Art Remillard is an assistant professor of religious studies at St. Francis University in Loretto, PA. His book, Southern Civil Religions: Imagining the Good Society in the Post-Reconstruction Era will be out this December with the University of Georgia Press. His current research looks at religion and sports in the American South from the Civil War through World War II. In this his first post for the H.S. blog, Art explains how his course on religion and sports offers a "bridge" for students to better understand broader themes in American religious history and theories of religion.
Building Bridges from "Muscular Christianity" to "The Tebow Thing"
Before teaching my first college course, a friend recommended that I read Marilla Svinicki and Wilbert J. McKeachie's Teaching Tips. I recall taking to heart the book's repeated emphasis on developing learning strategies, "that help students to build bridges between what they already know or have experienced and what they are trying to learn." Once I started teaching, I found sports to be an effective "bridge." Truth be told, I'm not much of a sports fan (except for college football—then I get weird). But I follow closely enough so that, for example, I can compare the Steelers and Browns rivalry to that of the Dominicans and Franciscans. Trust me, it makes sense.
In between my first teaching experience and now, I have taken a greater academic interest in sports, to the point where I have developed a course titled "Religion and Sports." Here, I use sports to investigate major trends in American religious history, while also touching on some theories of religion. I've taught it twice now, and student responses have been quite positive. Yet, many who enroll don't know what to expect. Some anticipate a course on what sportswriter Frank Deford has called "Sportianity," or when self-described Christian athletes, "endorse Jesus, much as they would a new sneaker or a graphite-shafted driver." Think: Kurt Warner. The course does mention the Sportians (via Deford's article), but I'm more interested in the creative ways that people have inscribed religious meaning on to athletic pursuits.
So on "opening day," I invite students to cross a bridge from their hometown YMCA to "muscular Christianity." I cite Luther Gulick, his efforts to institute athletics at the Y, and his lifelong quest to understand "the relation of good bodies and good morals." I then turn to his colleague, James Naismith. On January 20, 1892, the Presbyterian minister gathered eighteen young men at a YMCA gym in Springfield, Massachusetts, to play his newly invented game called "basketball." Practically, Naismith hoped that basketball would give restless young men a suitable indoor activity for the long winter months. More importantly, as theologian Michael Novak summarizes, "The idea behind the game was moral, Christian, and hygienic: active clean living through vigorous exercise." Right from the gun, then, students discover the religious roots of a familiar game. Later in the course, drawing mostly from Bill Baker's Playing With God, I locate Gulick, Naismith, and other "muscular Christians" within the social gospel tradition, and discuss how they sought to Christianize all corners of society, from the schoolhouse to the gymnasium.
Another bridge brings students to the land of religious pluralism. I reference Julie Byrne's O God of Players to show how the female Catholic cagers at Immaculata College invented religious practices to express their newfound role as athletes. Richard Ian Kimball's Sports in Zion helps me to define the contours of "muscular Mormonism." From Steven A. Riess's edited volume, Sports and the American Jew, I recall the fascinating careers of great Jewish athletes, from the championship boxer Benny Leonard, to the great slugger Hank Greenburg. To examine "seekers," I talk about Phil Jackson, whose Sacred Hoops adds to Naismith's game a spiritual soup complete with Buddhist and Native American flavors. As for American Muslims, I feature marathoner Khalid Khannouchi and his twin challenge of running 100 mile weeks while also observing the Ramadan fast.
Alongside the course's historical conversation, I build bridges to some basic theories of religion. This is actually easier than I had first anticipated. Most of my students are from western and central Pennsylvania. They have been in (or live in) houses with rooms devoted to the Steelers. They have seen (or own) trucks painted black and gold. And they have observed (or participated in) the curious tradition of wearing Steelers jerseys to church. So I try to make sense of these and other activities by using the intellectual resources developed by religious studies scholars. This semester, I might mention Tim Tebow—not as a Sportian—but rather, for his persona that one Denver Bronco recently labeled, "the Tebow thing." From what I can tell, Tebow's "thing-ness" matches with Max Weber's definition of charisma, "a certain quality of an individual personality by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities."
The weeks always seem to pass too quickly and I never make it to every bridge that I had hoped to go over. Still, the bridges that we do cross transform students' understanding of how religion and sports fit within American history and culture. I hope that professor McKeachie would approve.