Professor Ori Z. Soltes discussed his latest book, God and the Goalposts: A Brief History of Sports, Religion, Politics, War, and Art at an event hosted by the Georgetown University Center for Jewish Civilization. Soltes, a professor of theology, philosophy and art history, is the former director of the B’nai B’rith Klutznick National Jewish Museum, where he curated more than 85 exhibitions.
Soltes’ idea for God and the Goalposts came about during the 2008 Beijing Olympics, when he took notice of the ritualism in the opening ceremonies. Around the same time, he read a New York Times article about how the coach of the United States’ archery team was a born-again Christian who even baptized some of his archers.
Over the next few weeks, he kept noticing the interaction between sports and religion.
“Once you start thinking about something, you start finding it in things you might not have noticed,” he explained. “And I kept noticing over the next month or two all of the places in which sporting events seemed to be accompanied very directly by the confidence on the part of some athlete that God was making his jump shot go in, or in the case of another that God apparently made him drop the football in the end zone.”
Divine intervention in competition is an idea, Soltes explained, that goes back as far as antiquity. As an example, he displayed an image of a statue of an Egyptian ruler with the falcon-like figure of the god Horus resting on his back.
“The message to the viewer is, ‘don’t mess with me, because I rule not just because I’m a nice guy or you elected me or I seized power, but I have the gods on my side,’” he said. “‘Mess with me, you’re messing with the gods.’”
For the ancient Greeks, sports were not just used as a method of training for war; it also served as a form of war itself.
“Sports has always been a surrogate for war; athletes and warriors are analogues of each other,” Soltes said.
The Iliad, full of warrior duels, also heavily features the involvement of the gods. Throughout Greek mythology, various gods become involved not only in the outcome of battles, but also in the outcome of races and other athletic competitions.
Soltes demonstrated how athletics were depicted in art for the ancient Greeks, and the Romans as well. Sculptures reflected the ideal male body of their respective times, which was that of a muscular athlete-warrior, along with more subtle religious symbolism.
“Religion and politics have always been interwoven, and sports and war have always been interwoven, and war has often been fought either for political or religious reasons, or both,” he said. “And our source for understanding this through history … is often the arts.”
In the Bible, sports and war also feature a religious component. Jacob becomes Israel by wrestling with God; David defeats Goliath with an unlikely slingshot. The prevailing narrative throughout the Old Testament is that whoever wins has God on their side.
“It’s very explicit in that text [the Bible], here and there, when outstanding sporting events take place,” Soltes said. ”Some of those sporting events can be construed as sporting, in the case of Jacob, or in the case of David, it’s really war. It’s sport-war, but of course he honed the skill with which he takes the giant down, as not a warrior, but a kind of athlete-shepherd, protector of the flocks.”
Sports and Religion in the Americas
Soltes explained how this religious component of competition appeared in the Americas as well. The modern sport of lacrosse, for example, developed out of an Iroquois religious ritual. The Maya played a game involving a leather ball, and their courts were always within the context of temples.
Soltes looked at the intersection of religion and sports on other levels as well, beyond the idea of divine intervention or religious ritual.
Looking at more modern examples, he points out how Jews dominated the American boxing scene in the 1920s and 30s, holding about 80% of titles.
“In part it was because of Jewish immigrants coming to the United States, and sports were a way of working their way into the mainstream,” he explains.
Issues at the intersection of religion and sports still continue to the modern day. Muslim athletes might have trouble playing during Ramadan, the month during which observant Muslims fast daily from sunrise to sunset. They also might have trouble finding Halal food, in the same way that Jewish athletes might have difficulty getting Kosher food. Obviously, Soltes points out, these are not issues facing Christian athletes in the United States.
“And there are a lot of different directions in which one can then follow with this question of how members of a minority function within the majority with respect to sports, which is obviously a subset of that larger question,” Soltes said. “These are larger issues than just sports.”
Soltes demonstrated how God and the Goalposts: A Brief History of Sports, Religion, Politics, War, and Art lives up to its ambitious title. Throughout the presentation, he displayed different forms of artwork, showing how they are illustrative of their society’s conceptualization of sports or religion, and how that then relates to war and politics.
“All of these aspects of human enterprise have a much more intimate interweave among them over the course of history and across geography than ordinarily we’re likely to think of,” he concluded.
God and the Goalposts: A Brief History of Sports, Religion, Politics, War, and Art was published in February 2017, and is available for purchase on Amazon.