I have reserved the right to write about cricket here but that has been for the sake of cricket as cricket - a great, wonderful and endlessly fascinating game. Today cricket can be written about religiously, but sadly because of a tragedy.
A couple of weeks ago Phillip Hughes, an Australian batsmen of great talent and popularity, playing in a match between South Australia and New South Wales attempted to play a bouncer - a short pitched rising ball intended to (legally) unsettle if not intimidate the batsmen - missed and was hit in the back of the head. Despite wearing a helmet protecting nearly every part of his head this ball hit the lower rear of his head in such a way that a major blood vessel was damaged. Two days later in hospital he died unleashing amazing global grief uniting the cricket world.
Many have been the reflections since. The one I draw attention to here does so in terms of theology. Scott Cowdell, writing at the always thoughtful ABC Religion and Ethics site, reflects on "Sport and the Sacred Victim: Rene Girard and the Death of Phillip Hughes."
A minor but not unimportant aspect of this reflection is that it helps pea-brained people such as myself to get a better understanding of Girard and his deep insights into the relationship between the sacred and the social. Girard most frequent referencing by Christian theologians is in respect of his understanding of atonement.
Here Cowdell proposes that Hughes' death lays bear a disturbing truth for Australian society (where cricket plays - arguably - a stronger social role than in any other nation):
"The answer to why Phillip Hughes's death unleashed so much shock and even awe on so wide a front is because the foundations of our social order were uncovered to reveal a slain victim. We are not normally meant to see this mechanism laid bare like this, because it works best when we know about the slain victim intuitively rather than explicitly. When we see an actual death in this context, however, it is uniquely surprising, sobering and unifying."
Here is a flavour of his Girardian analysis:
"A third technology for deflecting and defusing violence is provided by ritual, which is the key thing for present purposes. Rituals unite a society in recollection of its founding murder, though as in myths there has to be a veiling of the whole truth lest its revelation weaken or undermine the cure. Without suitable awe and mystery surrounding them, so that the pragmatic nature of their efficacy remains concealed, such rituals lose their power. This is why the rituals of organised religion have so little power to move us any more, while rituals of militarism, celebrity and sport can still get the blood pumping.
The sense of emotion that a military parade, or a jet fighter flypast, or even an academic or legal street procession can evoke points to the social cohesiveness fostered by such ritual functions. They are religious in a primal way that works - and still works - far below the more superficial level of contested beliefs over which today's theists and atheists argue."
Incidentally, as we argue over our cathedral in Christchurch, Cowdell makes a general point about the shift in ritual power in society in relationship to extravagant spending on buildings in which rites are performed:
"In the case of sport, we are dealing with public rituals par excellence. Some of our greatest buildings are devoted to sport, with the huge expenditure once allocated to the sacred in its Christian form now lavished on the sacred in its sporting form."
This next bit I cite puzzles me as I am not yet convinced by him that he understands cricket appropriately in relation to primal religion in respect of 'victims':
"In cricket, ritual elements for the containment and dissembling of violence are very clear. This is a gentleman's game in which the older custom of wearing long whites (now also coloured variants) has long survived its abandonment by tennis players. The slow pace of the game in its traditional form applies the brake to violent escalation. Yet the batsman is clearly cast in the role of victim, with a licensed assailant flinging a hard ball of cork, string and leather weighing around 160g at the batsman. If the batsman appears weak, the opposing team gathers around him in what is called an "attacking field," all of which recalls the mob and the widespread practice of human sacrifice by stoning.
To be sure, all such rituals hide their true nature. In cricket, the victim is not helpless but is provided with protective gear and a bat to deflect the attack, with his success against the assailant celebrated. Likewise there is the deflection of attention to the stumps, which are attacked and defended, representing a further dissembling of the true victim's identity. Likewise there are two batsmen, so the single victim mechanism is further concealed. Yet when one batsman is dismissed another victim comes out, typical of ritual's repetitiveness."
As a bowler I cry that I feel the victim when my bowling is flogged by the batsmen!
But whether or not Cowdell understands cricket correctly in the Girardian sense, his final paragraphs bear very careful reflection. One question we could ask in the light of these paragraphs is whether Christianity died with Jesus on the cross (because in that death society's enthralment with victimization also died and thus the power of religion died too)?
"For Rene Girard, all such ritual mechanisms begin to falter with the onset of modernity. We lose our taste for blood sports, racism, pogroms, social exclusion and all other ritual marks of a nervous society preserving its order at the expense of innocent victims. We can distract ourselves with consumption, keep a lid on things through the quasi-religious expedient of nation-statism, and of course we retain public rituals such as sport and celebrity-baiting for helping maintain a tolerable level of social cohesion.
I suggest that the death of Phillip Hughes has had such a powerful effect on us because it reveals the disquieting, sobering yet powerful and unifying reality of the primitive sacred - the entirely human construct that our proto-human forebears happened upon to save them from their violent-tending rivalries. Hence Phillip Hughes has become at least a little godlike, has he not?"
My own final (at least for now) thought, reflecting on the phenomenon of the public grief over Hughes' death is this: for a week or two we saw myth-making in action. Hughes the very good cricketer became Hughes the transcendent, archetypal even godlike cricketer. We even have the phenomenon this week of a form of 'resurrection': Hughes has been named as "13th man" in the Australian test team for a match beginning today.
For those of us whose approach to the gospels is to firmly and resolutely eschew arguments that the gospels include the results of myth-making, there is pause for thought. When a person dies whose role (whether in life or death or both) in society is to move us in some primal manner, making myths about the deceased is the first thing we do. (For non-cricketers we can think, as Cowdell does, of the myth-making grief surrounding John F. Kennedy and Princess Diana). Hughes' death reminds us of our human tendency to manufacture myths as a coping mechanism for our loss of a figure vital to the ordering of our human experience.
For Christians, our ongoing reflection on the gospels is, or should be, critically peering beyond the mythical to the reality of what God was doing in and through Christ, indeed to the God who was present in Christ.
When the going is slow out in the middle and we are distracted and sleepy lying in the sun, we might contemplate these mysteries and ask, What if Jesus was an Australian cricketer?