In the Arena: The Promise of Sports for Christians by Dr. David Prince
Book review by Dr. Greg Linville, September 2016
In the Arena is a good book…perhaps the best of its genre to be released this year. Unlike many authors of books designed to integrate faith and sport, David Prince is rare, in that he combines a baseball player’s and football coach’s “solid grip” of the sporting experience, with a biblically-based comprehension of the theological and ethical issues of sport. The book sometimes reads like a personal biography of his and his family’s sporting experiences; sometimes like a bible exposition; and at times delves into a bit of “hero-worship,” but remains throughout a most engaging treatise.
Chapter #1 – Sports Matter
This is a solid chapter and at the risk of sounding rather arrogant, it would appear that Prince sat in my classes or read my writings, so it shouldn’t surprise anyone that I heartily recommend not only this chapter but the entire book. I have two basic concerns about the content of this chapter: a) the lack of a comprehensive and systematic theological apologetic for competition; and b) it seems as if Prince is stating the only way sport can be fully participated in by a Christian would be if all athletes and coaches were Christians and adhering to Christmanship.” Regardless, most readers will find this chapter enlightening and helpful in conceptualizing their sporting endeavors. Prince rightly understands playing sports is not sinful, and individuals can retain a joy even during or after a loss. These are found among many other keen insights that will serve to greatly enhance all reader’s sporting experiences.
Chapter #2 – Sports and Fandom
I found the most powerful spiritual insight of this chapter was connecting the analogy of the desire to be a member of a group of fans with each person’s desire to be part of a community…a family. Prince does a masterful job of relating this in-born desire to be a pre-cursor of our need to be in God’s family. Another strong section of the book extols the virtues of baseball…particularly honing in on the absolute beauty of a child and a parent (dare it be said in today’s society a dad and a son) playing catch with their mitts and baseball. I’ve personally experienced the blessing of being able to play catch with both my dad and my son (and of course with my mom and my daughter) and thus can affirm his emphasis on how sports can bind the generations together.
The most troubling section in this chapter however, has to do with his statements on football (American football) not being violent. Simply put, as it is currently coached, played and officiated, it is violent (along with a few other sports) and no amount of re-engineering the argument will change the fact millions of injuries occur, including many that end with severe disabilities and death. Simply put, American football does not adhere to the Christmanship “Honor Code” rubric and cannot be defended as currently organized, coached, played and officiated.
Chapter #3 – Sports and Spiritual Warfare
There is much to like in this chapter…not least of which is Prince’s short overview of some of the Greek words found in the original Bible texts that have sporting roots. If there is an overall critique of this chapter it is nothing more than it doesn’t go deep or far enough in unpacking this most important aspect of thinking theologically about sport. There are two specific points that do cause me problems. I do not agree with Prince when he states: a) sports are trivial; and b) that God created sport. Sports are no more trivial than any other vocation, pastime or passion; they have immense worth and value, in and of themselves. Also, God did not create sport but rather created the possibility of humankind inventing sport. The first critique points out a profound and significant foundational tenet of any theology of competition and sport, whereas the second is a more minor clarification
Chapter #4 – Sports and Christian Discipleship
I have a few minor and one more significant issue with Chapter #4. The first is, I believe it is mistitled…a rather minor critique when “all is said and done.” I say this because it doesn’t so much explain the inter-relationship between sports and Christian discipleship as it does share some great tips on how parents can engage with their children about ethical issues surrounding faith and sport. The second critique has to do with the inaccuracy concerning Eric Liddell’s sister. Having done extensive research on Liddell including interviewing many people including Liddell’s daughter and a fellow prisoner-of-war camp member, I know for a fact that Jennie Liddell was an ardent supporter of her brother’s athletics. The movie simply used a theatrical license to use Jennie to voice the collective voice of many who did not support his athletics. She loved and was Eric’s biggest fan.
The most significant issue in this chapter has to do with church involvement and sport. This book review is not the place or format to discuss this in depth but I would be remiss if I didn’t call all readers to study this issue in depth including (at the risk of seeming to be self-serving) picking up the books, blogs and articles I’ve written about this topic. Prince takes one strong step in (rightly) insisting his own children participate in church on the Lord’s Day…forgoing any game or practice that a team may have. Yet, to say sports take precedence over church activities the other six days a week is treading on very dangerous ground.
Chapter #5 – Sports and Self Esteem
Much more than discussing self-esteem, this chapter drips with sage wisdom and demonstrates Prince’s sweet spot…communicating how parents can help their children navigate the turbulent waters of youth sports. I’m particularly in agreement with his comments regarding “every child is a winner” and about co-gender sports activities for kids. I believe these are two of the key fundamentals of a truly Christo-centric theological foundation for sport. True self esteem can only emerge from being created in the image of God, not sporting endeavors and that image is both male and female…but while similar, each gender is very unique and a church’s sports outreach should recognize this and administrate its sporting endeavors accordingly.
Chapter #6 – Sports and Safety
Again, there is much good in this chapter…many great insights, but I’m troubled by much of this chapter. It’s not an either / or proposition. It’s not: a) have dangerous sport which produces strong faith or b) have safe sport which produces weak faith. Safer sport can indeed challenge and produce strong faith. This is where having a systematic theology of competition which leads to biblically-based sport which in turn produces opportunities for faith development is clearly needed. Understanding the “Honor Code for Determining Biblically Defensible Sports” provides the needed theological structure from which to envision a true “Christmanship” ethic for all sports.
Chapter #7 – Sports and the Church
This chapter tells two great stories. The first is about Prince’s coach who made a profound impact on his life. The second is the inspirational story about Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey. Readers looking for inspiration will find it. Readers looking for insights into sports and The Church, will need to look elsewhere.
Prince wraps up his book by outlining eight summary statements concerning sport and faith. They are helpful but fall short of a compelling and comprehensive foundation of the theology of sport.
New Concept Found in this Book
There may some things that are new to those who have just started down the road of integrating sport and faith, and certainly there are a number of helpful insights that may be new to parents of youth sports participants, but overall the only truly new concept Prince reveals is his use of the analogy of the desire to be a member of a group of fans with each person’s desire to be part of a community…a family. Prince does a masterful job of relating this in-born desire to be a pre-cursor of our need to be in God’s family.
Points of Agreement
Prince gets it right 80% of the time! Yes, this is a very high “batting average,” for the former collegiate baseball player. It is obvious he not only thinks in theological ways but has translated that theology into astute pragmatic practices. I am in full agreement on most of what he proposes. I believe his strength lies in a Paul-like ability to communicate gospel lessons through sport, especially in his role as a parent of young athletes. He is the kind of coach that I would want my kids to play for. He gets the disciplemaking potential of sport like few men I know.
Prince rightfully uses the theological rubric of “creation; fall; redemption;” to build his basic argument that sports matter.
I also commend Prince for his principled adherence to honor the Lord’s Day and for his taking on the concept of “every child is a winner” which pervades so many church-based youth sports leagues. Competition as experienced in sport certainly needs to be phased in according to the age and maturation of the youth involved, but experiencing winning and losing, succeeding and failing are vital parts of the discipleship process. Prince’s take on self-esteem, if anything, doesn’t go far or deep enough.
Points of Contention
The following points of contention can best be understood by the phrase: “I detest criticism but love critique.” These points are not judgmentally critical but rather offered as supportive critiques as in the spirit of the “loyal opposition.”
Chapter #1 - A Christian can fully engage with and compete in secular based sports even if they are the only disciple of Christ involved.While I agree it would be easier and more enjoyable if all participants are fellow disciples, an individual person of faith can experience true fulfillment in their sporting endeavors by following the “Honor Code for Determining Biblically-Defensible Sport.” Prince does not answer the basic question: “is competition biblically defensible;” he simply assumes it is.This is crucial because the issue of sport being biblically defensible rises or falls on whether or not competition can be theologically defended.
Chapter #2 - American Football, as it is currently manifested (along with a handful of other sports) is a violent sport.
Chapter #3 - Sport is not trivial & God did not invent sport.
Chapter #5 – Church participation must be a higher priority than sports participation.By relegating church participation to only one day of the week, communicates at least 3 troubling lessons to children: a) sport and church are to be compartmentalized; b) sport is a higher priority; and perhaps most disconcerting; c) one day a week for faith development makes for weak, anemic Christians and most often is the reason why many youth leave their faith behind.
Chapter #6 – Sport does not have to be violent to develop strong Christian character. Participation in war or surviving a terrorist attack can develop strong Christian character but the best anyone can say about war is that sometimes it is necessary but even then war is the lesser of two evils.Similarly, sport should not be intentionally made evil just because we want to develop character.
Recommendations for a Second Edition
Rethink and either change or give more supportive rationales for the various points of contention listed previously including sport being trivial and choosing sport over church
Better descriptive titles for chapters #4 & 7
Correct the minor miscue about Jennie Liddell
How can local church sports outreach ministries use this book
Using various chapters or portions of chapters as discussion starters for dialoguing with coaches from a church league
Recommending and possibly even using the book as a gift to parents of youth sport participants
This book is a must read for all parents of young athletes and will be a real help for any coach and all high school or older athletes desiring to integrate their faith with their sport. Anyone looking for a deep and systematic theological work will appreciate much of what Prince has to offer and will be thankful to him for this easily read introduction to the integration of faith and sport.
Where to find this book: This book can be purchased on smile.amazon.com.