EDITOR’S NOTE: Below, David E. Prince, assistant professor of Christian preaching and pastor of Ashland Avenue Baptist Church, discusses his book In the Arena with Towers editor S. Craig Sanders.
CS: What about the book and its message is important to communicate?
DP: The book is essentially about Jesus, the church, family, and sports. I can’t tell the story of my life and leave out any of those categories. They actually happened in reverse order. The bond in my family was largely around sports. My family were not Christians, didn’t go to church; sports was who we are and what we did. And something I didn’t realize until after the fact was how many of my coaches and the people investing in my life when I was younger were Christians. My high school baseball coach died of cancer my senior year and he was a godly Christian man, and after I became a Christian I realized that he was teaching me Christian principles all the way throughout high school and I didn’t even recognize it. I can’t think about my faith without thinking about athletics and I kind of think that’s exactly what we read with Paul and the reason he keeps bringing up athletics because there’s such a natural carryover. And so really this book is just me baring my soul about what God has done in my life and how he used sports as a vehicle to teach me all kinds of things.
CS: You have eight children, and they’re all involved in sports. How does that work from a logistical standpoint?
DP: You have time for what you make time for and whatever your prioritize you can do, whether it be family devotions or involvement in sports. Since that’s something that’s always been meaningful to me it’s never even been a question of whether or not they would be involved. That’s a bond that I want with them for a higher purpose. You think about a lot of kids today, where is their character tested? I don’t think sports builds character; I think sports exposes character. If you want to use sports to build Christian character it’s a great tool because it exposes a lot through success, failure, and hard work that you really can’t find anywhere else. When we were an agrarian culture, sports was not necessarily that important because you learned a lot through the family sacrificing to get the crop in and praying for it to rain. But if you take the three primary metaphors for what it means to follow God in the world, used in Scripture, warfare is first — the entire biblical storyline is spiritual warfare — and you have agrarian imagery and then you have athletic imagery. Today in our cultural context, sports is the only one of those that people have a real point of contact with. I think they’re more important today than at any point in our nation’s history.
With my family, we just say, “This is something we’re going to do, but it’s not a distraction for our discipleship of our children; it’s a means for that.” When I’m driving to the baseball game with my son I say, “How are you going to honor God on the field today?” And he starts rattling off the things that honor God — maximum effort, honoring and obeying his coaches, respecting the umpires. I always tell my kids, at least fail. There’s something noble in trying and failing; there’s nothing noble in trying to never fail. That’s why the “In the Arena” quote by Theodore Roosevelt is so important in my book.
Another reason why I wanted to write this book is that I find that sports are the one thing that Christians don’t feel a very strong responsibility to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ. You generally have two camps in the church related to sports. You have the camp that’s kind of dismissive, that sports is a waste of time, or you have the camp that’s really into sports and enjoys it but never thinks critically about it. What I want to help people do is to think critically about it. If they’re trying to see why is it that almost all cultures invent sports, why is that something about the world God has made? What purpose do they serve? Why does the Bible mention sports in relationship to our faith? Let’s wrestle with those things.
CS: You grew up in Alabama, I grew up in the Carolinas, so we both have seen extreme examples of sports fandom. But what are some of the benefits of being a fan?
DP: Being a fan is essentially a matter of cultural rootedness and identity. It reflects the uniqueness of a group of people who are culture-making in a given area as God’s image bearers. Since I’m from Alabama, it’s college football. My favorite sport is baseball but being a college football fan is just a part of my identity where I was from. So people wonder why the Southeast cares more about football than most places. The Reconstruction South was depressed and deflated and didn’t have much of an identity, but when Alabama went out to the Rose Bowl in 1926 and beat Washington — even though they’re huge underdogs — the entire South celebrated it and basically decided, OK, we can win in football.
Being a fan unites people in given localities and we ought to be glad about those things, right? When I go to a baseball game, the guy sitting next to me can be a different ethnicity or a different age, but I almost always end up talking to him because we share a cultural language with something we both invested a lot of time and energy into and that’s baseball. That means we share our own narrative, our own language, and that’s true of all sports everywhere. I think fandom actually is, or can be, a cultural good. What is supposed to bind us together above all else is the gospel and the language of redemptive history that we share. We have commonality with the believers at a church plant in Peru that my church is supporting because we share that ultimate importance. A reflection of that are these other culture-making things people share in various localities.
CS: How should Christians think about scandals and corruption in sports?
DP: It’s not a reflection of the good design of God. In the same way that motivating ourselves by hating our opponent is a corruption of God’s good gift of sports, so there’s all kinds of ways sports are corrupted and we have an opportunity in the midst of that to train our children and ourselves about what it means to live a life marked by righteousness and holiness rather than corruption. Pointing out that there’s a lot of corruption related to sports is really another way of saying there’s a lot of corruption related to every pursuit of human beings in life in a fallen world, so sports are not unique to that.
CS: What specifically in your book do you think is an argument that many people overlook when they think about sports and discipleship?
DP: One is that sports are inevitable based on the world that God made. Just like music; the world that God made demands we sing about it. That’s the way sports are. In the world God had made, it’s inevitable. Secondly, competition is not inherently sinful. You get the idea that there can’t be sports in the new heaven and new earth because someone would have to lose, as though losing is somehow fundamentally sinful or wrong, but that’s a failure to reckon with the world God made. When God told his image-bearers to take dominion over the world to the glory of his name, that demanded they hone their mental and physical gifts in a way that allowed them to be effective image-bearers. In athletic competition, my opponent is actually what draws the best out of me. You ask a lot of great athletes the matches or the games that meant the most to them, and sometimes they’ll mention ones they lost because their opponent drew the best out of them; it’s the iron sharpening the iron. I always tell people that it’s a myth that you want your team to win every game by 100 points, because if they did for a period of time you wouldn’t be interested anymore. It’s the competitiveness that actually draws it out and makes it something by which we see the glory of God in a clearer way. Another thing I would say is none of that matters unless we’re really going to be intentional about it. With your children, it is never about performance. They may perform very well and it be a bad day for their spiritual life and growth. Always have a goal bigger than performance and those are the things they can control: effort, self-sacrifice, respect, and passionate commitment. What we care more about is character. Some of the best things that happen with my kids is times when they were sitting the bench. They have to be able to be a role player. Is that something to feel sorry for them about? Absolutely not — most of us are role players in life. Most of us are not the stars of whatever we do. And so that’s actually the best times.