The Cult of Success: Cycling & The Church


Over the last couple of years I’ve been following with interest the difficulties of British Cycling and Team Sky. Well, with more than interest. With, too, a sense of uncomfortable familiarity from a different facet of life – the church. But first, the important business of cycling…

I think anyone who remotely loves cycling will be aware of its difficult relationship with, well, let’s call it ‘cheating’. Of course, it’s a little more complex than that, but whether it’s amphetamines, EPO or needle-injected vitamins, cycling’s governing body the UCI has seen fit to outlaw behaviour that’s judged undesirable, dangerous, or immoral in the context of sport. When you look back over the historical heroics, the epics, the blood, sweat and gears of the sport of cycling, especially the Grand Tours, it’s very difficult to disentangle the grime, the sordid truth of doping, from these wonderful stories. The stories become almost mythic, and we want to believe the almost super-human achievements. And the truth is too uncomfortable to acknowledge because it spoils and sullies the story, and destroys all we’ve hoped in.

The rise of ‘clean’ teams has to be welcomed by every cycling fan. I recently read David Millar’s autobiographical Ride of My Life, including his account of the catharsis of telling the truth about his own doping, in a world that didn’t really want to hear it (especially in the aftermath of the Festina affair). Millar’s part in establishing Garmin-Slipstream as a clean, ethical racing team is a wonderful part of his own story of redemption. Of course, since then, cycling fans have been left disbelieving and demoralised by the exposé of Lance Armstrong’s ‘clean’ team.

I watched the excellent film The Program a few months ago. Armstrong told such a complex, forceful story that no-one dared question it. Armstrong was a charismatic hero, who’d survived cancer, and he wove this part of his experience into a facade that was virtually impossible to puncture. The whole of cycling, including the UCI, desperately wanted to believe a story of redemption, a story of ‘clean’ heroism. Yet this desperation for redemption, this desperation for a good and heroic story of success, enabled Armstrong to continue his bullying, and his unbelievably cynical and systematic program of doping, across the whole of the core of the US Postal team. The story is absolutely fascinating.

And now, of course, we have British Cycling and Team Sky. British Cycling has been the focus of UK Sport’s relentless search for Olympic medal success. But it’s gradually becoming clear that everyone was so keen to believe the story of success that the story itself became a facade, and behind it lay a culture of bullying, fear, and sexism. The close links with Team Sky, another self-proclaimed ‘clean team’, couples all of this with doubts about the integrity of the whole set-up, with stories of needle-injection, systematic use of steroids, unexplained jiffy bags and lost laptops muddying (conveniently) the waters. Chris Froome’s failed salbutamol test is only the latest in a line of half-revelations.

For a long time, this was all hidden behind the aura projected by Team Sky’s big-budget propaganda (it’s Murdoch money, I’m sure you know). It’s the aura of success, so powerfully hopeful and heroic. Like the UK Olympic story, Brits desperately wanted to believe it – from the top down – and so no-one scrutinised the set-up. In fact, the Guardian has reported that, when the cracks started appearing, UK Sport told the governance body to ‘go easy’ on British Cycling, because “that’s where the medals come from.”  And something ugly, dis-spiriting, and hypocritical was allowed to grow behind the facade. Just as with Armstrong, those with doubts either dismissed them or kept them to themselves over a long period of time. After all, there was success. But that’s the problem – the Cult of Success, at any price. Let’s be honest, it’s what’s ruining sport, across the board.

Then you have pro-cyclist Emma Pooley’s comments about fish rotting from the head. All it takes is a certain type of person: an Armstrong, a Brailsford, a Sutton; a driven, probably narcissistic leader who has bought in completely to the Cult of Success. They construct a facade through their charisma, usually with the help of one or two other hard-grafters who back their project, suspend their integrity, and bask in some kind of reflected glory. Add in an ability to consistently, unflinchingly and relentlessly project the narrative of success, and all doubters will doubt themselves, hold their tongues, sit on their hands. Good people will do nothing, because of the very real fear of recriminations – it’s extremely hard to challenge a story that everyone is so desperate to believe.

Bullying, deception, and cynical manipulation prosper behind such a facade of success.   Whether it’s cycling as a sport, desperate for a story of redemption, or UK Sport throwing big money at a story that needs resurrecting – the story of a powerful, successful Britain – the desperate need for hope, for something good, keeps the truth buried in a grave dug for it by hypocrisy and cynicism. And, people get damaged –  pretty badly damaged, if you read Jess Varnish’s story, and the story of Josh Edmondson – by the injustice of it all.

I don’t really have to explain to people in churches that there’s an uncomfortable allegory in all of the above. Christians know that the church isn’t really prospering – in the West it’s a story of decline, of faded glory. And so the church is desperately searching for its own narratives of redemption, of hope, of validity. The siren call of the Cult of Success falls on longing ears. That’s why apparent stories of success in various congregations are writ large, emblazened across social media, eulogised – all with little scrutiny.

Just as in the world of cycling, these stories often hide ugly realities of fish rotting from the head. Doubters sit on their hands, truth-tellers are cold-shouldered, and victims of bullying stay silent. The Big Story continues to grow; the Cult of Success tightens its grip. When someone does speak out to somebody with the authority to act, they’re so often told: “go easy, that’s where the medals come from.”

The fact that churches seek validity through success is desperately sad. It’s usually to do with church leaders personally buying into the Cult of Success, and seeking their own validity through success. And that’s a fundamental denial of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, which is the only narrative of redemption we need, or should be telling. Professional sport in the age of mass-media and big money is fertile ground for the Cult of Success. The church ought to be a different type of soil. But until church leaders reject the Cult of Success nothing will change. Until churches embrace Gospel humility, rather than self-proclaiming their ‘successes’; until churches embrace Gospel honesty rather than engaging in cover-ups to try to protect their ‘reputation’, the show will sadly go on.

Cosmic Eschatology

Christian eschatology must be broadened out into cosmic eschatology, for otherwise it becomes a gnostic doctrine of redemption, and is bound to teach, no longer a redemption of the world but a redemption from the world, no longer the redemption of the body, but a deliverance of the soul from the body. But men and women are not aspirants for angelic status, whose home is in heaven and who feel that on this earth they are in exile. They are creatures of flesh and blood. Their eschatological future is a human and earthly future – ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’.

Jürgen Moltmann, The Coming of God (1996), 259.

Ascension & Advent, Space & Time

ascensionYesterday was Ascension Sunday, when Christians remember Jesus’s ascension. Hymns on Ascension Sunday tend to focus on Jesus’s reign in heaven, how his crown of thorns has become a crown of stars of light – that kind of thing. But, there’s an undeniable tension with the ascension. In Luke’s ascension account in Acts 1 (of the gospel writers, only Luke shows any interest in the ascension), the disciples are looking into the sky, and two mysterious Men in White appear:

“Galileans,” they said, “why are you standing here gazing into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into the sky, will come back in the same way you’ve seen him go into the sky.”

So, basically, don’t stand around looking up. Why? Because this same Jesus will return. This isn’t about the sky, or heaven. This is about down here. And there’s the tension. The ascension leads to a temporary, intermediate state; Jesus will return. There ought to be a strong, powerful link between Ascension Sunday (and Ascension Day, always on the preceding Thursday) and the season of Advent. It’s a link that’s there in the Apostles’ Creed:

He ascended to heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

The goal of Jesus’s work is not his ascension, or even his ‘heavenly session’, but his reign over the fullness of God’s Kingdom on earth. As Paul writes about the Return of Jesus to earth, in 1 Corinthians 15:24-27, he puts it this way, citing a psalm or two:

Then, the goal: when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he has put everything under his feet.

And when it comes to citing psalms on Ascension Sunday, we often read Psalms 24 and 47. These psalms, we understand, were originally associated with the triumphal and joyful entry of the Ark of the Covenant into the Temple. Christians have a very long tradition of associating them with the ascension, as an expression of the triumph of Jesus. However, as we heard in the parish church this morning, these psalms rightly ought to point to something else too: to the truest and fullest entry of God’s presence into his temple, at the return of Jesus the Messiah to this earth. Understood in this way, singing and reading these psalms will help to supply that powerful link between Ascension and Advent.

Another question raised by the Ascension, and also addressed in the parish church this morning, is: “Where is Jesus?” That’s also part of the tension of Ascension Sunday. In the account of the event, Jesus goes up into the sky. Of course, that would have made perfect sense to the original readers, and the writer, of the account, as well as to the observers of whatever it was that actually happened. But how on earth can we reconcile that with modern cosmology?

Asking “Where is heaven?” seems a fairly pointless question. Any answer surely has to posit that it’s not a part of our reality, the reality of the visible creation. It must be in some sense another dimension. On the other hand, asking “Where is Jesus?” isn’t actually a pointless or stupid question. It’s more cogent, and difficult to answer, than we might imagine – at least for those with an orthodox view of Jesus Christ, and of humanity.

Human bodies (whether pre- or post-resurrection) belong on earth, in this dimension, not in heaven (wherever heaven is). Ordinarily, the lives of human beings as whole human beings, in mortality or immortality, are lived entirely on earth. We affirm the real humanity of Jesus as well as his divinity. How can a human body that is very much a part of this visible creation, and belongs in it, exist in some other dimension? There’s mystery here, for sure. But it’s clear, to me at least, that whatever the disciples saw that day was an accommodation to their understanding of the cosmos. With the understanding we have now of the cosmos, of space and time, there might be other avenues to follow as we ask “Where is Jesus?” Perhaps.

The mysterious Men in White fundamentally link the Ascension and Return of Jesus. In their message, the intervening period is de-emphasised (as in the Apostles’ Creed). The Ascension and Return are two adjacent acts in the drama of Jesus as King on Earth. Perhaps, and I mean perhaps, the question of “Where is Jesus ?” is better-framed as “When is Jesus?” In the future, in space and time, Jesus is here on earth, reigning in the creation with all his holy ones, who have been redeemed by his life, death and resurrection. In our present time, Jesus is not physically present at all. But he has not left us bereft. He himself has come to us through the gift of the Holy Spirit, also designated as the Spirit of Christ (more mystery). This is what we’ll be remembering on Pentecost Sunday, in a week’s time. Where is Jesus? Not with us. Yet with us, always, even until the very end of the age.