Tuesday, December 9, 2014

What if Jesus was an Australian Cricketer?

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.
Initially ritual victims were killed, and later animal substitutes were sacrificed. Rituals of kingship often involved ceremonial challenges to the intended ruler by armed groups, which for Girard points to the origins of kingship in the way that prisoners were often kept in luxurious conditions until the moment of their sacrifice, when their scapegoat role was revealed. The echo of this particular ritual substitution is alive and well, with recent history confirming the close connection remaining between celebrity, leadership and the proneness of such widely envied persons to be made victims. Hence a whiff of the ancient sacred, in all its terror and wonder, is retained.
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.
Yet, since the world uniting to condemn Jesus Christ capped-off the Bible's exposure of all this, societies have become less and less able to console themselves by victimization. Thus the Christian revelation leads directly to the death of the archaic, socially-preserving sacred, setting us inexorably on the path to secular modernity.
Versions of the old sacred are busy trying to reassert themselves wherever the Nietzschian, Dionysian spirit is given play, from Nazi Germany to the sacred mythology celebrated by murderous video games and today's mythically-themed 3D blockbusters. The church has done plenty to deny its own best instincts, too, not least by painting a violent and judgemental God as saviour, who in reality comes more from the pages of myth than from the Gospel. Yet something of the emotional, cohesive power of these rituals abides, and all the better preserved by its roots remaining hidden from view.
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?


Eric said...

This has been an interesting story.

Australians don't talk about prayer much, the day after the accident, the front page of the paper said "PRAY FOR PHIL", and indeed lots of people on Twitter & internet comments and those quoted in the media spoke of praying for him.

After he died, I was surprised at how much the world stopped. Overseas matches paused for a day, interstate (and the next level down) matches cancelled, the Test schedule rearranged. Several front pages, the funeral on the radio.

He has gone from being someone in & out of the national team to someone who will never be forgotten.

Finally, the cartoon in today's paper showed Hughes sitting in heaven in front of the TV (showing the Adelaide Oval scoreboard with St Peter's Cathedral in the background) saying "Thank God - the cricket's back on".

Father Ron Smith said...

"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):" - Dr. Peter Carrell -

Now, was this Mother Bear, Father Bear or Baby Bear, discovered in this tragedy?

Sorry, Peter, for the pun, but you asked for it.

Considering the great danger some people are willing to experience for the love of sport, one has to wonder how so many actually survive. Having said that, this was a member of someone's family, a beloved child of God - even if raised to the level of incipient sainthood. R.i.P.

Jean said...

I can't say I actually follow all of Codwell's musings but it seems a leap to imply Christ's death had any role in the transition between social cohesion around victimisation and blood rituals, and modern day social cohesion around such activities as sport.

Unless my history is totally off the mark, didn't Roman gladiators executions continue long after the death of Christ, with Christians often being the chosen victims?

Is it myth that causes people to rally together or the reality that the deaths of such as Hughes and Princess Diana who become well known to many, strike at the core of our humaness that rationally knows we are mortal but somehow, something, perhaps even spiritual, senses we were not created to die.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Jean
There is a mystery as to why the death of one individual may occasion an outpouring of grief that the deaths of many individuals do not (whether at once, e.g. disaster, or in a series, e.g. martyrdoms in successive "games" at the Coliseum).

Perhaps in the case of Jesus our best attempts at delving into the mystery of the impact of his death are integral to the development of Christology!

Jean said...

Hi Peter

I am not so sure. It all seems quite logical to me. The more one has or feels a personal connection, real or perceived, to the person, the greater the grief. As well of course other factors such as age, suddeness and cause.

In Afghanistan before the US occupation 300 000 children under the age of five died each year under Taliban rule. There was grief if you knew, but even then these children didn't enter our living rooms as individual personalities through the paper or tv, so the grief is distanced. In disasters it affects us more (which is sad but real) when either someone we know or from our country is impacted because of the personal connection.

The mystery of God become man to die and by doing so save the world for sure, a little out of the ordinary in terms of human history. But isn't it a case that the death (and subsequent resurrection) has the most impact people when they personally relate or connect to Jesus?

What do you think?


Anonymous said...

Peter, I spent a good deal of the week trying to follow Cowdell's argument on the original web site. I read lots of arguments in any given week and the simplest are usually the most convincing. Cowdell's argument is complicated. I don't think we need to worry that the disciples manufactured myths to cope with the death of Jesus. Far from making myths about the Princess of Wales or JFK, we have subjected their lives to intense scrutiny.


Peter Carrell said...

Hi Nick
You've convinced me: Cowdell has over-egged his Girardian pudding!

Hi Jean
Good point: most people don't care much for the death of Jesus who do not relate to him!