The Biblical Alex Ferguson

For someone not raised as a practising Christian, a first encounter with the Bible is almost inevitably an anti-climax. If you’re used to reading realist or modernist novels, whose complex hypotactical sentence-structures go unnoticed because they are the very life-blood of what you think of as ‘normal writing’; and if you have even the slightest inkling of the world-historical importance attributed to the disparate texts which make up the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament, the countless millions who have dedicated their entire lives to them, who have loved, lost and died for them, then the sheer sparseness of Biblical prose is one big disappointment:

In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’

It’s not exactly Tolstoy is it? “Jesus came from Nazareth” – yes, but how? Did he walk, ride a donkey, catch a lift? What was the weather like? What exactly was he wearing? What was his mood? What did he eat for breakfast before he came? What about that annoying splinter in his finger – surely an occupational hazard for any self-respecting carpenter – and what about its symbolic value? And what about God’s “with you I am well pleased” – he could at least sound a little bit enthusiastic! Yet these questions don’t seem to bother pre-modern writers very much, and hence to a modern – or even postmodern – ear they sound simple, naïve, almost childish. (Schiller would have much to say on a topic not a million miles from this…).

For the non-Christian modern reader of the Bible then, just as for the modern reader of almost any medieval or ancient text, the problem is to acclimatize oneself to the resonances of a pared down, paratactic prose. Proust’s language resounds, of course, but not quite in the same way as the two-word “Jesus wept.” The sheer emotional intensity which these premodern words are forced to bear is sometimes mind-blowing. But it can only become so once the reader develops a sense for the depth of significance behind phrases which appear superficially bare, once she has become accustomed to a type of language whose importance resides, not in the profundity of individual sentences, but in the overall moral project of which they are a part.

I was surprised to note, then, that this type of pre-modern or Biblical prose has survived in the unlikeliest of places: football-speak. Take these lines from an interview with Alex Ferguson at the weekend:

I don’t think we have a major problem with Rio […] He has been with us eight years now and has been fantastically consistent, top class. He is still one of the best footballers in the country in terms of using the ball, he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence.

The first half of this extract belies its modernity: the adverb ‘fantastically’ is a give away, as is the apposition ‘top class’. But the second sentence is interesting: ‘he can still tackle, he can still head and he still has a great presence’. For someone who is not a football fan, these might seem strange words of praise; surely, they would say to themselves, 99% of people who play football even in the school playground can tackle and head the ball. They might not be good at it, but they can do it. ‘Great presence’ is presumably rarer, but just vague enough that we could imagine quite a few non-professional players who possess it. The point, of course, is that Ferguson is not just neutrally stating that Rio Ferdinand can tackle and head the ball: he’s mustering all of his managerial authority, drawing on the vast unconscious reservoirs of football history and of football fans’ unspoken presuppositions to make his words mean something like ‘Rio Ferdinand is a superlative defender, an embodiment of the virtuous football player who fulfils the objectives of his position’. This is the meaning which ‘resonates’ in and through the words he actually utters.

It is in this precise sense that football-speak and Biblical language are not worlds apart. They are both merely elements of a whole set of cultural and emotional practices. They are part of a whole way of life and only make sense in that context.