The Gods of Sport and Art

This video is something I made a few weeks ago for a worship event at college chapel focussing on Acts 17:16-34. Paul called the Athenians “extremely religious… in every way”  The question that occured to me: What would Paul make of Melbourne? What gods would he observe? So I went on an anthropological expedition through Melboure to see what I could find out.

A few weeks ago I wrote up the more theoretical side of this quest – in a post entitled The Gods Walk Amongst Us. However, it was turning into a long post, so I thought I’d bracket out talk about actual specific gods I encountered. So this post is about two very major gods of Melbourne, chosen from a huge pantheon: Sport, and Art.

Francois Vase

Chariot racing on the Francois vase c. 570 BCE

Sport is almost too obvious. an example. For a start, it has been associated with the gods, and the honouring (or even propitiation) of the dead since ancient times. Homer has Achilles organise funeral games for his friend Patroclus. And of course there was a strong religious component to the Olympic Games (after all – they are named after the home of the gods.)  There is something powerful about standing with thousands of people and roaring your approval when your team scores a goal – something that takes you out of yourself, and binds you together with your fellow fans, all breathing as one. It inspires devotion.

There is something very powerful about following a sporting team. You lose your identity, it is a transcendental experience of being taken up into something outside yourself. Look at the way people wear team colours – especially at sporting events, but it is pretty common to see them worn in completely non-sporting situations. And have you ever wondered about the way people talk about particular games? We won, we lost, it’s always us who do this. At one level it is profoundly mysterious who this “we” is. I wasn’t down there on the pitch, scoring the goal. I was, at best, in the stadium somewhere, cheering “my” team on. Or perhaps I was even watching it on TV – not even necessarily cheering out loud, but nodding approvingly at a particularly stunning moment of athleticism. Sport demands sacrifice – not only of the participants, but also of the spectators.
So who is “we”? “We” are the worshippers of the god of sport – a combination of athletic prowess, drama, and identification. It speaks to something deep within us to see our representatives triumph – or the strong pathos of seeing them lose. It isn’t “them” winning or losing, it is “us”. So sport even turns out to have a sort of congregational, cultic element.
The way that sports people (“sporting heroes”) are supposed to be role models is also interesting. It’s an odd idea – why should someone who has spend many, many years becoming very, very good at a particular physical activity have anything to teach the rest of us about how to live? But we are horrified when they fall from grace. Rock and Roll stars and actors are (archetypally) always on drugs and getting into scrapes and we relish it. But sporting stars? Not so much. We expect them, as representatives of the god, to be archetypes of grace in all aspects of life, and worship them for it. And when they fail, then we revenge ourselves upon them.
The divine nature of Sport can be seen even more clearly when it’s amateur. What is the point of sport? One could perhaps say that the point is to get fit. But that doesn’t seem to be a particular benefit of chess or cricket (or baseball, if you’re from North America). Or there’s something social about it? But running can be done completely alone, and though runners can be clubbable, it’s not a team activity. The thing about sport is that it appears to be its own justification. The point of playing sport is to the playing of sport. It’s a kind of an absolute. It’s a kind of worship, which demands sacrifice and commitment, and the reward you get for all your effort is simply that you can participate.

MONA in Hobart

Or perhaps art is more your thing. I’m very struck by its sanctifying power, and MONA is my favourite example of this. It is unquestionably the case that gambling is, let us say, problematic. A lot of people I know are very hostile to the Crown Casino in Melbourne, and to poker machines in pubs and clubs because of their effects on vulnerable people. But often exactly the same people are very keen on MONA – the Museum of Old and New Art in Hobart. But the philanthropist behind MONA, David Walsh, made his considerable fortune gambling. So if your position is that Crown is a detestable parasite that feeds off the poor, how is that not the case for MONA? (It is one of my unkind pleasures to point this out to people. I know, it’s petty of me.)

But people do feel completely justified – proud even – in going to MONA. And that is because it is Art. But why should art have this transcendent, cleansing power? After all, we are long past the time when Art had to be justified by its edifying, moralising effects. No, Art is transcendent, and it is appropriate to sacrifice to it, to make pilgrimages to its shrines – the Uffizi, the Louvre, the British Museum, and even MONA. Art is, in fact, a god. Apollo, perhaps. Or Bacchus. And that makes sense, because the great dramas of the ancient Athenians were held in honour of Bacchus. In fact, even more apropos, they were paid for by the richest citizens in Athens as a sort of tax. And the name of this tax? Litourgia– which is where we get our word “liturgy” from. (They could also do things like outfit a warship, but that takes us away from our point.) The Greeks were quite suspicious of wealth (because it disrupted old hierarchies) and I suspect a sacrifice to the gods was a way of making this dangerous thing OK. Exactly, and I mean exactly, like David Walsh’s ability to cleanse the moral contagion from his gambling wealth.
In the non-modern world, the gods were (and are) named, and lived close to culture. In our world, we think we live in a rational, modern state, where we are free to pursue self-realization in any way that takes our fancy. But, in fact, we are devotees of the gods.
In the Old Testament, there seem to be traces of a time where there was a “host of heaven” – sort of junior gods, where THE LORD was the chief god. (Of course, there are other, more strictly monotheistic strands in the OT as well.) Over time, the gods got demoted to saints and angels.
That’s the thing about the gods. They find their right, healthy, helpful place as angels – messengers from the One True God. But when they attempt to usurp God’s place, bad things can happen. As Chesterton said, in the morning one washes in the clear water of the Stoics, but in the evening, its bulls’ blood with Julian the Apostate. And if you don’t recognise the gods for what they are, then you are unable to know how to handle them. If you don’t recognise a god, and know its rightful place, you are going to end up sacrificing to it, and you won’t know why. And, frankly, a lot of what seems mysterious about our world becomes a lot clearer when one realises this. At base, we live, after all, in myth and story, not reason.

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