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The Spirit of the Game

The Spirit of the Game

What the stumping of Jonny Bairstow reveals about the law and the Spirit

Dear friends

In a world wracked by wars and rumours of wars, by strife and conflict and international crises, you can trust your faithful correspondents at Two Ways News to tackle the truly weighty issues—like the stumping of Jonny Bairstow. 

Perhaps it’s a symptom of just how comfortable and prosperous we really are that the populations of England and Australia should be so outraged and obsessed about one incident in a five-day cricket match. 

For American and other listeners outside the Commonwealth who have not seen the blanket coverage associated with this incident, up to and including comments by our nations’ leaders, it is a little difficult to explain in a brief space what all the fuss was about. Let us just say that one of the batters was declared ‘out’ in controversial circumstances—that is, the Australians did something that was perfectly legal and within the laws of the game to get the batter out, but the English considered it to be a sneaky and unsportsmanlike crime against the spirit of the cricket. (And it turned out to have a decisive effect on the outcome of the game, which made the emotions run even higher.)

And so this week’s edition is about cricket—partly because we find it hard to pass up any opportunity to talk about cricket, but mainly because the whole incident was a fascinating case study in the idea of ‘law’ versus ‘spirit’, a subject that the Bible says a great deal about. 

For a more rambling cricket-heavy version of the conversation, hit the play button above, or for a briefer summary, read on below. 

Your brother


The Spirit of the Game

TP: Phillip, amidst all the blather and controversy of the last few weeks about Jonny Bairstow’s dismissal, we’ve often heard about the ‘laws of the game’ and the ‘spirit of the game’. How do the rules of a game like cricket relate to the ‘spirit’ of the game—to what a game is really for? 

PJ: There are several aspects to all games (like cricket). One is simply enjoyment. Another is a way for communities to relate to each other. Team games are so important to raise children in knowing how to treat each other with civility, to keep the laws and the rules of a game, to be honest and cooperative with each other. I remember playing one game of cricket where the umpire kept on saying ‘not out’ even though we were getting the batsman out. It was very confusing. And in the end, we complained to him. And he said, “Until you learn to appeal like gentlemen, I'm going to continue to say ‘not out’.”

Our aggressive appealing was totally inappropriate. And we were being taught to play in a gentlemanly fashion, which is a good thing to train young men to be.

TP: It's not quite the way the games have gone, though, nowadays. Many games have become professionalized, and winning as the aim of the game has become much more than that. It's become about winning an enormous amount of money and an enormous amount of prestige. When winning becomes the sole or main point of the game, the social purposes of the game fall into the background. 

PJ: Yes, and that takes away the enjoyment of the game and the point of playing the game which is for pleasure, for fun, for social interaction. When the sole aim is to win at all costs, that is bad news, because the values of the game–the gentlemanly behaviour, the honesty–are thrown out. The temptations to cheat become great when winning gives you a bonus in your pay packet. We've had some notorious cheating done in international cricket. It tempts people to gamble, because money is one of the motivators. It's no longer a game. At best, it's entertainment. And at that level, cricket is killing itself because the more entertaining forms are undermining the traditional forms of the five-day test match. There's only two or three nations which can now play five-day test matches because so many of the top line cricketers want to make more money as entertainers.

TP: So what does all this have to do with Christianity and the Gospel? What's it got to do with the spirit and the law?

PJ: It's got a lot to do with it. Much as you and I love talking about cricket together, it actually has serious implications. 

You see, materialism and the free enterprise capitalism of materialism has governed the activities of our community to our detriment. Within our society, the rules of cricket have been changed to fit in with the media who are in control of the games because they are the ones bringing in the money. So we get the gambling advertisers, we have the media not allowing minor nations to play proper test cricket against the major nations because they can't get a big enough audience. You see, they are changing the heart and disposition of the ways in which people are playing the game. A thing of pleasure has become a thing of business. And while that means we get better television coverage, we really are changing our culture for money. Whereas Christianity has higher values than money. We are concerned about love and community and friendship of which games are an expression and a contributing expression, and of which money isn't, greed isn't, capitalism isn’t. And it's sad to see a game like cricket be so distorted by the pursuit of money. 

TP: It certainly is, and interestingly, our whole discussion and awareness of these issues is distorted by money. The conflict between the two nations is stoked and spread and ignited through the media. And the reason that the media leads with this on the front page of the papers or in our social media feeds is because people love conflict and conflict gets eyeballs and eyeballs go to advertising. The fact that it's been all over our public discussion is also driven by capitalism. The more the media can promote conflict, the more people watch and the more money they earn.

PJ: Yes, and fewer people actually play games.

TP: Now we just watch.

PJ: Take lawn bowls for example. 

TP: The most dangerous sport in the world.

PJ: Yes, more people die playing it than any other sport! But lawn bowls is again one of these community activities. And the recent decline in lawn bowls has been considerable. So the newspapers I saw the other day said that over the last 40 years, the number of bowling clubs in Sydney has halved. And no new clubs have been established in the last 15 years. There used to be a bowling club in every suburb of Sydney, but there isn't anymore because they've been closed and their lands are being sold off, often to build high rises, and fewer and fewer people are actually playing now. We've got more old people than we've ever had before because life expectancy has increased, but bowling is declining. 

TP: Phillip, it's because people like you are in here doing podcasts instead of being out there playing bowls.

PJ: Well, it has always struck me as one of the very nice community activities that people are involved in, both men and women playing together. But nonetheless, the decline in lawn bowls is symptomatic of what is happening in a society that is becoming disconnected. Andrew Leigh, who was a professor of economics in Canberra and is now a parliamentarian, wrote his PhD in Harvard University under Mr. Putnam. He has shown how social capital is being diminished by people not being connected in their communities anymore. There are lots of ways people are connected in communities, but one of them is playing games together. Materialism and professionalism in sport is part of the problem of communities not playing anymore. And a community that doesn't play together doesn't stay together.

TP: There has also been an extraordinary explosion in the marketing of sport as a product in the last 40 years, which kind of directly parallels the decline in sport as an activity you participate in, because it's marketed to you and you consume it as something that entertains–you watch it on TV or you go to the games. And that becomes who you are; you become a fan rather than a participant.

PJ: And there's also a kind of corporate individualism—I'm a supporter of such and such a club. But the club is not the local community club anymore. It's a global franchise, and people can play for one club and then switch to another club that offers more money. There's no loyalty anymore really in the club. In that sense it's not a community; it's an individualism that is being expressed. And it's not good for our society.

TP: Let's get back to the spirit and the law because that was the other Christian angle in this whole strange discussion. The invocation of the idea of the spirit of cricket—that there's something unwritten that somehow expresses the heart or values of cricket that was transgressed in this incident. That seems a very Christian idea—the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law.

PJ: Yes. So before the New Testament, I don’t know of any discussion of spirit and law. And nowadays, many people talk of themselves as being very spiritual, and talk about the ‘spirit’ of the law. But the word ‘spirit’ now just means the reason for the law, the intent of the law. Or the ‘vibe’ of the law, as that great Australian movie ‘The Castle’ put it. It means that there is some spirit or vibe of the law that should be respected, even if it’s not precisely written down.

But that’s not what ‘spirit’ is about in 2 Corinthians 3. When Paul contrasts spirit and letter he is talking about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit gives us the law. In Romans 7, it actually says the law is spiritual, which I think people would find difficult to understand today. And the prophecies of the Old Testament, Ezekiel 36, Jeremiah 31, are about the coming of the Spirit (which is also the title of a book I've heard). The Holy Spirit is actually going to come into the hearts of God's people, so that they will want to keep the law, so that they will be moved by the Spirit to be obedient to the law. And so the real contrast of the Spirit versus the letter of the law that we have in 2 Corinthians 3 is that these are people who by the Spirit of the Living God now have the law of God written not on tablets of stone, but on their hearts, so that they will now be be working by the Spirit to obey the law even further. It's the Spirit that gives life whereas the law without the Spirit condemns us. 

TP: What does it mean to have the law then, but without the Spirit?

PJ: Well, in one sense, you can't, because it is the Spirit of God who gives the law. But in another sense, you can, because the law is written on the tablets of stone–to pick up the Exodus image–but it is not in your heart. You do not want to keep the law. And because you do not want to keep the law, you'll be working to avoid its implications. You'll be looking for loopholes, you'll be quarreling over the deeper details of the law, because it's only as the Spirit comes into your heart that you will want to keep the law. And therefore by the Spirit you will no longer look for loopholes, but actually look for different ways that you can live by the law.

TP: Now you're talking there about the problem that comes up often in the New Testament, the problem of the Pharisaic approach to the law that seeks to domesticate it, seeks to keep it at bay, to fence the law in and make it achievable, rather than to dig into what the law is really about.

PJ: Yes, because the law condemns me. So I've got to minimize what the law requires so as to minimize the condemnation. The law rightly points to my failures. And so for me to be able to live with the law of God and not be condemned by the law of God, I've got to, as you say, domesticate it somehow. I've got to find loopholes and minimize its implications for my life. And the beauty and the wonder of the gospel is knowing the forgiveness that comes through the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. We know the law condemns us, but we know that condemnation has now been met in the atoning work of Christ and more. The risen Christ now puts his Spirit within us so that we seek to be obedient to the law, we rejoice in the law, we see the value in the goodness of the law. 

TP: The Spirit who wrote the law is now resident in us and we have, as he says in Romans 8, the mind of the Spirit–our mind set on the things of the Spirit, the Spirit who wrote the law, whose mind gave rise to the law that's now in our mind. And that's why in a sense, the Christian impulse under the power of the Spirit is to read the Old Testament law to see what the Spirit wrote through it, and to drive towards its intention, its rationale, what it was always seeking to promote and express–that is love of neighbor and love of God. And so in the New Testament, under the Spirit, we don't keep the Old Testament law in quite the same way because the Spirit who wrote the law is now in our hearts.

PJ: Yes. And that has all kinds of implications for us as Christians, but it is also a great illustration of the failure of the non-Christian world. The Tax Act of Australia is a massive 10 or 11 volumes or 1000s of pages. That's because Australians don't want to pay tax, so the legislation keeps on increasing to close off loopholes. And we have a whole industry of very clever people who are working overtime to try to ‘minimize’ tax (because that's legal) as opposed to ‘avoiding’ tax, which is illegal. But even the distinction between minimizing and avoiding is fairly legalistic. It just shows the problem, doesn't it? If Australians loved the nation and their community and their neighbor enough to want to pay tax, and if Australians trusted the government enough to look after the welfare of society, the Tax Act would be one page, and it wouldn't fill the whole page. All you would need to say is something like, “Please make donations to the government to be able to do the job of caring for the community.” Now, when you hear that you think, “Yeah, that's ridiculous. That's never going to happen.” And I agree with you, it's never going to happen. But it does happen–in churches all over the world. Because we invite people to make donations for the welfare of the church. There's no requirement. It's not like a golf club where you pay your annual fees. You give as much or as little as you feel that you want to do. And through that, churches all over the world have funds. It's because people want to give. That raises the whole issue of trying to change society by legislation. You can't do it. The government keeps making legislation to change society and the police and the courts implement that legislation. But what you need are people's hearts changed. And that comes from the gospel. People's hearts change and they want to do what the law says. Wanting to do the right thing comes from gospel preaching, and when you remove gospel preaching from the public square, you will undermine the very thing that makes our laws and constitutions work. 

TP: Now we're branching off into deep waters here. And perhaps this is a discussion to pursue at another time. But you're certainly right that within the history of modern Western civilization, whether in Australia or in the US and other places, it's acknowledged not just by Christians, but by other social and cultural critics and historians, that a morally motivated people is a critical factor in the functionality of Western society. We have laws that are made by Parliament, and we have a judiciary or executive branch that enforces those laws. But none of it ultimately works unless you have a people whose cultural morality and values and religious conviction is such that they want those laws and seek as a culture to embrace them.

PJ: And that's not because they understand the ‘spirit of the law’ in a general sense of its intention. It’s because they understand and have the Holy Spirit, who leads us to do the good things that the government laws are aimed at. But if you don't want to obey the law, you'll always look for loopholes.

TP: What does this mean for the stumping of Jonny Bairstow? 

PJ: Well, hypocrisy reigns supreme. Immediately, people found instances of Jonny Bairstow trying to get people out in exactly the same sneaky way. 

TP: Yes, and there's also a degree of hypocrisy in demanding that the other side follows the spirit of the game. The reason England were so upset was that this supposed lapse in the spirit of the game caused them to lose. Surely following the spirit of the game should have led the English to say, “Well, chaps, that wasn't cricket. You really shouldn't have done that. But since we follow the spirit of the game, we're going to graciously lose and not complain—because to whine and complain about the result is against the spirit of cricket.” Surely that should have been the response? And so could we say that in rule-based relationships, it’s nearly always going to degenerate into legalism and hypocrisy?

PJ: Yes, and when you add in all the money and prestige that is now invested in cricket, to be appealing to the civility of a game that has lost all its civility is really a nonsense.

TP: Ironically, the civility of the game and the values that underpin that were the values of Christianity–the values of graciousness, of the other person being as important as you are if not more so, of there being a larger intent in our relationships together that is more important than me and my success.

PJ: That there's more to life than cricket. 

TP: Well that’s something that some of our listeners will find hard to believe. But the important thing is that we're people of the Holy Spirit, who long for and love God's law, as David does in the Psalms. Who meditate on it and long to put it into practice, because the Spirit who wrote the law is in our hearts. And that's the kind of approach we really bring to all laws, and all aspects of our lives. We want to love other people.

PJ: Yes, and which means that when we play games together, we will enjoy them. 


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Two Ways News
Two Ways News
Gospel thinking for today, with Tony Payne and Phillip Jensen.
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