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Well Played

Well Played: A Christian theology of sport and the ethics of doping

$25.60 (PAPERBACK)

Although authors have since biblical times alluded to sport while writing about Christian faith, scholarly treatises on this relationship have arisen mostly in the past 40 years. Theologians Jurgen Moltmann (Theology of Play, 1972) and Robert Johnston (The Christian at Play, 1983), for instance, wrote about the Christian experience of play. Historian William J. Baker (Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport, 2007) wrote about the connections between sport and religion throughout time. Sociologist James Mathisen and kinesiologist Tony Ladd (Muscular Christianity: Evangelical Protestants and the Development of American Sport, 1999) and historian Clifford Putney (Muscular Christianity: Manhood and Sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920, 2003) wrote about a period in which sport and Christianity had an especially close relationship. Theologians Stuart Weir (What the Book Says About Sport, 2000) and Lincoln Harvey (A Brief Theology of Sport, 2014) have written books detailing Christian theologies of sport. And sport-and-religion scholar Shirl Hoffman (Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sports, 2010) wrote a scathing critique of the relationship between Christianity and sports. Each of these works and many more have illuminated different features of a relationship between sport and the Christian faith that has been prominent across the globe.

Michael Shafer’s book, Well Played: A Christian Theology of Sport and the Ethics of Doping, adds to this robust and growing body of literature. Scholars are finding rich reservoirs of scholarly inquiry in this field, the boundaries of which are expanding almost as fast as those of the sport industry itself. Where does this new book fit among the many recent volumes on sport and Christianity? More important, where does it stand out?


Shafer’s goal is to present a theology of sport that opposes the use of performance-enhancing drugs and technologies in sport. So he presents a theology of sport with specific attention toward what is arguably the most contentious ethical issue in elite sport of this generation: doping.

Well Played is dense. Shafer is quite comfortable in deep, normative, intellectual waters. The book reads like philosophy – detailed, painstakingly contextualized, thorough and quite often theoretically combative. The book pulls no punches.

Shafer’s manuscript differs from other recent theologies of sport in that he relies more on the arguments of philosophers and sports philosophers than on theologians. To be sure, he cites plenty of theologians, but only for context and good scholarship. He can make his claims without them. Without philosophers Richard Rorty, Robert Simon, William J. Morgan, Friedrich Nietzsche, Sigmund Loland and Alisdair MacIntyre, though, Shafer would have no foundation for his thesis.


That thesis is thick and multifaceted – exactly why the author seeks guidance from so many philosophers, sports philosophers and theologians. Shafer’s goal is “to challenge Christian athletes and spectators to gain a richer understanding of how their faith offers formative principles to guide their attitudes and behaviors as well as provide spiritually meaningful reasons for participating in sport.” His “theological purposes underlying sporting activity” are similarly prescriptive: eliminate “immoral sporting attitudes and activities,” recognizing “sport as a deeply human activity that is given its meaning within the context of our physical limitations” and recovering “the spirit of play in sport (to see) athletic activity neither as a trivial form of entertainment nor as a means to some external end, but as an expression of who we are as human beings.”

These solicitations are the culmination of Shafer’s theology of sport, and they serve as the foundation of his stance against the use of performance-enhancing drugs in sport. The connection between theology and performance enhancement in sport comes across in an unusual way in the manuscript. Shafer’s first chapter is a review of the existing ethical literature on doping in sport. The author cites scholarship from many of the prominent thinkers in this widespread debate. He provides well-crafted summaries of the main arguments that scholars have used regarding performance enhancement. Even though none of these arguments is a slam-dunk on its own, the majority of sport governing bodies the world over have found in them enough merit to prohibit performance-enhancing drugs. Unfortunately, though, instead of building on the impressive body of scholarship in this area, Shafer argues that “several leaky buckets stacked together still lose water.” His thesis that a theology of sport that includes an eye towards reducing immorality, the recognition that sport amplifies human limitations and supports the playfulness possible in sport could be the drainage basin that catches all the water from the leaky buckets. Yet he does not promote it as such. Instead, he attempts to poke holes in each other argument and offer his as an alternative.

Surprisingly, after this robust first chapter, doping in sport receives little attention until the final chapter. Instead, Shafer metaphorically steps back. Chapters 2 and 3 provide overarching philosophical and theological views of sport. In Chapter 2, the author describes why MacIntyre’s conception of social practices defined by internal goods and promoted by external goods is a better approach to sport than Nagel’s “view from nowhere” and Rorty’s community-based method. Chapter 3 follows as a transition chapter alluding to the philosophical underpinnings of the Church’s views of sport as at times insignificant, immoral or instrumental. Chapters 4, 5 and 6 describe in detail each element of Shafer’s theology of sport, which then are brought together to explain that “Christians have an opportunity to worship God through enjoying his gift of sport by offering our gratitude and praise to him as we recognize the need to rely on God’s grace as we play.”


Shafer admirably argues with a strong philosophical basis and an amazingly robust reference list throughout the book. From a sports-philosophy perspective, he cites past prominent and even remote arguments with great accuracy and perspective. In fact, it is this familiarity with deep philosophical ideas that may be among the most impressive aspects of the manuscript. The author takes no shortcuts when developing theories that derive from the work of many previous philosophers and theologians.

Yet as Shafer does so, it is difficult to determine exactly where he is breaking new ground on philosophical and theological discussions of sport. The ways in which his theology of sport augments the prohibitions on performance-enhancing drugs could be a part of the originality of this text, but those arguments seem ancillary, as they are overshadowed by the development of his overarching theology of sport.

Shafer’s vast and impressive knowledge of philosophy allows the book to provide a great deal of literature review and analysis, and it makes the book feel like a collage – Shafer has taken the ideas of other authors that are very good and strong on their own and put them together to produce deeply theoretical arguments about the possibilities of redeeming sport. It is not the first such claim, nor will it be the last, but it offers Christians an interesting way to appreciate and value sport.

Chad Carlson teaches kinesiology at Hope College, Holland, Michigan. He is the author of Making March Madness: The Early Years of the NCAA, NIT, and College Basketball Championship Tournaments, 1922–1951 (University of Arkansas Press, 2017).