Spirit and Sport

Religion and the Fragile Athletic Body in Popular Culture

  • Author(s): O'Neil, Sean
  • Series: Sports & Popular Culture
  • Imprint: University of Tennessee Press
  • Publication Date: 2022-04-28
  • Status: Active
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In Spirit and Sport: Religion and the Fragile Athletic Body in Popular Culture, Sean O’Neil studies the intersectionality of religion and disability as it exists within contemporary sports. To do so, he calls to the forefront various contemporary stories about trauma and disability—some fictional, others biographical—and examines how we tell and interpret these stories within the frameworks of athletic activity, competition, failure, and success. O’Neil studies a wide range of perspectives, from John Irving’s A Prayer for Owen Meany and the big-screen’s Signs to the experiences of real-life athletes like Tim Tebow, Muhammad Ali, and Bethany Hamilton. Woven throughout his examination of each is a consideration of religious belief and practice, especially within Christianity, as it relates to athletic ability—the lighthearted stories of victory and overcoming, the inspiring triumph over fragility and limitation so often couched in religious terms.

O’Neil’s study draws upon his experiences as a hospital chaplain and his own battle with skin cancer. By blending personal experience with sociological observation, O’Neil argues that the intersection of religion, sports, and disability in popular culture is a revealing site of cultural struggle over competing myths, identities, and values related to the body—both the physical bodies we inhabit as well as the broader social bodies to which we subscribe.

Spirit and Sport is a study with broad appeal: from O’Neil’s autoethnographic storytelling to the wide range of narrative media he examines, religious scholars, sports historians, and general audiences alike are sure to find it a thought-provoking and engaging read.

SEAN O’NEIL is an affiliated scholar with the Sport and Religion Research Alliance at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. He lives in Fort Worth, Texas, where he is also a bishop, pastor, and hospital chaplain. He has written for Religion Dispatches and his articles have appeared in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Film and Identity and Myth in Sports Documentaries: Critical Essays.