Two weeks later and I’m still thinking about it: Ronnie O’Sullivan’s scarcely credible comeback against Mark Selby to make the final of the World Snooker Championship – which he went on to win against Kyren Wilson – followed by his remarkable comments afterwards about his cue action.
The thought of snooker as a source of entertainment will confound most of the planet; but for the chosen few million, it is just that. The World Snooker Championship famously still takes place in a relatively small theatre in Sheffield called The Crucible. This year there was certainly drama to match and, some might say, elements of the magic that broods over Miller’s play of the same name.
Ronnie O’Sullivan is undeniably the protagonist of the snooker world: the one who really increases the viewing figures. His ability to play rapid-fire snooker – ambidextrously no less – has earned him the sobriquet, ‘The Rocket’. Most would say that he is the most talented individual ever to play the game. As part of a programme that commemorated forty years of action at The Crucible, there was a section which showed O’Sullivan’s fastest 147 maximum break in snooker history. Most intriguingly, another former winner, Peter Ebdon, commented on the feat: “it’s artistic, it’s creative, it’s clairvoyant, it’s psychic: he’s tuning into higher energy without any shadow of a doubt”; snooker presenter Jason Mohammad added: “we’re watching a magician at work”. That 147 was in 1997 though. O’Sullivan had won five World Championships (2001, 2004, 2008, 2012, 2013) but in each of the last five years, he had failed to make it past the quarter-finals: hardly the form of a protagonist or a magician.
On the evening of Friday 14th August, 16-14 down, it looked for all the world that the world title would again elude O’Sullivan. He was playing wild shots that suggested he had thrown in the towel. His opponent, Selby, should have finished the game; but, whether on account of O’Sullivan’s gamesmanship or otherwise, he didn’t. O’Sullivan came back to play three exquisite frames to win the match. Yet, as has occasionally happened in his career, his post-match comments in the tournament will be remembered just as much, if not more than, his table play.
His comments after this victory were certainly enigmatic. Maybe he was trolling the BBC a little (he frequently appears on Eurosport as a pundit) but he refused to be drawn into discussion about relishing the final and the stories that snooker produces. Instead, he appeared obsessed with his cue action. According to O’Sullivan, his cue action had deserted him throughout the tournament, and he had only managed to find it in those final frames. The final would only be enjoyable if he could find a cue action and he quipped that he would be getting onto Bezos to see if he could procure one from Amazon. He was understandably bothered about the most basic part of his game: his cue action. Following the interview, pundit John Parrott set the record straight about O’Sullivan’s cue action with classic British bathos: “I think it’s alright.” Yet, for O’Sullivan, it wasn’t. Like an actor on stage, he felt he was fluffing his lines and needing a cue. Amid his brilliance, there were spells when his snooker soul looked tortured, stripped of its proper action; when in the heat of the crucible, he had lost his power and flow.
Rewind nearly two thousand years and there were some people in the city of Corinth who had lost their flow, but instead of needing a cue action, their action needed restraining. They had become obsessed with a form of pseudo-spirituality which was not divine in source. They had developed a false apprehension of spirit action that needed adjustment and reorienting. The apostle Paul brought such a message to them. He drew a distinction between the spirit of the world and the Spirit which is from God through which it was possible to ‘know the things which have been begraced to us by God’ (1 Corinthians 2:12). In turn, through this Spirit, believers could develop the very mind of Christ (1 Cor 2:16).
Later in the letter, Paul had more to say about spiritual matters and divine action. When introducing these different types of spiritual gifts, he remarked: ‘Indeed there are distinct [spiritual] actions, but it is the same God, who activates all [actions] among everyone’ (1 Cor 12:6). Paul goes through the list – wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, powers, prophecy, discerning of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues (1 Cor 12:7-10) – and lands it by talking about how the Spirit of God activates them: ‘the one and the same Spirit activates all these gifts, distributing to each person respectively, just as he wills’ (1 Cor 12:11). This leads to the formation of a bodily community among the believers where there is a proper and effective Spirit action.
Seeing and hearing O’Sullivan wrestling with the most basic aspect of his game – his cue action – caused me to reflect upon a central aspect of discipleship: growing to have the mind of Christ. This is only possible, however, through receiving the gift of divine, Spirit action, and allowing it to operate. There is a sense in which this is the believer’s cue action: a basic rhythm and aim. On the one hand, like O’Sullivan’s diligent practice, it is developed through similar repeated practice and discipline particularly in conversation with God through prayer, digesting Scripture, and fellowship with others in the believing community. On the other hand, our cue action is not a repetitive motion, but much freer. In snooker, sometimes the player adds an extension to his cue or uses a rest to play a difficult shot. The Spirit can function like this as well and in even more imaginative and surprising ways.
In many ways, believers are called to develop a Spirit action in the way snooker players develop a cue action. In snooker, there are times where the player is kept away from the table by the opponent; and there is no doubt that there are opposing forces which seek to dislodge us from receiving the Spirit of God. Yet, the Spirit comes from a God who is powerful enough to set a table and to prepare a meal for the believer in the face of affliction (Psalm 23:5). There is no dualism operating here. Through a strong Spirit action – continuously received and developed – we can begin to see things the way God sees them, and this will bring freedom and blessing to the world.
As we continue to negotiate the devastating effect of Covid, we find ourselves in a crucible. I believe that the Spirit of Christ manifested in a variety of gifts can enable us to find a way out and through. This same Christ suffered death on a crux but was raised by the action of the Spirit (Romans 8:11). This message of the cross might seem just as foolish now as it did to the supposedly super-spiritual Corinthians of the first century; but to those of us who are being saved by following in the way of the cross, we can say with Paul, that it is the power of God (1 Cor 1:18). It is the best cue action on offer. No magic is involved – just Spirit action.
 Somewhat shockingly, I only read The Crucible for the first time last week!
 Unlike some quarters of the press who exploit and castigate O’Sullivan for his tendency to give colourful off-table interviews, I have no wish to do so. He has been open about his serious battles with mental health, which is commendable; and, frankly, I think more kindness could be extended towards him in this area. It is notable that he played some of his finest snooker in years at The Crucible this year, where owing to Covid restrictions, he had less of an entourage. I focus only on his memorable comments about his cue action and the evident effects this had on him in the tournament.
 Any theological friends reading this will be aware that it is debatable whether Paul refers to the third person of the Trinity, as eventually worked out at Nicaea some 300 years later. Yet, he undoubtedly saw this pneuma as divine, and so I capitalise it here to capture what later tradition (rightly) came to see. Pneuma was also the preserve of ancient philosophers, particularly the Stoics, and it is reasonable to think that Paul borrowed much philosophical thinking from here. For some discussion, see Lincoln Harvey (ed.), Essays on the Trinity (2018), especially the essays by Chris Tilling, ‘Paul the Trinitarian’, and Douglas Campbell, ‘The Trinity in Paul: From Confession to Ethics’; for still more advanced reflection: Wesley Hill, Paul and the Trinity: Persons, Relations, and the Pauline Letters (2015); particularly on Stoicism and pneuma: Troels Engberg-Pedersen, Cosmology and Self in the Apostle Paul: The Material Spirit (2010) and Dale Martin, The Corinthian Body (1995). I plan to read Simeon Zahl’s new book, The Holy Spirit and Christian Experience (OUP, 2020), this semester which also looks illuminating from a more systematic angle.