Friday, September 11, 2015

Is There An Anabaptist Vision of Sport?

Does look like an Anabaptist celebration?
Over at The Pietist Schoolman, Chris Gehrz gives us a preview of his forthcoming presentation for the 2015 Baylor Symposium on Faith and Culture: "Anabaptist Visions of Sport: Separation, Accommodation, and Transformation."

Gehrz sings the praises of Messiah College athletics:

...But no Goshen program has achieved anything approaching the competitive results of the two soccer teams at Messiah: the Falcon men have won ten national championships since 2000 and the women five. (The softball, track and field, and wrestling teams have also won national championships.) Earlier this year Messiah was named the 8th best college for female athletes, higher than any other Division III school (Wheaton came in at #18) and edging out D-I powerhouses like Alabama, Florida, Michigan, and Oklahoma.

In 2009 USA Today ran a feature story on Messiah athleticsin which student-athletes, coaches, and administrators made clear that personal development and fellowship were more important than winning. (“I don’t really think God concerns Himself — or Herself, however you want to say that — with who wins or loses,” said then-campus pastor Eldon Fry.) But reporter Erik Brady did pick up on the seeming tension between Messiah’s Anabaptist roots and its latter-day embrace of sport:
Given the school’s pacifist roots, what’s with the fierce falcon mascot? “This is not a dove,” [president Kim] Phipps says. “We’re talking here about competition.”

Brady identified Messiah more in terms of evangelicalism, as did Messiah professor John Fea, in a blog post commenting on the article: “Most of our students come from evangelical backgrounds. Many of them are very pious and this often translates into their performance on the athletic fields.” So perhaps all this tells us is that the school has moved further away from its Anabaptist heritage.

Since Chris quotes me here, allow me to make a very quick observation about our athletic program.  I hope the folks in the athletic department will take this as the musings of a fan and outsider observer rather than as an expert who knows how to run an athletic program.

Does Messiah College promote a distinctly "Christian" view of intercollegiate athletic competition? Yes--absolutely.  Most of the coaches that I know are evangelical Christians.  Most of the players are also evangelical and those who are not quickly adjust and adapt to the evangelical culture of the team and the college.  Messiah College athletes pray together, they have Bible studies, they do team-bonding activities that are both fun and spiritual.  They go on mission-oriented trips around the world.

But is there some way in which Messiah College athletics is distinctly "Anabaptist" in nature?  I don't think so.  The Messiah athletic facilities fly an American flag and the National Anthem is played before games.  (The only places on campus where the flag can be found).  The college now plays NCAA tournament games on Sundays.  I also wonder if they wear uniforms or use equipment made by poor, underpaid laborers in countries around the world. (I would be happy to be corrected on this). They promote themselves in a way that is no different than any other sports program.  And they have a pretty slick (definitely not "plain") website.

I am not sure if all of this is good or bad, but I do think that one would be hard pressed today to call the Messiah College athletic program "Anabaptist" in nature.

Of course historians study change over time.  And Gehrz's piece is interesting in the way it compares an older vision of Messiah athletics with its current manifestation as an NCAA Division III powerhouse and one of the best places in the country to be a student-athlete.