The lordless power of Sport
On why Sport and Fashion and Ideologies are potent spiritual forces
While keeping an eye on the women’s K1 slalom (“Jess is making a real statement here!”) and occasionally flicking across to see if the tall, lumpy determination of the Olyroos could hold off those nippy Spaniards in the group of dreams, I happened across a very good article by Stephen Liggins about not getting too carried away with the Olympics. ‘The Olympics Games: Good but not God’ was the title, and that pretty much sums up the message that Steve very capably got across. Sport is a good gift. Enjoy it. Glorify God in it. But don’t treat it as a god.
All great stuff, and very much of a piece with the great stuff Steve wrote in his recent book on the subject (The Good Sporting Life: Loving and playing sport as a follower of Jesus).
However, while not wanting to disagree with Steve, I’d like to push his idea a little further, and fly a theological kite. I wonder if we should think of Sport as a god, or at least as a lordly power that exerts control and authority in the world.
I’ve been stewing on this and related ideas over the past little while.
What does it mean, for example, for Mammon to be a ‘lord’ that people serve (Matt 6:4; Lk 16:13)? Money is a good gift of God to be received with thanksgiving. It is a creaturely gift that humanity has developed and used in the world, and through which all manner of good things can be done.
And yet under the name ‘Mammon’ in the Gospels, it is clearly no longer a gift that we can choose to use or misuse. It has become something more. It is a kurios, a lord, a centre of power that people subordinate themselves to.
This good gift, which is ours to utilise, which stems in part from our own powers and abilities, seems now to have an existence of its own outside of us. It is no longer a tool for us to use. It has become a rogue power, exerting influence and authority over us. It snaps its fingers, and we jump.
In other words, it’s not just that we could mistakenly treat Money as a god or an idol. It’s worse than that. Mammon seems to really be a ‘lord’—a shadowy, non-material, inhuman power that we can’t control, and that in fact controls us. Those who come under its power “fall into a snare”, says Paul (1 Tim 6:9).
I wonder if Mammon should be identified as being one of the impersonal ‘powers’ (dunameis Rom 8:38; Eph 1:21) or ‘authorities’ (exousiai 1 Cor 15:24; Col 2:10) or ‘lordships’ (kuriotetes Eph 1:21; Col 1:16) or ‘world-powers’ (kosmokratoras Eph 6:12) that exercise dominion in this present evil age. Like the devil himself, Mammon is a created thing that has cut loose from its created place, that has gathered power to itself, and that enslaves people in rebellion against God’s purposes.
In fact, rebellion against God is the cause of it all. By cutting ourselves loose from God we also lose control of the good gifts and powers that were meant to belong to us; that we were meant to ‘subdue’ and ‘have dominion over’. They get away from us, and master us. Under God’s judgement we are handed into their power.
In a brilliant and provocative discussion of all this, Karl Barth labels these forces as ‘lordless powers’, and suggests that Mammon is by no means the only one. We still live in a demon-possessed world, he writes, because our world is still …
possessed by the existence of similar or, at times, obviously the same lordless forces which the people of the NT knew and which have plainly not been broken or even affected, but in many ways intensified and strengthened by the fact that our view of world has become a rational and scientific one. Into this clear picture of the world which is ours they thrust themselves, palpable for all their impalpability in every morning newspaper in every corner of the globe, the great impersonal absolutes in their astonishing wilfulness and autonomy, in their dynamic, which with such alien superiority dominates not only the masses but also human personalities, and not just the small ones but also the great.
There are powers and authorities at work in our world, which are clearly above and beyond any human actor or actors, which no-one controls, but which shape human events and decisions. Barth points to ‘government’ or ‘the state’ or ‘political absolutism’ as one of these powers—the good gift of God in Romans 13 that becomes the inhuman power-hungry beast of Revelation 13, ever-growing in power and arrogance and authority, subjugating individuals and masses to its will and purposes.
He adds other lordless forces to the list—such as the various -isms that come to have a powerful life of their own (e.g., Marxism, capitalism, socialism, liberalism, nationalism, feminism, etc.). These ideologies are usually based in some truth or human capacity, but they become distorted, domineering thought-patterns that ‘possess’ their devotees and require submission. Every thought must be subordinated to the ideology, and made to fit its dictates. Who is in charge at this point? The socialist (or capitalist) who cannot see any interpretation of the world outside of his own, and who forces all facts to fit his paradigm? Or is it socialism or capitalism itself, as a rogue ideological thought-spirit, that has captured people’s minds and now prevents them from thinking of anything else?
Fascinatingly, Barth also names Technology, Pleasure, Fashion and Sport as lordless powers of our age. It’s not just that we can misuse the good gift of technology or clothing or exercise. It’s that these human powers or capacities have gotten loose from our control and become monsters that exert control over us. Who or what is it exactly, for example, that snaps its fingers and makes the world change fashion every year? Who or what is it that pulls these strings, such that even the most sensible among us find it “an impossibility to be old-fashioned”?
Or what sort of power or authority is it that captivates millions of people, determining their actions, their desires, their lifestyle and their emotions—all on the basis of whether an arbitrary group of individuals with whom they happen to share a geographical proximity wins a sporting contest?
We laughingly speak of worshipping at the temple of Sport, and how footy is our religion. But the power of Sport is real and malign. It is a ‘lordless power’ that comes to dominate people’s lives; that demands our financial, temporal and emotional investment; that promises significance and joy and the fulfilment of dreams, but never delivers; that twists and distorts our view of reality, such that our lives come to be lived in the dead space between Major Event and Major Event.
None of this is to dispute the personal reality of Satan as the father of all these lies. But if we acknowledge the reality and danger that the impersonal rogue powers and authorities of our age possess—like Mammon and Fashion and Ideology and Sport—we will be better placed to put on the armour of God and fight them. If we reckon with the threat that they pose, we will be better placed to attack and defeat them, and bring every thought captive to Christ.
What do you think?
Is it possible that Sport is one of the cosmic powers of this present darkness?
I’d like to discuss this further, but my time is up—in fact, if I don’t finish now I won’t catch the Showdown between Titmus and Lidecky, on the outcome of which hangs my whole happiness for at least the next half hour.
I’m not 100% convinced about this way of thinking about the lordless powers of our age, but it has potential I think. It’s certainly better than the two most common alternatives in Christian circles—either to think like liberals and completely ignore the reality of evil spiritual forces, or else to go down the quasi-pentecostal, This Present Darkness kind of route, in which the Christian life becomes like an episode of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer.
Really interested in your thoughts and reactions—just hit reply to this email, or send me a note directly (at firstname.lastname@example.org) or post a comment on the website.
I confess I have always been a bit suss about people who quote Karl Barth too often, and I have quoted him more than once over the past 12 months! Barth certainly has his quirks and problems, and I wouldn’t recommend reading him until or unless you’re of a certain theological age and stage (if I can put it like that). But more than once recently, he has pushed me to go back to the Bible to rethink what I’m reading there, and to see theological connections and patterns that I hadn’t noticed. That’s a plus.
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Karl Barth, The Christian Life (London: T&T Clark, 2017), 306-7.