Strange Fire of the Olympic Games

Published by the English Churchman, issue 7849, 13th July 2012. 

The Olympic Flame is lit at the Temple of Hera by eleven women representing the Vestal Virgins.

 STRANGE FIRE

Warrants

Leviticus 10:1
Jeremiah 7:17-19

Discourse

But Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took either of them his censer, and put fire therein, and put incense thereupon, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them.

As London prepares to stage the 2012 Olympic Games, it is profitable for us to consider the event from a Christian perspective and so shape our thoughts towards the Games.

The origins of the event are fundamentally and irrefutably pagan.  The official website of the Olympic Movement states[1]:

‘According to historical records, the first ancient Olympic Games can be traced back to 776 BC.  They were dedicated to the Olympian gods and were staged on the ancient plans of Olympia.  They continued for nearly 12 centuries, until Emperor Theodosius decreed in 393 AD that all such “pagan cults” be banned.’

There is no doubt that the Olympic Games were intended to be held in veneration of the Olympian gods.  Various ancient Greek myths were recorded to explain the origin of the games.  Pindar recounted that Herakles (Hercules) established an athletic competition in honour of his father, Zeus.  Another, Pausanias, stated that the Games placated the gods, ensuring peace in the land.

Theodosius I, Emperor of Rome, caused the Olympic Games to cease.  Most scholars take this to have occurred in 393 or 394 AD; either directly, or through the prohibition of pagan festivities.  Theodosius was, by historical account, a Christian ruler who became increasingly fervent in removing paganism from the Roman Empire.  Amongst other works, he proscribed all public and private acts of pagan worship, prohibited state funds from being used for the upkeep of pagan buildings, and destroyed temples dedicated to pagan gods.  He was at the forefront of the adoption of Christianity as the national religion of the Roman Empire and, by 392 AD, had outlawed paganism.

Fifteen centuries later, Pierre de Coubertin was instrumental in the establishment of the modern Olympic Games, the first of which was held in Athens in 1896.  Comparing the modern games with those of antiquity, he wrote[2]:

‘The primary, fundamental characteristic of ancient Olympism, and of modern Olympism as well, is that it is a religion.  By chiselling his body through exercise as a sculpture does a statue, the ancient athlete “honoured the gods.”  In doing likewise, the modern athlete honours his country, his race, and his flag.  Therefore I believe I was right to restore, from the very beginning of modern Olympism, a religious sentiment transformed and expanded by the internationalism and democracy that are distinguishing features of our day.  Yet this is the same religious sentiment that led the young Hellenes, eager for the victory of their muscles, to the foot of the altar of Zeus.  The religious idea of sport, the religio athleate, has entered very slowly into the consciousness of the athlete, and many of them act accordingly only by instinct.’

The statement Coubertin presents is that the modern Olympics is intended to create religious fervour, indeed recreation of the “religious sentiment” of pagan worship.  The Christian must recognise that associating with religious fervour towards anything other than God is idolatry.

Avery Bundage, President of the International Olympic Committee from 1952 to 1972, reinforced the religion of Olympism.

‘[Olympism is] a religion with universal appeal which incorporates all the basic values of other religions, a modern, exciting, virile, dynamic religion.’[3]

The Olympics encourages interfaith dialogue at the expense of Christian theocentricity.  It effectively reduces Christianity, the true faith, as one of the many other religions possessing “basic values”, as if the possession of such is the specification by which the merit of a religion is to be measured.  The object of such dialogue is not the glorification of God; the effect is the dilution of robust, Biblically-founded faith into lowest-common-denominator beliefs comprising of worldly “basic values” and natural morality.  Venerating values shared with other religions, instead of worshipping the Christ that sets us apart, is idolatry, as is the promotion of any system that seeks so to do.

The official explanation of the torch relay in the modern Olympics sheds further light on its paganism[4].

‘During the [ancient] games, a sacred flame burned continually on the altar of the goddess, Hera.  A very precise ritual for the lighting of the Flame is followed at every Games.  It is lit from the sun’s rays at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, in a traditional ceremony among the ruins of the home of the ancient Games.’

Let us take note, here.  This is not a mere recollection of history.  This is an explanation of why the torch relay exists: as a commemoration of the goddess, Hera.  Colossians 2:8:

Beware lest there be any man that spoil you through philosophy, and vain deceit, through the traditions of men, according to the rudimets of the world, and not after Christ.

The Geneva Bible footnotes refer to these traditions as that “which is manifestly superstitious and vain, and standeth only upon custom and feigned inspirations.”  It is difficult to argue that the ritualism of the Olympics is anything more meritorious than this.

When an event, or ideology, or emotion, usurps the position intended for God alone, it is an idol.  Care must be taken in all endeavours, in all opinions and determinations, to ensure that they are only held so far as they glorify God in his various offices, and do not take the place of God as the object of glorification.

When an event or ideology has fundamentally pagan origins, it is futile for a Christian to claim that participation in it glorifies God.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump (Gal 5:9), and this analogy can be applied not only to erroneous doctrine but erroneous assemblies – with good foundations but wayward practice, or rotten foundations concealed with worldly respectability.  How can a Christian, in good conscience, participate in an event designed to commemorate the Olympian gods, even if it is not their own intention so to do?  Theodosius I abided by Deuteronomy 18:9; we must maintain it:

When thou shalt come into the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not learn to do after the abomination of these nations.

Even a brief examination of Scripture reveals that idolatry is a sin common to all ages and locations.  It has taken many forms, from the overt idolatry of the golden calf and the worship of Baal, to the seeking of material gains and the veneration of possessions.  The worshipping of the true God and the forsaking of all necessary therefore, is Commandment Number One and, according to Christ, the “great commandment” (Mat 22:36-38).

Further Reading

Baker, William J. Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. Cambridge, Massachusettes: Harvard UP, 2007.

Guttmann, Allen. The Olympics: A History of the Modern Games. Urbana (Ill.): University of Illinois, 2002.

Harker, Barry. Strange Fire: Christianity and the Rise of Modern Olympism. Rapidan, Virginia: Hartland Publications, 1996.

Vondey, W. (2003). Christian Enthusiasm: Can the Olympic Flame Kindle the Fire of Christianity?. Word & World. 23 (3), pp 312-320. <http://wordandworld.luthersem.edu/content/pdfs/23-3_Icons_of_Culture/23-3_Vondey.pdf> [accessed 23 June 2012]


[1] The Olympic Movement, Ancient Olympic Games (2012) <http://www.olympic.org/ancient-olympic-games> [accessed Monday 18th June 2012]

[2] Pierre de Coubertin, Olympism (International Olympic Committee, 2000)

[3] Avery Bundage, Avery Bundage on the Olympic Movement as a Religion (06.10.64) <http://berkleycenter.georgetown.edu/resources/quotes/avery-brundage-on-the-olympic-movement-as-a-religion> [accessed 23 June 2012]

[4] The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, Olympic Torch Relay History <http://www.london2012.com/torch-relay/history/> [accessed 23 June 2012]

 © 2012,  Roy Bartle.

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