion and sports, he writes primarily in terms of the affinities, resemblances, parallels, and commonalities but also in terms of influence.  For example, he notes the parallels between religion and team sports: both provide a strong sense of community and both incorporate processions, sacred space, pilgrimages, narratives of redemption, ritual and liturgy.

Balmer talks about Muscular Christianity, a movement that started in Britain in the midst of the Industrial Revolution at a time when men were beginning to work beyond the farm, in factories and sedentary office jobs. There was a concern, particularly among Protestant leaders, that men were not getting enough fresh air and exercise and were becoming soft and lazy. These leaders were also worried that men were staying away from church, where moral and spiritual development was increasingly under the auspices of women. In other words, they feared the “feminization” of the church. Their solution to the problem was to connect faith with athletics, resulting in the development of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), which provided a home away from home and recreation for young men coming into cities. This Muscular Christianity also promoted the expansion of church league sports. Balmer shows its influence is particularly evidenced in football with its affinity with war and its military nomenclature. Basketball also is directly linked to the movement through James Naismith, who invented it at the YMCA School for Christian Workers.

Balmer’s history of hockey presents another example of religion’s shaping of sports. In early childhood, George Beers watched the First Nations game of “baggataway” among the Algonquin and the Iroquois Nation game of tewaarathon, called “lacrosse” by the French. As he played and studied the game, he decided that it needed more regulations because its field had no boundaries and the number of players was not limited. Because Beers was Presbyterian, a denomination known for doing everything “decently and in order,” Balmer credits Beer’s religious affiliation as a reason for creating and publishing a rulebook for lacrosse, which evolved into hockey, becoming the team sport that best defines the character of Canada.

As I read Passion Plays, the only feature that bothered me was the subtitle— “How Religion Shaped Sports in North America”—which I found somewhat misleading insofar as Passion Plays has few examples of religion shaping sports. Still, the concluding chapter shows that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Here Balmer addresses the divisions of modern culture and the decline of religious affiliation, and I find it refreshing that he doesn’t bemoan that decline. One might expect an Episcopal priest to do so. Instead, he says, “In such a wildly, gorgeously multicultural society such as that in North America (both the United States and Canada), perhaps it’s not surprising that sports has emerged as a meeting ground” (119).

He celebrates the fact that “sports provides a common vocabulary, especially at a time when the centrifugal forces of race, ethnicity, religion, economics, media, and politics are tearing us apart” (120). Then he presents a wonderful quote that undoubtedly will shock some readers: “ ‘Because no single formal religion can embrace a people who hold so many faiths, including no particular formal faith at all,’ A. Bartlett Giamatti observed in 1984, ‘sports and politics are the civil surrogates for a people ever in quest for a covenant’ ” (120).  Acknowledging that politics isn’t doing too well in that role right now, he reiterates the commonalities between the two:  a necessary agreement on principles, sacred space, processions, ritual, fans, authorities, and relics. And he even contends that “sports has eclipsed traditional expressions of religion in the realm of moral clarity and leadership” (123) and points out that sports has advocated for social justice in ways that the religious right has failed to do.

Perhaps Balmer’s most striking observation is that in times of social change and uncertainty, sports, like religion, offers “a respite, an alternative universe to a world that seems unfair and out of balance” and “something very close to fixed moral standards”(131). In closing, he writes, “Amid a world perceived as disordered and unfair, this universe—this religion—provides shelter, a common vocabulary, shared assumptions, and the assurance of camaraderie” (132). As a person of faith, I find this conclusion both hopeful and unsettling, and I suspect that Balmer would be pleased with that response, for only with hope and dissatisfaction with the status quo will any of us act to make the world more caring and just.

Phone Call 9/11: A Poem, a Song

Photo by Quino Al on Unsplash

Phone Call 9/11

It was the last phone call I’d ever receive from Mom, 
the one on that clear, burning-blue-sky morning 
in the Virginia mountains, the same sky 
that looked down on buildings ablaze in Manhattan. 

“Something is happening in New York. Turn on your TV.”
She lived several more years in the assisted-care center
where over countless lunches I’d listen to her memories
but about what took place that day she had no words.

I’ll never know what sense Mom made of what she saw.
Her husband had come home from the South Pacific.
They had build a home, grown a garden and a family.
Life had been good, the way it was supposed to be.  

Years later a song captured, condensed, maybe rearranged
in my mind the scene on TV, the voices trying to explain
the unexplainable, give meaning to the meaningless.
The lyrics proclaimed what they said didn’t exist.

©2022 Jeanne Torrence Finley

The song was “There Are No Words,” written by folksinger Kitty Donohoe on September 11, 2001, and here sung by Noel Paul Stookey on his 2022 album FAZZ:NOW&THEN.

Know Your Place: Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World (A Review)

Justin R. Phillips
Paperback: Cascade Books, 2021
Buy Now: [ IndieBound ] [ Amazon ] [ Kindle ]

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley

In Know Your Place Justin Phillips examines the formative communities of his life: his racial community, white; his geographic community, southern; and his religious community, evangelical. He writes about how they shaped his racial imagination and about how the blind spots in each overlap and reinforce each other. The subtitle names both his main audience and his purpose:  “Helping White, Southern Evangelicals Cope with the End of The(ir) World.” He approaches his task as an insider who knows how to tell the truth in love to his fellow white, Southern evangelicals, and he does so with grace, eloquence, and vulnerability. As he wrote this book, he held in mind his childhood Sunday school teachers, the people he knew in the small northwest Tennessee community in which he grew up, the high school students he used to teach, and his grandparents, with whom he regrets not ever having a deep conversation about race. A consummate scholar and storyteller, Phillips is the executive editor of The Other Journal. He holds an M.Div. from Duke Divinity School and a Ph.D. in Christian Ethics from Fuller Theological Seminary, where his focus was on how white evangelicals in the South responded to the Civil Rights Movement. He has taught at the high school, college, and graduate levels.

Phillips structured Know Your Place around these communities—racial, southern, and evangelical. He starts with whiteness, then adds the layer of southernness, and finally turns to the evangelical layer. Bookending it all are stories about his grandparents.  A common theme in all three communities is represented by this formula: “Disembodiment + Division = Disorientation.”  Disembodiment names the idea that human beings are not bodies, nor do they have to pay attention to physical matters. If we don’t see a problem, then we have no responsibility to address it. Add to that a propensity toward division, and then we become so disoriented that we cannot “know our place.”

Phillips claims that being raised in whiteness promotes a sense of disembodiment through encouraging white people to be “colorblind” and therefore unaware that we do have a racial identity that works most of the time in our favor. When we experience whiteness as the norm, we tend to get defensive when our worldview is challenged by the history of slavery and by current conversations about white supremacy. In the last twenty years our nation has experienced an awakening about discrimination, both on personal and systemic levels, in ways that can disorient white, southern evangelicals and keep them from understanding their history.

For Phillips “racism is a problem of the imagination”(13). Having accumulated power and wealth, white men imagined that their skin color gave them the qualifications to rule and justification for their conquests, which then shaped the way they structured the world. According to their logic, race had nothing to do with being successful. They believed and perpetuated the lie that anyone who worked hard could be successful.

Being southern adds another layer of disembodiment and division. One reason is that we can’t agree on our boundaries. If our northern boundary is the Mason-Dixon line, then are D.C. and Maryland in the south? Is Texas? What about West Virginia and Missouri? Then within each state, there is diversity. Phillips says, “We are not, and never have been, one people” (55).  Echoing Wendell Berry’s writings about the concept of “place,” Phillips says that loyalty to place is good for human flourishing, but places are also subject to self-deception—for example, the South’s justifying slavery through the myth of the Lost Cause after having lost the Civil War. It allowed southerners to maintain white supremacy during the Reconstruction period and to shape their future by reframing their past.

Additionally, there’s the southern problem of having the skill to talk out of both sides of our mouths. As a white southerner, I both smiled and winced when I read this sentence: “Only a people so steeped in deploying ‘bless their heart’ as a fleet of stealth drones could easily say so much by attempting to say so little.”(70). The phrase “heritage, not hate” (in reference to Civil War monuments and symbols) is not simply “a failure of language. It’s a deception that begins with the soul”(70).

Phillips also explores the “siege mentality” of the southern imagination. It began with fear of freed slaves, continued throughout the Jim Crow era, and still hangs around. He contends that we are born resisters who are adept at finding enemies, such as Yankees and government intervention. The southern talent for resistance grew to gigantic proportions in1954 when the Supreme Court unanimously ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that maintaining racially segregated schools was a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Phillips writes, “The Brown ruling was a crushing indictment of the South’s way of life, reinforcing their rejection of northern influence as equated with federal power. One need not understand the legal minutia of the Brown decision to see how white Southerners’ response to a foundation-shaking federal imposition was little more than a continuation of the original narrative of victimhood”(84).

When Phillips turns to white evangelicalism, his critique is wide-ranging and incisive. After providing a brief history that culminates in the ties between evangelicals and the contemporary Republican party, he attends to how evangelical theology promotes disembodiment—heavenly mindedness and earthly neglect. Evangelicalism’s huge emphasis on a personal relationship with Jesus inhibits its ability to understand how love of neighbor involves grappling with systemic evil and working for justice. In other words, white southern evangelicalism has become so disoriented that it cannot see racial injustice.

In Know Your Place, Phillips makes a convincing argument yet keeps the tone invitational.  When he was a high school teacher, he learned the art of translating the material so that high school students could grasp it. That’s the approach he takes here. He knows that language matters, and he models how to engage in conversations about race that will make a difference. In an interview with Brian Allain, he said, “I wanted to begin to provide language that readers could translate for people they love and to begin to help them have tough conversations.” He has succeeded.

The phrase “know your place” has often been an admonishment to recognize one’s place in the social hierarchy and not to step out of it, but that’s not what Phillips means. He wants readers to know and claim the history of their region and to have the courage to talk about it in constructive ways.  When Know Your Place was published a year ago, it addressed a pressing need in our society. That need is even more dire now as our country witnesses increased voter restrictions, book banning, and political pressure to keep teachers from telling the truth about white supremacy. Thank you, Justin Phillips, for this gift.

Bad Faith: A Review

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley

Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right
Randall Balmer
Hardback: Eerdmans, 2021

Randall Balmer’s Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right disabuses the commonly held notion that the Religious Right originally coalesced around what he calls “the abortion myth.” Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College, knows the evangelical subculture as the son of an evangelical pastor, a graduate of an evangelical college and seminary, and the author of numerous books on the history of evangelicalism in the United States.

In 1990 Balmer was invited to a gathering in Washington, D.C. that celebrated the tenth anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s election. It changed the course of his scholarship for the next three decades. There, Balmer found himself among major leaders of the Religious Right, including Paul Weyrich, who made the startling statement that abortion had nothing to do with his movement’s origins. Later Balmer questioned him to be sure he’d heard correctly. Weyrich said yes, that he’d been trying since the Goldwater campaign in 1964 to arouse evangelicals’ interest in politics and mobilize them as a political group. He’d tried all sorts of issues:  abortion, school prayer, the Equal Rights Amendment, pornography, but none had grabbed the attention of evangelicals.

Balmer’s research on the origins of the Religious Right concurred with Weyrich’s statement. The Religious Right was not formed in response to the 1973 Roe V. Wade Supreme Court decision on abortion rights, but in response to the 1971 Green V. Connally decision, which challenged the tax-exempt status of segregationist academies and universities, most notably Bob Jones University.

It will come as a surprise to many readers, including a large percentage of evangelicals, that there was a period in the 19th and early 20th centuries when “evangelicals were engaged in a broad spectrum of social reform efforts, many of them directed toward those on the margins of society” (3). They included public education, peace, the abolition of slavery, prison reform, and women’s rights. Theologically, these efforts were related to postmillennialism, the doctrine– according to an evangelical interpretation of the book of Revelation—that Jesus will return after the millennium, a thousand year period of righteousness and peace. This doctrine led them to work “to reform society and pave the way for the ‘second coming’ of Jesus” (9). Balmer points out that progressive evangelicalism then and now—it still exists—has more affinity with the political left than with the political right.

Progressive evangelicalism started to crumble in the U.S. under the influence of John Nelson Darby’s doctrine of premillennialism (the belief that Jesus would return before the millennium), “which meant that Christians could anticipate the second coming at any moment, at which time they would be ‘raptured’ into heaven and those ‘left behind’ would face divine judgment” (11). Darby, an Anglo-Irish Bible teacher, popularized the doctrine in the 1830s in the U.K, but its influence in the U.S. was delayed until the 20th century when the Scofield Reference Bible became popular. This doctrine influenced its adherents to abandon responsibility for social reform. Why make the world a better place if Jesus might return at any moment?  Their only responsibility was to focus on individual salvation and win souls to Christ.

It may be difficult for non-evangelicals to imagine the influence that rapture theology had among evangelicals– especially among young people– in the 1970s and 80s. Balmer describes an extremely popular film among evangelical audiences. Produced in 1972,   A Thief in the Night  opens with a scene in which a woman awakens to the sound of “her husband’s shaver buzzing in the bathroom sink.” He has been raptured. The film preaches “the imminent return of Jesus, warning that anyone who is not saved will be damned” (13) and features composer Larry Norman’s song “I Wish We’d All Been Ready.”

Premillennialism, which Balmer calls “a theology of despair” (11), led to political apathy among evangelical voters. Another influence in that direction was the Scopes trial of 1925 in which a high school teacher was found guilty for teaching evolution, in defiance of Tennessee law. Evangelicals won the battle, but they “lost decisively in the larger courtroom of public opinion” (17). The event symbolically marked an evangelical retreat from politics and the larger culture that had been happening for years. During the 1920s and 30s evangelicals began to build a distinct subculture—”an interlocking network of congregations, denominations, Bible camps, Bible institutes, colleges, seminaries, missionary societies, and publishing houses” that provided “a refuge from the dangers of an increasingly secular society” (18).

Many readers of Bad Faith will be surprised to learn that evangelical leaders in the 1970s had diverse opinions on abortion. Two successive editors of Christianity Today magazine voiced support for the legality of abortion. In 1971 delegates to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that  called  Southern Baptists to support legislation allowing the possibility of abortion in some circumstances. There was room for nuanced conversations on the ethics of abortion. The change started to occur during the 1978 midterm elections in which Democrats were frontrunners for all four available Senate seats. On the weekend before the election pro-life Catholics leafleted church parking lots in those states and all four democratic candidates lost. That’s when Paul Weyrich realized that he had found the issue that would take his movement’s focus off of defending racial segregation.

The practical result of the Religious Right’s embrace of the abortion myth was seen in the 1980 election, when evangelicals rejected a “born again Sunday school teacher, Jimmy Carter, and supported instead a Hollywood actor whose campaign rhetoric included “racially coded language and gestures would appeal to voters—including, perhaps, newly enfranchised Religious Right voters” (71).

Readers familiar with Balmer’s work know that he’s been writing about the abortion myth for a long time. Bad Faith is different in that it’s a short, focused primer on the subject.  Another difference is that it takes into account the 2016 and 2020 elections, which are a clear indication of why the abortion myth matters. It helped elect a president in 2016 and continues to encourage single-issue voting, thus preventing thoughtful discussion of other important issues.

Balmer’s argument is not that all evangelicals are racist, but rather that the leaders of the Religious Right have made the movement more appealing “by rallying behind such high-minded issues as opposition to abortion . . . but that does not change the inconvenient fact that the founders of the movement in the 1970s rallied to allow evangelical institutions to perpetuate their policy of racial exclusion.” He points out that a building can be made beautiful in all sorts of ways, but if the timbers that make up its foundation are rotten, the entire structure is compromised (80).

Balmer writes as a friend of evangelicalism, one who loves the tradition deeply enough to seek its redemption and to be one of its best critics. Bad Faith shows how important basic knowledge of church history and theology is to understanding aspects of politics and culture. Leaders of the Religious Right have managed to ignore– or never to learn about— their forebears who were social justice activists. The same can be said of the evangelicals influenced by these leaders and of people—religious or not—who are shocked  that in 2016 a large percentage of white evangelicals helped elect a president whose behavior and values stand in stark contradiction of the teachings and example of Jesus. History matters. Theology matters. Bad Faith is a good place to explore the reasons why.

Freeing Jesus: A Review

The following review was originally published in Englewood Review of Books and is republished with permission. The author is Tell It Slant editor, Jeanne Torrence Finley.

Freeing Jesus: Rediscovering Jesus as Friend, Teacher, Savior, Lord, Way, and Presence
Diana Butler Bass
Hardback: HarperOne, 2021

By some strange coincidence, on the day before the launch of Diana Butler Bass’s new book Freeing Jesus, Gallup released a new report that began, “Americans’ membership in houses of worship continued to decline last year, dropping below 50% for the first time in Gallup’s eight-decade trend.” That’s a decline from 70% in 1999.[1] For many within the institutional church, that news is disturbing.  For Bass, who has been writing about this trend since her Christianity After Religion: The End of the Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening was published in 2012, this report is not surprising or necessarily alarming.

Since reading Christianity After Religion, I’ve been hoping that Bass would write a kind of sequel, updating her astute observations and her optimism that despite declining church affiliation, a spiritual awakening is still happening in America. Her next two books, Grounded (2015) and Grateful (2018) were of a different order, addressing spirituality in a more personal way.  Now in Freeing Jesus, I find that sequel, but in a quite different genre than I expected– “memoir theology”–which she defines as the “making of theology–understanding the text of our own lives and taking seriously how we have encountered Jesus” (264).  Although it is not a new genre, it has been highly underrated by the academy, especially before the coming of feminist theologians in significant numbers.

Bass recalls asking a seminary professor (in an evangelical seminary, circa 1980s) why class readings were all from male theologians. He answered that women didn’t write theology. She named some who lived way before the twentieth century:  Perpetua, Julian of Norwich, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila and Catherine of Siena. He replied, “That’s not theology. That’s memoir”(264). Later she concluded that when men write about Jesus from experience the tendency has been to call it “theology,” and when women write theology from experience, their work is more likely to be called “memoir.”  What about Augustine? Luther? Wesley? Bonhoeffer?  All great theologians; they too wrote out of their experiences.

“Memoir theology” is inviting to audiences that Bass understands so well: people who question the version of Christianity that they have been exposed to (whether directly through church or indirectly through culture and politics), people who have left the church but still want to follow Jesus, people who remain in church and want to be able to talk about Jesus at Sunday brunch with their friends, but who are painfully aware of the baggage often attached to Christianity in contemporary society.  She is writing for all people who ask of Jesus, “‘Who are you? A question with myriad answers”(264).

In Freeing Jesus Bass bypasses the constraints of doctrine and correct belief by writing about the Jesus of her experience and beaconing readers to reflect on their own experience of him.  She does that by sharing stories of six of the Jesuses who have been with her through the stages of her life: friend, teacher, savior, Lord, way, and presence. Through her story she tells “the story of the Jesus of experience, who shows up consistently and when we least expect him.  Freeing Jesus means finding him along the way” (xxvi).  I don’t want to give away the arresting story that begins this book because it is too funny, too poignant, and  too profound to be paraphrased. But the title alone makes clear that Jesus wants a life outside of the church and indeed wants to be free from all the boxes we put him inside.

Bass seamlessly moves from her story into theology, church history, biblical studies, and culture. In chapter 4, “Lord,” she recounts her experience as a student at a west coast evangelical liberal arts college in the late 70s and early 80s. There she found the protection and security that she’d valued in her church youth group as well as the motivation and resources to stretch her understanding of Jesus beyond the savior of individuals. She read Your God Is Too Small by J.B. Phillips, who criticized Christians who “put God in a box” (118). There she learned a radical notion that to proclaim “Jesus is Lord” is to assert that Caesar is not and that to act on that notion requires privileging the poor and working for justice: “If you hung around with Jesus, it was easy to believe that some sort of political revolution was at hand” (136). This was not a message she’d heard in the church back home. 

As good memoir should be, Freeing Jesus is gentle persuasion, never telling readers what we should do or think or be. In addition, Bass is gracious in telling about growing away from evangelicalism toward a more progressive Christianity. She presents a multifaceted view of evangelicalism, claiming the ways it fostered her growth as well as the ways it held her back. Her vulnerability invites us into her life but doesn’t hold us there. She wants readers to reflect on the kinds of questions her stories raised for them and to recognize that our lives are important in understanding the life of Jesus. 

Having written this book during the pandemic, Bass, in her conclusion, comments on the irony of the project. Her mission was to set Jesus free, but in fact during this last year, church doors were locked and Jesus had left the building. Congregations were having to find creative ways to be church outside their buildings, and some have succeeded.  She writes, 

But as millions have discovered in these many months, Jesus was not confined to a building. Jesus was around our tables at home, with us on walks and hikes, present in music, art, and books, and visible in faces via Zoom. Jesus was with us when we felt we could do no more, overwhelmed with work and online school. Jesus was with us as we prayed with those sick in the hospital over cell phones. Jesus did not leave us to suffer alone. COVID-19 forced Jesus out of the cathedral into the world, reminding Christians that church is not a building. Rather, church is wherever two or three are gathered, even if the ‘two’ is only you and your cat . . . (266-267).

Some commentators are already speculating on the effect COVID-19 will have on church life when the doors are opened again. Will church attendance continue to decline? Or will congregations grow through the creativity learned this past year to reach beyond their walls and follow Jesus into the world? We don’t know. Bass says that many people will not return because “they are already discovering what it meant to follow Jesus beyond the church,” but many will.  She continues,  “Whatever happens, however, I hope none of us will forget the Jesus we have met in our own lives, who has been with us in fear and confusion and loss, in forced isolation and surprising moments of joy, and through the ministrations of our shared human priesthood.  It all matters. All of it”(268).


[1] Jeffrey M. Jones, “U.S. Church Membership Falls Below Majority for the First Time,”  Gallup, March 29, 2021. https://news.gallup.com/poll/341963/church-membership-falls-below-majority-first-time.aspx