Sports Movies and 1 Samuel 17

I love sports. I love movies. I often dislike sports movies.

I say that for the simple reason that many of these movies do a really poor job at portraying the sports authentically. I mean I fully realize that a sports setting is often just a venue to tell a story with a significant human interest. But for crying out loud, get the sports right! Sometimes I think there was a secret agreement among filmmakers where they all decided it wasn’t necessary to tether dramatic portrayals of sports to reality.

Even so, there have been quality efforts that have bucked the trend. As someone who grew up in a small Midwestern town and played high school basketball, I’m almost required to like the movie Hoosiers.* So I’m particularly glad it’s a fine film anyway. Who can forget Jimmy Chitwood’s demonstration of that rarest of qualities in the world of sports, confidence devoid of hubris? Just prior to icing tiny Hickory High’s improbable victory in the Indiana State Championship game, Jimmy tells Coach Dale, “Coach, I’ll make it.” And you, along with the rest of Hickory’s team, believe him. Loved. That.

*As an aside, I think one of the reasons Hoosiers is successful is it has the great advantage of portraying high school basketball in the 1950’s. At the time, the game lacked some of the athleticism of today, making it an easier sell for the actors.

Still, I begrudgingly have to admit that there are two memorable flaws in the film. The first occurs when Coach Dale kisses his fellow teacher. Now, I’m not at all against love stories, etc. (I’ll admit it: one of the best films I’ve seen in the last ten years is the 2005 version of Pride and Prejudice.) But that episode seemed ill-placed. The second occurs just before Hickory takes the court in the championship game. In what is meant to play as an inspiring devotional message, Reverend Doty (?) reminds the team of David and Goliath. The point is obvious. David was a small, easily dismissed underdog. But he won. He beat Goliath. We’re small, easily dismissed underdogs. But we can win, too. Sometimes the little guy comes out on top.

The problem with this—and here’s where those of you looking for some kind of theological insight from this post can jump back in—is that’s not really what the actual biblical story is about.

I’ve mentioned as much in the Seminary 101 class, in which we’ve been looking at 1 Samuel recently, and Paul Tripp touched on some similar thoughts this past Sunday in his sermon. A close reading of the biblical account bears this out. I won’t include the entire passage from chapter 17 here, but consider a few selected verses:

26 David asked the men standing near him, “What will be done for the man who kills this Philistine and removes this disgrace from Israel? Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”

34 But David said to Saul, “Your servant has been keeping his father’s sheep. When a lion or a bear came and carried off a sheep from the flock, 35 I went after it, struck it and rescued the sheep from its mouth. When it turned on me, I seized it by its hair, struck it and killed it. 36 Your servant has killed both the lion and the bear; this uncircumcised Philistine will be like one of them, because he has defied the armies of the living God. 37 The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and the paw of the bear will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine.”

45 David said to the Philistine, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied. 46 This day the LORD will hand you over to me, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel. 47 All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’S, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

Some relevant observations:

  1. David doesn’t see the situation primarily in terms of a physical battle. He understands Goliath’s challenge to be a defiance of the one true God (vv. 26, 45).
  2. David’s confidence isn’t in his own pluck and skill as a warrior. It’s firmly rooted in the Lord. He specifically notes that it was the Lord who delivered him from the lion and bear. Because Goliath “has defied the armies of the living God,” David is confident the Lord will deliver him—and Israel—in this situation as well (v. 37).
  3. David confronts Goliath, not for his own sake, but “in the name of the LORD Almighty” (v.45). David knows that the Lord is infinitely mightier that any warrior, no matter how strong.

David, of course, goes on to defeat Goliath in what is from one perspective an improbable fashion. But what we’ve just observed should help us realize that the whole episode is ultimately about the Lord demonstrating his power for the purpose of defending his own honor. And the Lord defeating Goliath is no “upset.” That he would use a relatively unimpressive instrument to do so isn’t meant to establish that we should never underestimate the underdog. It’s much more accurate to come away from the story thinking we should never underestimate the Lord. Not only does this underscore his greatness (and therefore his worthiness to be loved and followed), but it dovetails nicely with a point that shines though time and time again in the biblical story: God is its one true hero.

That’s a quick look at one often-abused biblical passage in the world of sports. Philippians 4:13 will have to wait for another day.

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