The Running Muse

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O sinnerman, where you gonna run to?

By The Running Muse, Jun 8 2015 10:13PM

I once had a Christmas cracker joke that asked 'Who was the fastest runner ever?' There were gratifying groans as I read out the answer: 'Adam, because he was first in the human race.' I briefly tried to imagine this navel-less man running alone through the Garden of Eden, but also it set me wondering whether there were any references at all to running in the Bible.

I could only remember that in Gethsemane the apostles did run when perhaps they shouldn't have done, and that little Isaac, when God said to Abraham 'Kill me a son'*, didn't run when perhaps he should have done.

Surprisingly, an online biblical concordance search finds exactly 100 allusions to running in its particular canon, although much of this running is done by tears, blood and sores, collectively known as running 'issues', as well as by rivers, chariots, cups running over and wine running out.

So did those feet in ancient times run upon any mountains green? Well, it looks as though Jesus was too cool to run, although one can imagine him running from stall to stall as he upended the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple (below, in Giordano's painting). His fans, however, were forever running up to him, and even Mary Magdalene 'ran with fear and great joy' to tell his disciples about his empty tomb.

But it is St. Paul who seems to enjoy the running and racing metaphors the most. In one of his letters, for instance, he likens the road to salvation to a race to the finishing line, a kind of spiritual Tough Mudder where the obstacles are sins rather than quagmires. It is worth quoting 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 in full:

'You know well enough that when men run in a race, the race is for all, but the prize for one. Run then for victory. Every athlete must keep all his appetites under control, and he does it to win a crown that fades, whereas ours is imperishable. So I do not run the course like a man in doubt of his goal.......I buffet my own body and make it my slave.'

Paul, whose home town of Tarsus had an athletics stadium, would have been aware of the famous Isthmian Games, which were still being held at Corinth at that time, so he may have tailored his metaphors for his audience.

Motivational sports posters, especially in the US, tend only to quote the first two sentences here, which is rather missing Paul's point, not to mention it undermining the spirit of running as a source of inner strength and self-discipline irrespective of the achievements of others.

If religion helps to maintain a meaningful world for its adherents by providing some kind of validation and understanding of 'experiences that are highly resistant to attempts to render them meaningful'** - pain, suffering and death, for example - then I would doubt that crossing the finish line before someone else did would contribute significantly to that.

Other Pauline coaching tips include 'Let us run with patience the race that is set before us', as he told the Hebrews, while, in urging his Galatian converts to abandon the practice of circumcision, he wrote 'you have run well, but who has hindered you in obeying the truth?' If that didn't persuade the young boys of Galatia to join the local Christian running club as fast as possible, at least until their church had fallen into line with Paul's 'save the foreskin' campaign, then nothing would.

The Old Testament prophet Daniel, the man who interpreted the original 'writing on the wall' at King Balthasar's feast and who survived the original 'lions' den', quoted God as predicting that the apocalypse would be preceded by a time in which 'many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased' (see Running Quotes for more on this). Given the rise in the number of runners and running publications over the last 50 years, does this mean the end is nigh? Or do you think our Dan simply misheard?

Here is Rembrandt's painting of the holy blog that Daniel was called to interpret. I'm assured by biblical scholars that it has nothing to do with running whatsoever. I just wanted to show English football fans that they can move on now, as it can be clearly seen here that the hand of God bears no resemblance to that of Diego Maradona.

Any biblical racing is mostly confined to deathly pursuits, but a story in 2 Samuel 18 has two of King David's messengers racing each other across the plains to be the first to deliver news of his rebellious son's death to him (one being a more sensitive bearer of bad tidings than the other, apparently).

One delightful snippet included here is the detail that, as the runners approached, a guard on the city wall could recognise each of them at a distance by their running styles. Even non-Christians runners would attest to the truth of at least these biblical words.

Many of you, of course, will actually have been reading the Bible while running a marathon, unless you were winning. A favourite biblical quote for runners' T-shirts is Isaiah 40:31: 'They will run, and not grow weary', but, again, the evidence for the prophet's assertion is scant, which must be a challenge for biblical literalists.

But my favourite metaphorical flourish is from David's Psalm 19, a song which equates the joy of running a race to the ecstasy of a bridegroom emerging from his bedchamber. Whether the bride also experienced such ecstasy is unknown, and unexplored.

Now, I love running as much as the next person, but any credible comparison between a wedding night with your true love and hitting the wall in a marathon would surely need a double-blind study, which I would be happy to volunteer for, but which I have noticed are in short supply within biblical discourse. Mind you, doing those two things consecutively would make for a very challenging biathlon and a very entertaining post-race 'how was it for you?' chat. Difficult to train four times a week for it, though.

We have already explored the running opportunities available in Hell in a previous post, but heaven wouldn't be heaven without at least a 5k Run for Life. God has specifically said that there is 'a time to every person under heaven', and I try to make mine a PB, but if there isn't a race organised within the pearly gates, and I can find no evidence that there is, I shall embrace my inner sinnerman and thus disqualify myself from entry through its hallowed portals as soon as possible.

Meanwhile, I am guided by the old African proverb that encourages action in response to any spiritual or contemplative wanderings: 'When you pray, move your feet'.

'Expulsion of the Moneychangers from the Temple' by Luca Giordano, c.1675, oil on canvas, 198 cm x 261 cm, Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg

'Belshazzar's Feast' by Rembrandt van Rijn, c.1637, 168 cm x 209 cm, oil on canvas, National Gallery, London

'Sinnerman' is the title of a traditional African-American spiritual song about the folly of attempting to hide and evade the wrath of God. A sinner can try to run to the river, run to the rock, run to the sea or even run to the Lord, but it's too late - a sinnerman can only run to the devil. It was made famous by the mesmerising version of Nina Simone.

* St. Bob's version in Highway 61 Revisited, which also happens to end with God's exhortation to either obey him or run: 'God said to Abraham kill me a son, Abe said, 'Man, you must be puttin' me on', God said no, Abe said 'What?', God say 'You can do what you want, Abe, but the next time you see me comin', you better run....'.

Dylan's father name was Abraham, and H61 used to run from his home town all the way down the United States to the home of the blues, Memphis.

It seems Satan also found his way to Highway 61, as along its route is the famous crossroads where blues legend Robert Johnson supposedly sold his soul to the devil in exchange for his blues skills, thus spawning his song, 'Crossroads Blues', not to mention Cream's 'Crossroads'.

** from 'The Sacred Canopy' (1990) by Peter Berger, Anchor Books

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Any other runners out there who think there is much more to running than physical exertion?


Well, you're not alone - ever since the earliest cave paintings, the meaning and pleasure of the running experience has been explored by writers, painters and composers, by philosophers, film-makers and dramatists.


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 Picasso's running minotaur

 W.H. Auden's 'Runner'

 O sinnerman, where you gonna run to?


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