March 25th, 2011
02:21 PM ET
Believe it or not, there are Duke University students who were fired up Friday morning, even though their Blue Devils lost to Arizona Thursday night in the NCAA basketball tournament.
They may be a minority, but these students feel like the same passion that goes into cheering on the basketball team should go into worshipping the Lord.
They've been holding outdoor worship services on campus all week and are sponsoring an afternoon-long Christian music concert on Saturday. Think of it as faith-based March Madness, though officially the events are part of Blue Flame Worship Explosion 2011.
"While our whole school is seemingly captivated by basketball, we are proposing an alternative to bring more peace to March," said Regine Jean-Baptiste, one of the organizers of the Duke Christian events, wrote in an e-mail message.
“Often times everyone in life gets wrapped up in something … more than they should,” she wrote.
"What we believe is that passion is good,” Jean-Baptiste continued. “...We just believe that those passions are also ways to enter into relationship with God. And if you don't know how, to begin the relationship starting with the worship of God is not a bad idea.”
Her group, which is not affiliated with any official campus organization, says there's nothing wrong with enthusiasm for hoops - just that such passions make this a good time to explore a deeper relationship with God.
Though the men's team is out of the NCAA tournament, the women’s team is still competing.
Duke's worship explosion comes amid a flurry of discussion in Christian circles about whether sports worship is approaching uncomfortable levels.
Some are taking a stand against what they see as a national sports obsession.
“That’s … one of the major things I decry in my book,” said Tom Krattenmaker, author of “Onward Christian Athletes,” who's based in Portland, Oregon. “The lack of that sort of prophetic distance from sports or the willingness to critique sports, the lack of setting priorities so that the worship of God is more important than this idolatrous relationship with sports.”
Sports have been an integral part of life for millenia; athletic contests figure into the Bible. Many theologians have examined how sport in their culture relates to values, including religious ones.
“There have been changes... in Christianity, particularly in evangelicalism over the years, and as sports has increased its popularity and increased its ways of invading our lives,” said Shirl James Hoffman, author of “Good Game: Christianity and the Culture of Sport.”
"Instead of exploring creative ways sport might serve true religious purposes such as spiritual growth and enrichment, the Christian community has seized on sport as a tool of status enhancement, advertising, and evangelism," he says.
Christianity and sports are often at odds, Hoffman says, arguing that competitive, high-dollar games can be seen as out of line with Christian principles.
“I would defy anybody to find a piece of research, and there’s been quite a bit done, that shows that participating in sport makes one more sympathetic kind, caring, all the kind of passive values that are talked about and valued in Christian community,” Hoffman said.
A bigger issue, he says, is that professional sports value materialism, commercialism and a Darwinian, hail-to-the winner ethos that jars with Christian values like self-denial and humility.
Krattenmaker agrees, adding violence, sexual aggression and idolatry are often associated with major league sports.Fans become wrapped up their favorite teams or favorite players.
“We go too far,” he says, “when we make sports the center of our lives.”
Hoffman says it would be naïve to think that the fans that show up for the Final Four in a couple weeks are going solely because they appreciate the skill and athleticism of the teams involved. For some, he says, it’s “sheer tribalism.”
“Theoretically it’s fun," he says, "but I’m not sure how tribalism would play out in the Scriptures.”
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team and frequent posts from religion scholar and author Stephen Prothero.