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"Passion Plays": The Overlap of Sports Fandom and American Christianity

In the early 1990s Randall Balmer ascended to rarified air: He became an academic whose name resonated beyond the ivory tower.

The impetus was Balmer’s 1989 book Mine Eyes Have Seen the Gloryperfectly summarized by its subtitle as “a journey into the evangelical subculture in America.”

The power of Balmer’s book (and subsequent PBS series) came from the strength and clarity of his writing along with his willingness to dwell in paradox. He was both an insider (at least in his past) and an outsider, an academic expert and a curious journalist, an empathetic listener and a critical interpreter. He was willing to bring himself into the project, to identify with the people and the cultural spaces he visited and studied even as he kept himself at a scholarly distance.

Balmer’s book won the respect of academics and intellectuals as well as some evangelical insiders. “He has us pegged pretty well,” a reviewer in Christianity Today admitted.

Soon after Mine Eyes was published, a new popular subculture caught Balmer’s ear. Living in New York City, he came across the city’s growing sports talk radio scene. Here, grown men spent hours each day engaged in feverish debates over arcane details related to the local sports teams, like whether the manager of the New York Yankees should have called for a pinch hitter in the sixth inning.

“It left me speechless,” Balmer writes in the opening paragraph of his new book, Passion Plays: How Religion Shaped Sports in North America. And it also left him curious. He wanted to know more. Why were so many men—and it was primarily men, Balmer notes—drawn into this world? Why was he interested?

“The longer I listened,” Balmer writes, “the more I wanted to figure out why sports invokes such peculiar passion.”

Thirty years later, Passion Plays is the result of that initial curiosity and interest. While in Mine Eyes Balmer went by plane and automobile across the American landscape, here his journey is a metaphorical sojourn to the past, to the origins and development of the four major organized team sports in the United States and Canada: baseball, football, basketball, and hockey (with apologies to soccer fans, whose entrance into the American big time is always but coming).

In Balmer’s view, understanding “the beginnings, evolution, and symbolism” of those sports—as well as the ways they intersected with religious history and offered parallels to religious rituals and practices—provides crucial insight into the enduring allure of sports in American culture.

Read entire article at Christianity Today