by CJ Stephens
Standing on the field at Gillete Stadium, having just defeated the New England Patriots 28-13 in the AFC Championship Game, Ray Lewis repeatedly proclaimed to a national television audience, "No weapon formed against you shall prosper," quoting Isaiah 54:17.
Between pre- and post-game prayers, eye-black adorned with Bible verses and end-zone prayers, faith has long had a prominent place in American sports. And in the weeks leading up to the Super Bowl, Lewis' evocative proclamations have reignited one of our nation's most contentious conversations: What is the role of faith in sports, and what relationship should exist between these two cultural institutions?
The cover of this week's Sports Illustrated is adorned with a picture of a shirtless Ray Lewis, half-submerged in water, gazing into the distance with hands joined in a prayerful posture along with the provocative headline, "Does God Care Who Wins the Super Bowl?"
The centerpiece article, penned by New York Times religion columnist Mark Oppenheimer, tackles the "paradox of big time football," highlighting some of the tensions between football and the Christian faith. In particular, Oppenheimer points out the reality that both the NFL and Christian churches make their home on Sundays, "and 50 years into [the] national experiment of mixing the two, it is not at all clear that faith has won the day." Moreover, he suggests that the violence inherent to football is "deeply at odds with Christ's message."
There is certainly no shortage of questions in the sports-faith debate. Oppenheimer's are erudite and penetrating, but Lewis' proclamations (and the many others like it) raise a deeper, more troubling question. Namely, do the frequent appropriations of faith in the world of sports misrepresent the Gospel?
Lewis, as he proclaimed Isaiah 54:17 with euphoric fervor, was essentially claiming (in God's own words) that no weapon formed against him could prevent his victory. However, Isaiah 54, in its original context, was a statement of restoration spoken to small nation of people who had been conquered by an imperial power, witnessed the destruction of their sacred places and been exiled into a foreign land. When God said, "No weapon formed against you shall prosper," it came in a message of comfort to a suffering people facing the real possibility of extinction.
But there is more at stake here than the simple application of a biblical text out of context. Lewis' appropriation of Isaiah 54 was a virtual reversal of the essence of the text itself. One says, "God will strengthen us as the conquered." The other says, "God will empower me as a conqueror." In other words, it was a complete reshaping of a biblical text according to a modern, Western, individualistic, competition-based worldview.
This is not an indictment of Ray Lewis, because Lewis' statement was simply a high-profile example of a widespread trend in American sports. It's one bolstered by the masses, as a new study says that 53% of Americans agree with the statement: "God rewards athletes who have faith with good health and success." And football players depictions of faith are often used as an explanation for their success.
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SOURCE: Relevant Magazine