Cheering when our team wins an Olympic event.
Fretting over the choices for national political office.
Contemplating the “good news” of the Gospel.
Each of these activities reveals something about who we are as a people and who (or what) we identify with. Each of these events also relies on a very significant dynamic: representation. In his book Common Objects of Love, Oliver O’Donovan describes it in terms of one thing signifying another thing or one person acting on behalf of another.
Last August I mentioned an instance of this dynamic in Pillar Issue 9 about Maximilian Kolbe, the priest who, while imprisoned at the German death camp of Auschwitz 75 years ago, volunteered to die in the place of a fellow prisoner. But this ability for one to act in place of—to achieve something on behalf of—another applies not just to individuals but also to communities and nations.
We get a glimpse of this with the Olympics. Most athletes not only compete as individuals, but also as representatives of their home country. In some sense those of us watching and cheering from home see ourselves in these athletes and thus invest ourselves to some small degree in their competitions. We check the updates to see how our country is doing in the medal count, and we feel victorious upon hearing the national anthem play after one of “our” athletes wins gold.
While being interviewed earlier this week after his team won the 4x100 freestyle relay, swimmer Michael Phelps said, “We wanted to bring that relay back to American soil.” These are the words of a soldier who has battled other countries and achieved something for his nation!
This dynamic of “one acting on behalf of others” is even more pronounced when it comes to political leaders. When public authorities act or make decisions, they do so embodying the identity of their citizens; people act and make decisions through their political representatives. For example, when the prime minister signs a treaty, he/she signs that treaty on behalf of the nation as a whole; it is the country that enters into a treaty, but it does so through the actions of its representative.
This is one reason why it’s so important, especially in democratic societies, for citizens to see themselves reflected in their representatives. Effective political leaders are able to re-present a people’s image back to themselves. When we see something of ourselves in our government officials, we are often more comfortable standing under their authority; we more readily sense that we're choosing to place certain laws or regulations on ourselves. According to O'Donovan, leaders with legitimate authority (rather than mere power), are able to reflect not just the will of the people but also their identity.
This explains why savvy politicians go to great lengths to be seen to “identify with” their constituents—i.e. to be seen eating the same foods, wearing the same clothes, speaking the same language and attending the same fairs/parades/celebrations.
(Note the amount of press devoted to the $138 dress that Ivanka Trump wore at the Republican National Convention compared to the $12,000+ jacket that Hillary Clinton wore during a speech several months earlier … framed in terms of who is more “relatable” to the average person.)
This also explains why citizens have reason to be concerned for their country based upon the candidates nominated for the national ballot—something very troubling about a culture can be revealed in who its citizens identify with or see themselves reflected in!
This “one on behalf of another” dynamic lies at the heart of the biblical story. In fact, the central character achieves what he achieves by fulfilling a role of double representation. Jesus is held to be fully divine, so he can fully represent God to man. God definitively acts to judge and redeem His creation through His own word, His own representative. Likewise, Jesus is held to be fully human and to identify with us in our humanity, so he can fully represent us before the Father. Jesus calls for faithfulness on behalf of the Father, and he provides that faithfulness on behalf of his people. “One acting on behalf of another” underpins the Gospel’s logic.
We can see one reason why events like the Olympics and political campaigns evoke such deep passion. These are events that reveal, in different ways and in different degrees, the dynamic of representation, of a person (or team) acting on behalf of another. These are significant events, for they are bound up with who we understand ourselves to be—they have power to unite us or to mirror back to us our divisions as a people. Our deepest identity, however, should lie not in a country represented by athletes or politicians but in the one who took on human flesh to share his divine sonship. May we identify most closely with him, so that we may experience what he achieved on our behalf.
Institute Hosts 2nd Path to Wisdom Workshop
for Secondary Students
The Millis Institute recently hosted its second workshop of the Path to Wisdom, an academic program designed to initiate secondary school students deeper into the liberal arts. Over 200 students participated, representing Citipointe Christian College, Northside Christian College, Nambour Christian College and Brisbane Christian College. Year 7-10 students focused on the liberal art of Grammar, while Year 11-12 students discussed Moral Philosophy (Aristotle's ethics, in particular). During this 3-hour, interactive session, students engaged in reading selected texts, discussing significant moral issues in modern culture, and honing their grammar and writing skills. For example, to help identify the difference between active and passive voice, students were challenged to change these altered (passive) song lyrics back into their original (active) version. How many can you get right?:
The moves like Jagger are got by me
Getting back together is never (ever, ever) done by us
To hold your hand is wanted by me
A ring better be put on it if you like it
Oops, it was done by me again
May what you want (what you really, really want) be told to me
A dream of time gone by was dreamed by me
Hamilton and Liberal Arts
Broadway seems to have really identified with Hamilton. This hip-hop opera recently won the Tony Award for Best Musical. Given the liberal arts education that its creator Lin-Manuel Miranda received, Michael Roth (President of Wesleyan University) says that “we should have seen something like this coming”:
Hamilton is an extraordinary artistic achievement at once traditional and experimental. That’s the kind of synthesis that those of us working in liberal arts colleges are always hoping for: making the past come alive in ways that expand possibilities in the present.
In Hamilton, Manuel uniquely re-imagines for contemporary citizens the proverbial ‘dead white men’, and Roth attributes this ability to the educational path the young actor travelled as an undergraduate. He also draws interesting parallels between Manuel’s education and the kind students received during Hamilton’s own day:
When Alexander Hamilton’s generation considered higher education, many believed it was crucial that students not think they already knew at the beginning of their studies where they would end up when it was time for graduation … learning was all about exploration - and you would only make important discoveries if you were open to unexpected possibilities.