Spotlighting student work 1: Rugby as Religion

This semester, I have been involved in teaching our most popular course here at the University of Auckland, Theology 101 The Bible and Popular Culture. As the semester is winding to a close, I thought that it would be a perfect opportunity to share some of the excellent student work that came out of the course. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be showcasing a number of essays that really capture the exciting and engaging research that can be done in this field of biblical studies.

Given the events of the past weekend (for those of you living in places where rugby is not treated as a sacred event, please see here), it seemed apt to begin with an essay that considers the biblical and religious themes found within the glorious game of rugby. This essay was written by Theology 101 student Ben Fulton. Ben is a first year student taking joint degrees in Engineering and Arts here at the University of Auckland. Although he took Theology 101 as part of his General Education requirements, he enjoyed the course so much that he is now considering taking more courses in Theology and Religious Studies as a minor in his Arts degree. Ben chose this topic for his essay because, like so many Kiwis, he admits to having ‘an obligatory interest in rugby’. So sit back, read, and enjoy Ben’s discussion on rugby, religion, and Richie McCaw.

New Zealand All Blacks perform the Haka during the 2011 Rugby World Cup semi-final match Australia vs New Zealand at Eden Park Stadium in Auckland on October 16, 2011. AFP PHOTO / GREG WOOD

Rugby, Religion, Richie and Redemption

By Ben Fulton

Imagine a world where Richie McCaw is the Messiah, delivering us from evil. A cosmos where John Kirwan, stone tablet and staff under each arm, is an active visionary who selflessly relives his own dark experiences for the benefit of other sufferers. An environment where we pray to our idols, congregate at the Cloud (1), and worship together in behemothic stadiums. Only this world isn’t so imaginary after all. This is the world we, as New Zealanders, live in. It is often stated that rugby is our nation’s religion. But can this claim be validated, in an academic sense? Can a sport truly be spiritual, all­-encompassing and faith-­invoking enough to function as a religion? Through examining the similitude between rugby and more traditional  religions, investigating the tenets of religion itself and exploring both Richie McCaw and John Kirwan as case studies of modern day Messiahs and prophets respectively in popular culture, this essay aims to answer these core questions and realise the fundamental place that rugby has in our society.

Heavenly skies over Eden Park Rugby ground Auckland
Heavenly skies over Eden Park Rugby ground Auckland

The links between rugby and religion are innumerable. The contemporaneously relevant Rugby World Cup is referred to daily as the Holy Grail. ‘Rugby Heaven’ is a website owned by Fairfax Media, “covering every aspect of the game” (2). Eden Park can be viewed as a place of worship (3), where people unify as a community to express exaltation, and the regular Biblical references to the stadium as the “Garden of Eden” (4) cannot be denied. Yet within the Holy Land, people trespass. As Jesus proclaims in Mark 11:17, “My house should be called a house of prayer for all the nations…but you have made it a den of robbers,” whereby the temple of Jerusalem has been tarnished by those sinning within its walls. We could extend this analogy in considering the ticket scalpers outsides the turnstiles at Eden Park, turning what should be a place for exaltation and ardour to a money­laundering, corruption­rife means of making a quick dollar. Yet the similarities between sport and religion do not end here. Just as religion brings nations together the world over, rugby binds people to one another in New Zealand, as evidenced by the title of Martin Snedden’s (CEO of Rugby World Cup 2011) book where New Zealand is described as a “Stadium of Four Million” (5). Mike Grimshaw, an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Canterbury describes rugby as “the fervour, the passion, the excitement occupying the space in people’s lives” (6), which is analogous only to religion in the social milieu of New Zealand today. And the esteemed rugby writer Gregor Paul affirms that rugby possesses similar traits to religion when he states that rugby is “a means to show who you are and what you can do…a commitment to play with style, an unshakeable belief that fear and imagination will conquer all. To consider playing any other way is sacrilege” (7). Hence there is remarkable resemblance between rugby and religion, and the innumerable links between the two cannot be understated.

All Blacks fans Rubgy world cup, 2015
All Blacks fans Rubgy world cup, 2015

Sam Kellerman, brother of ESPN boxing commentator Max, described sport as a world where the result is neither life nor death but considered as if it were so, and a spiritual universe where one has to constantly grapple with life and death, yet the latter is inevitable regardless (8). However, perhaps religion and sport are not opposing forces, but instead interlocking circles. Religion as been stipulated by Clifford Geertz to mean “an organised collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views…[from which] people derive ethics or a preferred lifestyle” (9). Rugby, aside from being a sport, is a way of life here in New Zealand from the Saturday morning pilgrimage to play/support the Under 12s, to being the most hotly contested water cooler conversation at work, to the All Blacks as the pillar in which many thousands of New Zealanders invest much of their time and faith. Oscar Fernández and Roberto Cachán­Cruz argue that sporting rites “arouse in the group [participants and spectators of sport] a feeling of belonging, of communitas” (10), an analysis which is certainly applicable to rugby in New Zealand. Amateur rugby clubs, bars and the stadiums themselves are all communities where people are bounded together by their ‘love of the game.’ And thus we see the resemblance between sport and religion itself, many of which are founded on the key attributes of love, faith and salvation. Jesus himself in John 6:47 proclaims “Very truly, I tell you, whoever believes has eternal life,” which goes to show the power of faith, a central tenet of followers of both rugby and Christianity. If, as Paul Tillich believes, “Religion is the substance of culture and culture the form of religion” (11) and rugby can be considered culture in New Zealand ­ it certainly is ingrained in our popular culture psyche ­ then rugby certainly has cause to be labelled a form of religion in our rugby­mad nation.

Captain of the ABs, Richie McCaw
Captain of the ABs, Richie McCaw

Central to many religions is the role of a saviour figure who brings redemption to his (or her) people through their extraordinary powers, and rugby is no exception. While other nationals will inevitably wax lyrical about their own Messiahs ­ Jonny WIlkinson for the English, Brian O’Driscoll for the Irish ­ in New Zealand there is one Messiah who stands peerless: captain for a decade, stoic fighter, humble leader: Richie McCaw. The American Monomyth often describes modern day Messiahs in popular culture as having a selfless zeal for justice, unbelievable abilities, their violence purified and the ability to both withstand temptation and remain calm under pressure (12). Richie McCaw undeniably ticks these boxes. Commentator Sandy Abbot describes McCaw as “articulate, polite, responsible…[always full of] great dignity and humility” (13), hence he is clearly a man of unquestionable character. His playing a full match during the 2011 Rugby World Cup Final with a broken foot speaks volumes of his unrivalled ability and perseverance. Despite playing a brutal contact sport, his vengeance on the rugby field is purified and justified (largely due to his irreproachable character and the nature of the game). Furthermore, his autobiography The Open Side describes his uncanny ability to remain calm under pressure when he speaks of the ‘blue zone,’ a state of focus and clarity to counteract ‘the red zone’ where things are not going to plan, leaving lesser mortals in distress (14). Finally, he has resisted temptation, keeping his scandal­free private life far removed from the public All Blacks Captain we see in the media, and has no vices or bad habits that would invalidate his claim to be a Messiah figure in New Zealand. As if we need further proof of this, he is often referred to simply by first name (drawing parallels with a certain Biblical character) and radio station The Rock have produced an image with the caption “Richie McCaw died..But he’s alright now” (15).

Richie risen from the dead? Poster created by NZ radio hosts Jono and Ben

Richie McCaw saved us from despair against the French in the 2011 World Cup Final and continues to bring hope and joy to New Zealanders today, hence the claim that he can be labelled as a Messiah figure is well justified.

 Sir John Kirwin
Sir John Kirwin

If Richie McCaw is New Zealand’s saviour, then there is no one better placed to be portrayed as an inspired teacher than Sir John Kirwan. Kirwan has spoken openly about his mental health issues (namely depression and an anxiety disorder) and broken the mould of All Blacks as phlegmatic and hard men, empowering a generation to speak up when in similar circumstances. He certainly meets Marcus J. Borg’s requirements of a modern­day prophet (16). He has disturbed a sense of normalcy in giving a very real, human insight to his struggles, something that no rugby player (or major sports star in New Zealand) has ever done before. His prophetic words, for example “Yesterday is gone from my control, so I don’t worry about it…I can make decisions that will feed my soul and give me the life that I can feel good about” (17) is certainly accompanied by corresponding action, as evidenced by his very prominent role with DepressionNZ and his regular public speaking at schools and functions around the country (18). Kirwan has clearly emerged from a state of (psychological) oppression to a new world, full of hope and the benevolent desire to assist others in transitioning to a happier state. Very powerfully, he has preached “Greatness is the ability to feel good in your own skin. Greatness is the ability to be happy. Greatness is my Dad. Greatness is simpler than we think.” This is testament to his ability to motivate others, fuelling the optimism that those struggling need. His vision, courage and drive to improve both his own quality of life, and later that of others’, has been remarkable. Therefore there are grounds for the parallels drawn between Kirwan and Biblical prophets, and he should hence be recognised as a central member of the New Zealand Diocese of the Church of Rugby, as it were.

Having all of the hallmarks of a religion, one sees that rugby can be considered akin to a religious movement in New Zealand. It fosters a sense of community for the masses, has some definite overlap in terms of language with religion, and contains prominent theological characters such as prophets and Messiahs. The role of rugby as a religion cannot be understated, for it is our national pastime, but also a well of faith and a binding agent for its people. Perhaps rugby should not be laughed off as “only a game.” Perhaps it should not be considered sacrilegious to compare the sport to spirituality. Perhaps both rugby and religion can be “the lights of [our] world” (Matthew 5:14). Because if it takes two to tango, both religion and rugby can together put on a vibrant show.

All Blacks performing the haka at the 2015 Rugby World Cup
All Blacks performing the haka at the 2015 Rugby World Cup

Endnotes

  1. Mike Valintine, prod. “Close Up.” Rugby as Religion. TV ONE. 30 Sept. 2011..
  2. “Fairfax Media to Launch Rugby Heaven.” Scoop. N.p., 5 June 2007. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  3. Cherie Howie, “Meet the AB’s Loyal Super Fans.” The New Zealand Herald[Auckland] 23 Aug. 2015. Web. 24 Sept. 2015.
  4. Duncan Johnstone, “Ten reasons why the All Blacks don’t lose at Eden Park,” stuff.co.nz, 13 August 2015. Web 24 September 2015.
  5. Martin Snedden, A Stadium of Four Million. Auckland, N.Z.: Hodder Moa, 2012.
  6. Mike Grimshaw, “What If…Rugby Were New Zealand’s Religion?” University of Canterbury, Christchurch. 28 Sept. 2015. Lecture.
  7. Gregor Paul, Black Obsession: The All Black’s Quest for World Cup Success. Auckland: ExislePub., 2009. 164.
  1. William J.Baker, “Introduction.” Playing with God: Religion and Modern Sport. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007. Academic International [ebrary]. Web. 28 Sept. 2015.
  2. Clifford Geertz and Michael Banton, Religion as a Cultural System. London: Tavistock, 1966.
  3. Oscar Fernández and Roberto Cachán­Cruz, “An Assessment of the Dynamic of Religious Ritualism in Sporting Environments.” Springer Science + Business (2013): 1­9. 2 July 2013. Web. 22 Sept. 2015.
  4. Paul Tillich,On the Boundary; an Autobiographical Sketch. New York: Scribner, 1966.
  5. John Shelton Lawrence and Robert Jewett. The Myth of the American Superhero. Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2002.
  6. Sandy Abbot, “Richie McCaw ­ A Hero.” NZ News UK. N.p., 27 Mar. 2013. Web. 29 Sept. 2015.
  7. Richie McCaw and Greg McGee. Richie McCaw: The Open Side. Auckland: Hodder Moa,2012.
  8. “I Heard Richie McCaw Died” Jono and Ben. The Rock Radio Station, 16 Sept. 2015. Web. 04 Oct. 2015.
  9. Marcus J. Borg, Reading the Bible Again for the First Time: Taking the Bible Seriously but NotLiterally. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2001.
  1. John Kirwan and Margie Thomson. All Blacks Don’t Cry: A Story of Hope. North Shore, N.Z.: Penguin, 2010.
  2. Kelly, Rachael. “Sir John Kirwan Opens up about Depression to Gore Pupils.” The Southland Times, 27 July 2015. Web. 1 Oct. 2015.

References to the Bible are taken from the NRSV

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3 thoughts on “Spotlighting student work 1: Rugby as Religion

  1. 2101berne November 2, 2015 / 10:40 am

    That is brilliant. More, please !!!!

    Like

    • Caroline Blyth November 2, 2015 / 11:17 am

      I’ve a wee stockpile of student work from THEO 101/G to share over the next few weeks. Some stellar work this year – I’m very proud of the students.

      Like

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