by Tom Raabe
For the sports fan, this time of year is about as good as it gets. Football season is in full swing, baseball just topped out with the World Series, and basketball and hockey are hitting the on-ramp to their nine-month-long seasons.
It’s also still only a few weeks after Reformation Day, a time when we recall our rich Lutheran heritage. And that makes it the perfect time to combine our love of sports with our passion for Lutheranism and ask the question:
What is the quintessential Lutheran sport?
Many are the team sports that command loyal and enthusiastic followings. Baseball, basketball, football, hockey, lacrosse, volleyball, cricket, curling — all have their equities, their attractions, possibly even their theological applications. But although our religious life has many communal aspects, each person’s faith is, in the end, an individual enterprise, so in this exercise, we’ll stick to individual sports.
And of those, none more closely resembles the religious life than running. Distance running requires regular practice and intense personal discipline. Indeed, devoted adherents do it every day, unlike other sports where an enthusiast plays maybe once or twice a week. Runners aren’t like that. They approach their sport with a faithful regularity that Lutherans can’t help but applaud.
Running, like the life of faith, is replete in emotional ups and downs. Exhilaration comes in the form of the elusive runner’s high, an ecstatic surge of endorphins that results in euphoria and dissipation of anxiety. Conversely, the sport also threatens its devotees with the diametrical opposite — runner’s guilt. No sport nags at its participants for nonparticipation like running. And then there’s penance — witness the surplus mileage an adherent puts in to assuage runner’s guilt.
But is it Lutheran? Observe its devotees in action as they finish what is tantamount to the runner’s high feast day, a lengthy race. Contestants lurch across the finish line and throw their hands upon their knees in exhaustion; some collapse to the pavement, flopping on to their backs as their torsos heave for every breath of air. Their faces are portraits of pain, mouths agape, eyes wild as they stagger about. Some repair to the periphery to toss cookies.
This is the running faith, the regimen, the conviction. Now, what religious tradition does that scene call to mind? Hmmm. Feels Calvinistic to me. Or maybe even Catholic, what with all that ecstasy and penance.
It makes one want to take up a sport with a little more grace, doesn’t it?
Grace abounds in tennis. Indeed, in tennis, every point begins with exemplary, undeserved grace, as the server has two opportunities to get a service inbounds. This is unparalleled in the world of sports. One stands at the service line on every point knowing that he or she gets an automatic do-over in case of failure.
Further grace is dispensed via the “sweet spot.” Long ago the deans of tennis instructed racquet manufacturers to build into the center of their racquets an area approximately the size of an M&M (plain) whereupon the balls that are struck do exactly what the player intends them to do. Hit the ball on the sweet spot, and you have a shot to remember — one capable of bringing you back to the court for another session.
The problem with tennis, though, is its misuse of “love.” Love, universally acclaimed as a good thing in every other venue, sporting or not, is, in tennis, a bad thing. It means you have zero points. In tennis’s case, love loses (sorry, Rob Bell). This, friends, is a religious deal-breaker. We Lutherans demand greater care than this in our use of theologically loaded language.
Which brings us to golf.
John Knox, the founder of Presbyterianism, golfed, but we won’t hold that against this noble sport. Knox was from Scotland, after all, and he may even have played the Old Course at St. Andrew’s, the granddaddy of all golf tracks. A fair number of Presbyterian novelist John Updike’s characters golf, as do the priests who people J. F. Powers’s great novels. And then there is the Lutheran pastor at the end of Caddyshack who, after a life of golfing frustration, shoots the best round of his life in a driving rainstorm, only to miss a putt on the last hole — and be struck down by lightning.
Golf is played in God’s creation, outdoors under God-created skies, on verdant tracks of lush grass. Every hole sports an Edenic destination, a paradisial place called “the green.”
Like tennis, golf seems to teem with grace. Many challenges that bedevil other sports are absent in golf. For example, the golf ball is not moving when it is struck. Neither is the golfer moving when he hits it. There are no reflexes involved — no quick movements are required. Nobody else is trying to hit the ball at the same time. And the golfer isn’t trying to hit the ball back to someone. There’s no fouling, no penalty box — not even any trash talking. Plus, time stands still; a golfer can take five seconds to strike the ball or 50. It’s a gentle game of peace, well suited to peaceable Lutheran players.
Why, then, does this sport so quickly devolve into a maddening, confounding, infuriating, sand-digging, worm-killing extravaganza of rage — a foot-stomping, club-throwing exercise in futility, with any advances in skill revoked shortly after attainment by a heinous chunking or a round-killing blading of the ball — or even, on occasion, a total whiff?
As one of its many devotees, take it from me and do not let the game deceive you: there is no gospel in golf. There is only law — and bad breaks. And this will not do. Lutherans live by faith, not by par.
With running, tennis, and golf thus found inadequate theologically, where does that leave us in our quest for the ultimate Lutheran sport?
You think you know where I’m going with this, don’t you?
No, not Sheepshead.
Now, you may say (and you’d be right) that bowling sounds awfully Wesleyan, in that it offers the equivalent of “Christian perfection” with its sporting perfection of a 300 game, that is, a perfect game. Golf doesn’t give you that — well, technically it does, but nobody anywhere under any circumstances on any course that does not have moving windmill blades is going to shoot a score of 18. Perfection is not possible in running or tennis either. But in bowling, if you knock all the pins down on 12 consecutive rolls, you have achieved perfection.
On the surface, then, bowling does appear to be more Wesleyan than Lutheran. But there is one cultural association that has accompanied bowling for its entire history that should completely disqualify it for teetotaling Wesleyans. And that has to do with a certain fermented beverage popular with Christians of the Lutheran persuasion.
They don’t call the fifth frame of a bowling game the “holiness frame” or the “entire sanctification frame”; no, they call it the “beer frame.”
And which historical religious leader, I ask you, is most often associated with beer? I’ll give you a friendly hint: It’s the same historical religious leader whose portrait was once prominently featured in a diorama at the Bowling Hall of Fame. The same historic religious leader, moreover, who is not only credibly credited with deciding how many pins would be used in nine-pin bowling but who also had a bowling lane constructed next to his home (presumably so he could bowl a few friendly games with his wife now and then when he wasn’t leading a reformation).
That’s right: Martin Luther was a bowler.
We don’t have any dioramas of our favorite Augustinian friar waving a tennis racquet or killing snakes with a 9-iron. And although he did run away from the guy in the big, fancy hat, there are no contemporaneous reports of him taking a few quick laps around the Wittenberg city walls for fun and exercise.
But Luther bowling? Yeah, that fits.
And that’s enough for me to declare bowling the quintessential Lutheran sport.
Tom Raabe is a member of Christ Church Lutheran in Phoenix. In his golfing life, he has broken clubs and lawn ornaments but never 85.