Merging the grueling physical and competitive aspects of sports with their religious faith makes athletics the perfect arena in some respects for evangelical Christians, contends William & Mary Associate Professor of Religious Studies Annie Blazer.
Blazer explains the theory in her paper “An Invitation to Suffer: Evangelicals and Sports Ministry in the U.S.,” which was published in November in a special issue of the journal “Religions” on religion and sport in North America.
Following on her 2015 book, “Playing for God: Evangelical Women and the Unintended Consequences of Sports Ministry,” Blazer continues her work looking at evangelical athletes and sports ministry in the United States and proposes that evangelicals find sport to be fruitful religious terrain because they position playing sports as meaningful suffering. Also in the fall semester, Blazer taught the religious studies COLL 400 capstone course, and used her article as a work in progress to model the steps of an in-depth research project for students while they each completed their own.
Blazer’s latest paper started as a keynote lecture she gave at a meeting of the Christian Society for Kinesiology, Leisure & Sport Studies, which is a Christian organization for sports ministers and educators who work on combining sport and the religion.
“I wrote this talk that was sort of a history of the ethical struggle of sports ministers trying to combine sport and Christianity, and running into trouble along the way,” Blazer said. “And I ended up with this thought that even though evangelical Christians have been involved in sport for more than 50 years, these problems of sport that we are well aware of — racism, exploitation, cheating, doping — these things have not changed, and in fact some would argue have gotten worse.
“And I started to think after that about how to turn that talk into an article, but in a way that was not blaming or convicting, but trying to understand: Why didn’t they just stop? Why didn’t they just leave sports alone? It’s not actually a great fit for evangelical theology. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought about how I saw people navigate the challenges of sport — getting injured, losing, getting benched — the ways that you suffer in sport.”
That evolved into thinking about how a major part of evangelicals’ worldview is that humans suffer, and that sport is a safer avenue for discussing the ways that humans suffer than things such as birth defects or other examples of innocent suffering, Blazer said.
She settled on the idea of meaningful suffering because she’s been fascinated with the religious philosophy conundrum called the problem of evil, which is that bad things happen to good people.
“And if there is an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving God, why is that the case?” Blazer said. “Evangelicals and a lot of Christians have landed on the idea that suffering is allowed by God in order to teach humans something. There’s a couple of different Biblical things that they rely on, but I think the most important one is the crucifixion. Meaningful suffering is actually at the heart of Christian theology and for evangelicals even more so because they rely so heavily on crucifixion being a moment of salvation for humans.
“Within evangelical Christianity and within sports ministry, there’s this idea that they call Christ-likeness, which is how humans can emulate Christ, and they see sport as an opportunity to do that. … So I was thinking OK, Christ-likeness is actually all about meaningful suffering.”
To help her COLL 400 students produce the original scholarship the course requires, Blazer decided to work on her paper alongside them to create a feeling of solidarity. She worked a little bit ahead so that she could model the steps along the way.
At the rough draft stage, she had students do a peer review meeting. The class did the edit or critique of Blazer’s paper first, each coming up with a criticism, a compliment and a question.
She held a discussion on how to give and receive criticism, and then tried to model that, Blazer said. Students then broke into small groups and did edits of one another’s work. Final projects went up on Blackboard along with Blazer’s, which included the professional reviewer feedback that was very similar to what students gave.
“In general, I thought the process of it was very successful,” Blazer said.
Students did too, according to Evelyn Odom ’22.
“Seeing a professional’s work unpolished is always fascinating, as it exposes the creativity involved,” Odom said. “The creativity has to do with how she not only painstakingly researched her project, but what facets of sports ministry she focused on for her project.
“Having attended a church that practiced sports ministry, I imagined a certain image different from Dr. Blazer’s. By suggesting my ideas and posing questions to her, we were able to creatively collaborate, which is the most valuable experience from the edit.”
Mazarine Rossert ’20 also appreciated the unique perspective.
“Having Dr. Blazer complete this article alongside our capstone project was not only a wonderful guide as we navigated some of the largest projects we have completed in our college career, but also a motivational boost to know that Dr. Blazer was doing the work as well,” Rossert said. “It gave us a look at what the written portion of her career outside of teaching looks like, which was interesting in and of itself.”
Blazer remains committed to the model of doing scholarship alongside students. She will teach this class again in the fall, and plans to work on an article about Native American mascots in sports, tying it to Christian colonial narratives about savagery.
“I feel excited about it,” Blazer said.