It’s a commonplace amongst a certain type of trad conservative to talk about the need to “re-enchant” our understanding of the world. What they usually mean by this is some version of an argument, influenced deeply by Charles Taylor, that we moderns experience creation as something near to us and mostly comprehensible. There is little mysterious about it and what little that is mysterious today likely won’t be tomorrow.
Within such a context, religious belief can seem like a mere personal vanity at best and as something foreign, insensible, and dangerous at worst. And so we religious types need to find ways of reenchanting creation so that we can see it with the sense of awe that came to us so naturally before the scientific revolution.
That argument is all well and good, so far as it goes. Indeed, I’d basically agree with it. But it can all seem rather far off and distant without being given some more tangible anchor to help us understand what’s actually being talked about. And that is where Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes in.
Before I show you this clip, there are a few things you should know about him:
- Ibrahimovic is a Swedish striker with a Bosnian Muslim father and Croatian Catholic mother. He is 6’5, 210, and he is a maniac. Imagine Chuck Norris as he exists in Chuck Norris jokes crossed with the mental life of Ron Artest and the abilities of LeBron James and you have Zlatan.
- His autobiography is titled I Am Zlatan.
- Recently after a match he led his teammates off the field and past the media without speaking to them, saying “Nobody talks because I am the boss.”
- In a career that has seen him play for Ajax, Juventus, Inter Milan, Barcelona, AC Milan, and Paris Saint-Germain he has won his league’s domestic title every season but one–six clubs with titles won at every stop.
- When asked what he got his wife for her birthday, he had this to say: “Nothing. She already has Zlatan.” (See above comment about Chuck Norris crossed with Ron Artest.)
- He’s most famous for this goal which provoked this response from Brian Phillips.
- There’s a clip on YouTube called “Don’t Touch Zlatan Ibrahimovic” and it’s hilarious.
All these things make him who he is, of course, but the first I ever saw of him is this goal he scored while playing for Ajax in the Dutch Eredivisie. I saw it and it was something I had to immediately show my roommate because I couldn’t believe he pulled it off:
One of the ironies of the way we sometimes talk about enchantment is that the discussion itself can become arid and sterile, the very opposite of the sort of feeling we’re trying to describe. We’re trying to describe the experience of seeing creation with the sort of exuberant spirit that Chesterton ascribed to God when in Orthodoxy he compared God to a delighted child, suggesting that the sun rises every day because God in his delight says “do it again!”
What we’re really trying to describe, I think, is simply the experience of incomprehension, of a distance too great to be spanned by any means we know, of the sort of otherness that is not unpleasant but actually quite enjoyable. It’s the feeling I got the first time I walked into the Cathedral of Saint Paul in St Paul, MN and looked up into the dome hanging above my head. There is something in human beings that likes to feel small.
This goes against much of our popular wisdom, of course. We talk a great deal about the many things we are capable of as human beings–both technologically and even in more personal terms. Sometimes the two blend together, as in the popular Mac ad featuring Robin William’s voiceover from Dead Poet’s Society:
We are told that we can do anything if we work hard enough at it or desire it enough. We are told that we are the authors of our “stories,” to use the ubiquitous term that increasingly grates on my ear. The powerful play goes on and we get to write a verse–presumably our own. (And if you just pay Apple whatever it is they’re charging for an iPad these days you can do it with even greater ease! Note the way that this individualism is both reinforced by and reinforces the work of our biggest tech companies.)
In our current technocratic moment we don’t really have problems, we simply have design flaws that can be fixed with superior engineering and a fat bank account. Even death itself might be vanquished we are told. But that part of us that longs to conquer and control is only one small part of us. Another part of us just wants to go to the Grand Canyon and gape.
What I love about sports, and Zlatan brings out this part of sport better than any other athlete I know, is how it can bring this basic sense of enchantment into everyday life. With sport we are not talking about some far off thing that exists in a way so distinct from us and so distant that it’s hard to even approach mentally.
We cannot spend all our days staring out into the ocean, looking up at a redwood tree, or even simply looking at what remains of the prairie of the Great Plains. But sport can come to us anywhere. And what’s so magical about sports, particularly a sport like soccer, is that it can combine something very comprehensible and near to us like kicking a ball, and turn it into something altogether different, something we can barely believe even when we see it with our own eyes.
That Ibrahimovic goal above (or the one I linked to in the bullet points) is a perfect example. I can imagine myself kicking a ball around. Actually, I don’t have to–I can remember kicking a ball around in the past and as I type this I can see my daughter’s soccer ball in the next room over. I could go over and kick it around a bit right now if I liked.
But what I can’t imagine myself doing is whatever it is Zlatan did in that clip to dribble through what seemed to be an entire team’s defense on his way to scoring a goal as simple as passing the ball into the net with his instep.
As for that goal linked in the bullet points, the thought process he went through seems to be something like this: the goalie is running out to head the ball so I will stop running at him, turn around, run to where I expect the ball to end up and then jump up into the air, making my body parallel to the ground while swinging my foot at the ball, the ball will then sail in a perfect arch 40 yards–that’s 120 feet–from my foot into the goal as the goalie, a world-class keeper I might add, hopelessly dives at the last minute to try and keep it out. If I tried any of that, all I would achieve is seriously injuring my back.
But Zlatan does it and gets up to celebrate as if he knew that would work all along. That sort of physical achievement is something so far beyond me that I wouldn’t even be able to imagine such a thing if I didn’t see it acted out in front of me.
Certainly, this isn’t a perfect statement about reenchantment. I recognize the problems are more complex than the simple feeling of joy and awe I get from watching a soccer player. But this absurd soccer player has actually helped me learn something about recovering a sense of awe and wonder, of being able to look at something and say at the same time “that is completely beyond my comprehension” and “I love it.”
Being reenchanted by creation might be more than becoming like a child, but it is not less than that. And sport, and particularly this one sport and this one player, has helped me to become more like the child who is, as Chesterton once said, simply delighted to hear “there was a door.”