This year’s Olympic Games take place under the shadow of many things. There’s the shadow of global economic crisis, the shadow of corruption in the Olympic Host City, the shadow of a dangerous city and Olympic facilities.
But in an almost unbelievably poetic turn, this year’s Olympics are also taking place in the shadow of perhaps the most striking Christian symbol in the world: Cristo Redentor, the 100-foot-tall statue of Christ the Redeemer with arms outstretched that stands over Rio de Janeiro. It’s a poetically visual representation of the truth of the Olympics: Jesus stands over everything we do, including the Games, and calls us to Himself with even the spectacle of sport that we celebrate this week.
And it’s actually particularly Biblical to apply a Redeeming Culture mindset to the Olympics, since they might actually be the only specific modern cultural event that Paul specifically redeemed in His epistles. So how is Jesus calling us to Himself with the 2016 Olympic Games? What can the spectacle of this sporting event tell us about our hearts and the desires within us for the Kingdom of God? A lot, as it turns out.
Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
We want to see the best, and if we can’t, we’ll settle for the best we can see.
In a way, this is indicative of how insatiable the human heart is. We want the biggest and the best because the small stuff just doesn’t satisfy us. Ecclesiastes tells us that God “has put eternity into man’s heart,” and spends the rest of the book calling everything lesser “vanities.” History and the Bible agree: we like superlatives, and nothing less can satisfy us. Which explains the Olympics to a tee: We want to see the best archer because we’re wired to like the best.
The Mystery of Fitness
Beyond just being the best, Olympians are strange, aren’t they? They’re almost superhuman. They run faster than us because their focus is different; they’re in better shape than us because their diet and workout is different. Listening to an Olympian talking is a strange event because they’re like us, but they’re also so very different from us. We’re drawn to that. Kind of like the circus; we like things that we can’t understand.
God’s favorite way to refer to Himself is “Holy,” which connotes something that is set apart, different, and maybe a little bit tough to understand. And the Bible never tries to hide this fact; indeed it revels in it!
The writer of Romans rejoices in chapter 11, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” (Romans 11:33) He goes on to ascribe to God glory for His other-ness, His differentness.
I have to say, I think this is a good thing. If God were like us, our world would surely be in shambles. The fact that God is set apart from us is thrilling, and maybe a little terrifying; we like seeing echoes of His set-apart-ness in the world around us. And yet, as set-apart as He is, He’s also created us in His image. He’s not like us, but we’re like Him. And so seeing Jesus, like seeing Olympians, is seeing a possible version of us that we could never attain on our own.
More than that, though, He’s on our side. Like the Olympians from our own nation, He is our champion, and He uses His perfection to run the race that we can’t run. And he does it perfectly, defeating every obstacle that would shred us.
A Test of Perfection
Archaeologists are suggesting that humans have been participating in organized sporting contests for nearly 4,000 years now, and the idea of non-athletic games is even older, possibly dating back nearly 5,000 years. Testing our bodies and minds is one of our oldest forms of entertainment. We debate rules, cheer on our favorites, and spend billions of dollars as a culture on gaming of so many sorts. What may have begun as a nonlethal version of war turned into a much friendlier pastime.
As I mentioned above, the Olympics may actually be the only relevant modern cultural institution that Paul specifically talked about in His epistles. Like the shrines in Athens, the Olympic Games inspired Paul to redeem culture, by comparing the Christian life with that of an athlete in training. “Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize?” he asks. “So run that you may obtain it.”
Though we (well, most of us) are only spectators to the Olympics, we are participants in the game that God has laid out for us and placed us in. He’s laid out the rules to successfully complete the race, and given us a manual and training plan to best complete it. But best of all, realizing that we don’t have the ability or skill to complete it well on our own, He has sent another to empower us to do so – the Holy Spirit. Which means that we do have the strength to run this race.
Watching the Games
Already this year, heroes have been made and brought low. Long-standing records have been broken, and surprise upsets have shocked the world. But as you watch the next few days of the Olympics, keep your eyes out for the draw in your heart toward the superlative (the best, the fastest, the strongest), the set-apart (the different, the other) and the contest (the test and challenge). Keep in mind that the Olympics, like everything else, point squarely toward God, just as Jesus reminds us by standing over them in concrete & soapstone form. As with all things, seek His glory in the Games.
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A precursor to this article was published in honor of the 2012 Summer Olympics on our predecessor site, Zoettrope. This version was updated and cleaned up for publishing at Redeeming Culture. Thanks for reading!