The Religion of Sports: From Michelangelo to Derek Jeter

Michelangelo’s “Muscular Jesus” looking like a bodybuilder behind the altar at the Sistine Chapel

IF I WERE TO SAY MICHELANGELO AND SISTINE CHAPEL, what image would immediately come to mind? For most people, I think, it would be the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the famous fresco “The Creation of Adam,” showing a majestic God reaching out to touch Adam.

But for me, the Michelangelo image in the Sistine Chapel that is most indelible in my memory is one that’s on the wall behind the altar, the painting titled “The Last Judgment.” And the reason I’ve been so touched by that painting is the portrayal of Jesus Christ, sitting just so and looking unlike any image of Jesus I’ve ever seen before. It’s Jesus with these incredibly powerful arms muscle-ripped neck and torso. It’s Jesus looking like a bodybuilder, like Arnold Schwarzenegger in his younger years, like a godly Incredible Hulk, like an All-American linebacker Baylor could use right now to shore up its defense. It’s what I have begun calling the “Muscular Jesus” because Michelangelo created him much as he painted or sculpted so many of the heroic men that he loved. The physique on that muscular Jesus is truly up there with the Greek Gods.

And I’m reminded of something the Rev. Jerry Falwell told me when I interviewed him at a Fellowship of Christian Athletes convention some years back. We were talking about sports and religion when he said, “I think God wants you to be a winner in life, and that spills over into athletics.” Then he added, “If kicking butts is part of it, then that’s part of it. Jesus was no sissy. If he played football, you’d be slow getting up after he tackled you.”

So if Michelangelo envisioned a muscular, hunky Jesus, perhaps Jerry Falwell wasn’t so far off in his version of what you can call “muscular Christianity.” In our culture, it’s also just part of the traditional American pep talk invoking a God who can be celebrated with material success, whether it’s selling cars or scoring touchdowns. If you say you believe and then you win, God must have been on your side. If you lose, maybe your faith wasn’t strong enough. Try harder.

And so is it any wonder that what we have today in American sports is a display of piety among athletes – from Little League all the way up to world class sports… a piety that often does seem like just another performance enhancer, like bio-feedback, speed, steroids, fear, or Wild Turkey.

Look at baseball.

Take the five-foot-six-inch hitter for the Houston Astros who slugs home runs as if he were Babe Ruth or a few other baseball legends in history. He’s Jose Altuve, who is about the size of a 12-year-old Little Leaguer. How can this be? In fact, in some recent Major League Baseball season, we have seen a record number of home runs hit, more than even at the height of the so-called steroid era. And no one is being called out for using performance enhancing drugs.

And often the face of this phenomenon is little Jose Altuve, who only a decade ago was hitting only seven home runs a season and getting paid half a million. Suddenly his home runs jump, and his salary increases nine-fold to $4.5 million. Mickey Mantle is turning in his grave.

What I have also noticed about Jose Altuve is that, after each home run, as he was about to finish his home run trot, he makes the sign of the cross and pointshis right forefinger to the heavens. Could the performance enhancer have been piety?

Just know this: If there were a record number of home runs hit, then we must have had a record number of celebrations at home plate where these sluggers, as they scored, could be seen pumping their hands to their chests and then pointing to the sky ask if giving thanks to someone upstairs. Go back and look at the highlights reels. Almost every home run hitter is doing this. Not just the predominantly Roman Catholic Latino ballplayers but white and black sluggers as well, who all took the idea of a baseball stadium as a cathedral to an entirely new level.

And it’s not just the athletes who are part of this large communal religion in sports.

Psychologists are closing in on the conclusion that sports have many of the same effects on spectators as religion does. In a book on this topic Professor Daniel Wann, a leading sports psychologist at Murray State University, concluded that:

“The similarities between sports fandom and organized religion are striking. Consider the vocabulary associated with both: faith, devotion, worship, ritual, dedication, sacrifice, commitment, spirit, prayer, suffering, festival, and celebration.”

Is it any wonder that we make art and religion out of our love of sports, especially baseball because we come to see in baseball, like art, the lie that reveals the truth about love and life as we see it. Like a great lover, sports lie to us and lie to us so well that we metabolize belief and suspend reality. Ultimately, baseball or any other sport becomes a religious symbolism and an act of faith. We suspend believe. We don’t care if we are lying to ourselves. We become what we behold, as it were. We are creating a cosmology of sport and man that carries us through life. We find what we want God to be in baseball by arresting time through a mutual reinforcing delusion that becomes a theater, no, better still, a baseball cathedral of our new faith.

Sport — and especially baseball during the season — becomes a transformative experience beyond balls and strikes, hits and errors, and league standings and championships. These moments do something to us that is medicinal, and baseball becomes an existential medication. It’s as if our teams help us address the existential panic of our real lives and we exorcise it out of our minds. Death goes from being an instant of panic to a deferrable abstraction no worse than the third out of an early inning. Thoughts of mortality dissipate, and we become immersed in an immortal now, like a visit to the Hall of Fame Museum in Cooperstown or a tour of Monument Park beyond the outfield wall of Yankee Stadium. Our fandom carries us to a stage of a rite of passage, moments when we have slain the dragons of real life and relieved ourselves of the angst.

There is something unusually interesting about the magic of infatuation but never more so than the infatuation that comes in a baseball fan’s delight in rooting for their favorite team and especially their favorite hero. It is like the love of the adolescent that we celebrate in life and in literature — and of which we are often told later by psychologists that this is little more than a legalized form of insanity. But baseball fans, like lovers, fall into that heated moment over which they can exercise little control. When fans fall into that heat of fire, it becomes an infatuation as if this is a mutual engendering of Godhood that narrows their perspective on everything else going on in their lives at that moment … when they are so intimately involved with their team, with their hero. Biochemically, we are told, it is like doing lines and lines of cocaine that blur our perspective and narrow our focus in this instance on our team, on our hero, and on their endeavor to win championships. We become addicted to our sports teams and to our sports heroes, and will use that addiction to relieve ourselves of the disappointments going on in our real lives and with our real families. We are inflamed by passion and infatuation for our sports teams, and it drives us mad like an addictive drug with the capacity of limiting our attention in that moment that the rest of the world dissipates and grows dim. The entirety of the cosmos becomes this one team, this one person with whom we are involved.

Of course, among some, baseball — which F. Scott Fitzgerald famously called “the faith of 50 million people” — is revered as a religion in itself. It follows a seasonal calendar and builds towards a crowning moment. Its players perform priestly rituals, its history abounds with tales of mythic heroes, and its fans study and argue arcana with the intensity of Talmudic scholars. And who could forget Susan Sarandon’s opening lines in the 1988 film Bull Durham? “I believe in the Church of Baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions, and most of the minor ones. I’ve worshipped Buddha, Allah, Brahma, Vishnu, Siva, trees, mushrooms, and Isadora Duncan. I know things. For instance, there are 108 beads in a Catholic rosary and there are 108 stitches in a baseball. When I learned that, I gave Jesus a chance.”

Muscular Jesus, no doubt…

As someone who has often written about the Yankees, I have to talk about Derek Jeter, someone Michelangelo might have wanted to paint, perhaps on a wall at Yankee Stadium.

In his final year before retirement, New York Yankees legend went through all the rituals he practiced in his career, though perhaps because it was coming to an end each thing he did took on more interest.

Especially his small prayers.

He prayed before he got to the ballpark.

He prayed before he got to the dugout.

He prayed before he got up at bat.

He prayed on the field before the opposing team got up at bat.

Derek Jeter prayed.

With the cameras constantly on Derek Jeter during his last home game of his amazing Yankee career, you couldn’t help but notice how many times he’d kneel, bow his head, and close with the sign of the cross.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” — Philippians 4:13.

Derek Jeter knew where his power, strength, talent, and victories came from. And it was his humbleness that made Jeter a truly great captain of the New York Yankees.

A colleague of mine told me she has relatives who attend the same Roman Catholic parish that Derek Jeter’s family belongs to. Every Christmas, they see Derek Jeter at Midnight Mass. There are no cameras, no fanfare. Just one man out of hundreds, sitting in the back of the church, coming to celebrate the birth of the Savior of the world.

As a child growing up in Kalamazoo, Michigan, and spending summers with his grandparents in New Jersey, Jeter’s one unwavering dream was to be the shortstop of the New York Yankees.

“I’ve been pretty blessed. This is always what I wanted to do,” Jeter told the hosts of the TV show Close Encounter. “But I appreciate everything that’s happened. I don’t take anything for granted.”

And he didn’t take the last Yankee home game of his 20-year career for granted either.

Top of the ninth, the Yankees were winning 5-2. But the Baltimore Orioles are a darn good team…and they tied it.

Bottom of the ninth. Brett Gardner gets a hit. The stage is set for Derek Jeter.

Derek knelt. He bowed his head, prayed, and closed with the sign of the cross.

Time to face the pitcher. Man on second.

Jeter swung and drove in the winning run.

Tony Castro is currently working on book about faith, nostalgia, and sports in America. The story is adapted from a speech you delivered at his alma mater, Baylor University.