The study of the relationship between sport and religion has seen remarkable growth in the last quarter century. Craig Forney’s book makes a contribution to this burgeoning field within religious studies, although the scope of his work has more to say about sociological issues in sport. Rather than deal with specific theological issues arising in sport, Forney’s work offers a comparative analysis, showing how the three major sports in America portray nearly indistinguishable traditions of meaning and identity as many American civil practices. The symbolic representations, the author argues, pervade virtually every aspect of football, baseball and basketball.
He describes ‘civil religion’ in the United States as an idea of the founding fathers where the people are not ruled by a particular religious dogma. Instead, there should exist a ‘national set of beliefs to unify the otherwise divided states’ (p. 9). Forney identifies eight specific ways this set of beliefs aims at unifying the nation. Some of these include dedication to ritual acts and sacred stories, direction for the pursuit of truth and ethical behaviour, and provides motivation to do better by generating a ‘strong sense of dissatisfying distance from ideals’ (p. 14).
Forney then sets out to demonstrate how this civil religion has come to be expressed in each of the three major sports in American society. Then he turns his attention to the ways in which these three sports, a trinity of sorts, complement each other in pursuit of America’s civil religion. Whereas in most cases these sports reflect the values of society, Forney concludes the book with a chapter focusing on his final tenet of civil religion where a society is united by the aspiration to become better. He suggests that while the trinity of American sport reflects social values in the other tenets of civil religion, sport lags behind in this final area. However, in doing so it strengthens the awareness of the need for improvement in areas like racial and gender inequalities. Society in general has done a better job in these regards than has the world of sport, but because of the unity to be a better society we are making some much needed progress.
While he does offer some compelling ideas throughout the book, there are two areas which had a negative impact on this reader. At times it seems that Forney is stretching to find a comparison. For instance, his chapter about baseball begins by linking the sport to the ‘American mythology of a perfect world to come’ (p. 67). He says that this is portrayed by a number of elements of the game, including the fact that the baseball is round (a perfect circle) and can be thrown at very high speeds. Forney says that the ball often travels ‘too fast for the naked eye to follow, bringing vision of a world to come when objects will travel instantaneously’ (p. 68). Add to this reaching illustration the idea that a baseball is white, the colour of purity. Forney likens the ball to the White house and other national monuments and points out that marked and discoloured balls are immediately replaced in a game since ‘perfectionist expectations for the ball communicate a mythic anticipation for perfect way of life’ (p. 68).
These symbolisms, among others he lists, are interesting ideas to consider. One of the most intriguing is the significance of the number three in American civil life and in baseball (i.e., three branches of government and three outs per inning). As I have already said, the relevance of some of these ideas appears to me a bit of an idealistic stretch. To be sure, one can see certain cultural symbolic qualities acted out in a nation’s games. This is reinforced by the fact that different countries adopt slightly different regulative rules that are idiosyncratic to that culture’s way of life.
However, the impression given by Forney is that these elements somehow provide the motivation for the game and/or define the game in a specific way. If this were so, then we might also say that Americans’ love of money is symbolized by the grass on the baseball field being green. I have my doubts about whether or not this is actually the best way to describe America’s national pastimes. Players are not concerned that a blemished ball may take away from their conception of some future ideal world. They want a new ball because even the slightest of scuff marks or bruises can alter the trajectory of an otherwise beautifully thrown curveball.
So while the symbolism is there and the unifying beliefs of American civil religion are evident in all three sports, we might do better to describe them in terms of more abstract values than with such specifically detailed intricacies in how and why the sports are played.
The other area where I would suggest improvements to this book lies in the editing. Phrases like ‘games provides a celebrative element’ (p. 29) and ‘the restrictive nature of humanity through highly the constrained use of the ball’ (p. 54) are found throughout the book, making it a less pleasant read for those concerned with accurate grammar. It has the appearance of a drafted manuscript. I would suggest at least one more round of revisions to improve the quality and scholarship of this work.
Though there were parts of this book I found enjoyable and interesting, it is not one I can recommend as a “must-read” for those interested in sport and religion. It certainly has some strong points like drawing the reader’s attention to many of the underlying representations and metaphors of our deepest cultural values, but at times the author pushes these symbolisms to the extreme. Perhaps a second edition which takes into consideration these suggestions would make for a good resource in sport, religion, and society as it does present a lot of material to correlate all three.