PRESCRIPT: For those of you who are unfamiliar with cricket, it is a sport which emerged in England in the 18th century, descending from stick-and-ball games that were played during the medieval period (and which are also the ancestor of baseball, softball, rounders, etc). Cricket is widely played in countries of the former British Empire/Commonwealth; the Ashes are the oldest competition in cricket, played between Australia and England on a regular basis since 1882. This article was originally published in Engage.mail, the online journal of the Ethos Centre for Christianity and Society.
One of the highlights of the recently concluded Ashes series between Australia and England was the remarkable batting performance of former Australian captain, Steve Smith. Scoring 774 runs at an overage of 110.5, Smith seemed almost immune to the English bowling, inviting inevitable comparisons to Don Bradman.
What made Smith’s success so remarkable to many observers was the fact that it occurred in the wake of the infamous ball-tampering incident in South Africa in 2018. For his involvement in this affair, Smith suffered the indignity of being stripped of the captaincy and sentenced to a lengthy suspension from international cricket.
Reflecting on Smith’s recent achievement, commentators universally declared that Smith had ‘redeemed’ himself. The suggestion behind this declaration is clear: Smith has not only re-established his credentials as a cricketer, but has morally vindicated himself as a human being. Moreover, this restoration extends to others: the Australian team ‘brand’, cricketing fandom and the game itself.
Lurking beneath this feel good story, however, is a rather more sobering truth: the reality that the Smith ‘redemption’ story is simply an example of one of the key cultural myths of modernity. This myth is the belief that we are all autonomous individuals, who by dint of sheer willpower can re-create the world in our own image. What’s more, when things do go wrong, the myth declares that you can make amends on your own terms if you just work hard enough for long enough.
As a belief about what it means to be human, this myth raises troubling questions.
The first concerns the way in which our culture appropriates Biblical narratives for its own purposes. The Steve Smith ‘redemption’ story sounds like the stories of Eden and Easter. ‘Original sin’ leads to a ‘fall’, which is then ‘redeemed’ by a heroic act that enables a ‘reborn’ existence. Except, in the media’s redemption story, it isn’t God who ultimately rescues humanity, but humanity which rescues itself. The Biblical narrative is co-opted to buttress the modern myth of self-actualisation – a myth that explicitly denies the Good News that our redemption from the consequences of human folly is a gift of God’s grace.
A second issue is the disconnect which this appropriation renders between Smith’s ‘original sin’ and his ‘redemption’. Does Smith’s batting performance ‘redeem’ him in the sense that it warrants his future selection and presence on the cricket field? Or is there a deeper redemption evident in a transformation of Smith’s worldview that is a direct product of his experience of wrongdoing? Is Smith’s ‘redemption’ the ‘cheap grace’ Bonhoeffer warned against, bestowed upon Smith because we, the audience, feel good now that he is playing well? Given the widespread mockery that greeted Smith’s tearful apology at the time of the ball tampering scandal, one might wonder exactly who it is who has been ‘redeemed’, and for what purpose.
But if redemption is located in human achievement, as the autonomy myth claims, what does this say about those who fail to achieve? Smith’s co-conspirators in the ball-tampering affair, Dave Warner and Cameron Bancroft, have had a miserable series, scoring only 95 and 44 runs each, at respective averages of 9.5 and 11. If Smith’s ‘redemption’ is a product of his batting success, does Warner and Bancroft’s batting failure make them unredeemed – possibly ‘irredeemable’?
Seen in this light, we can understand how the autonomy myth leads to punitive social policies. The poor and unemployed become ‘failures’ whose circumstances reflect a moral bankruptcy that warrants punishment by way of truncated services, starvation-level welfare payments and humiliating compliance requirements.
But beyond these implications – which are disturbing enough – this issue also speaks directly into the life of the Church. The widespread lamenting of the ‘death’ of the Church among Christians speaks of a conspicuous disbelief in the Resurrection and its liberating promise that the church can ‘be church’ in ways and forms other than those which now exist. The many attempts to ‘renew’ (read: save) the church reflect a widespread acceptance by Christians of modernity’s myth that we can win our own redemption through powerful acts of will. The dismay within many denominations at their ‘failure’ – and the concomitant gloating by those churches that succeed on those terms the world recognises as ‘success’ – indicates the extent to which many Christians locate redemption in achievement and not in God’s gracious activity.
No-one can doubt Steve Smith’s talent or his recent on-field brilliance. But the media’s conflation of achievement with redemption seriously misunderstands where and with whom salvation resides. Christians need to be aware of, and repudiate, this problematic conflation if they are to speak prophetically to the wider world – and to ourselves and our own realities as communities of faith.