For years I dreamed casually about taking up archery, and this summer I finally splurged on a very nice compound bow for target shooting and deer hunting. I am hardly on the cutting edge of popular culture, so I learned only in hindsight that bows and arrows have taken a larger place in the cultural zeitgeist. According to the Archery Trade Association and sporting-goods retailers, among others, recent years have seen a rapid increase in archery’s popularity, especially among youth.
Katniss Everdeen, the 16-year-old heroine of the dystopic novel (and film), The Hunger Games, gave a recent spur to the growth of the sport when her archery skill helped her outwit the despotic power of a cruel empire. The expert archer Princess Mérida, in the recent animated film “Brave,” provides a similar model of empowerment for young girls. Archery also attracted millions of viewers during the 2012 Olympic Games.
What is the draw? Regardless of whether it ends up as fad or fixture, what about this seemingly anachronistic sport has allowed it to gain traction in our cultural narratives? Might its appeal even provide some unlikely measure of hope for today’s youth and our common future?
A bow involves the body intimately. My compound bow may have carbon fiber components and high-tech engineering, but ultimately I still have to draw it to the right position, aim properly and smoothly release an arrow. All of these skills demand an exquisite awareness of one’s body and must ultimately be learned by the body, shot after shot after shot, as muscle memory. When my young daughters shoot a bow, they learn to be aware of and (I hope) to value their bodies. In an age when most forms of modern technology alienate the body or make it largely irrelevant, perhaps archery represents an invitation back to the body. And for the Christian, to discover the blessed body is to discover the heart of the Incarnation, in which bodilyness plays an essential part of the divine plan.
Archery engages not only the body, but also the mind; shooting well requires tremendous mental discipline, focus and self-control. When I aim an arrow, even the slightest distraction or preoccupation makes my shot go wild. As a person whose mind often wanders during my daily prayer time, I have noticed that regular archery practice has helped develop my capacity for spiritual concentration, too. In fact, Eugen Herrigel’s classic Zen in the Art of Archery, which describes the years of lessons he received from a Japanese master archer, claims that archery can and should be a spiritual discipline. I wonder if in archery some intuit a counterbalance to the diffusion and distraction created by on-demand entertainment and a multi-tasking workplace culture—especially young “digital natives,” whose brains have been hard-wired on iEverything.
Though it may require a great amount of bodily and mental control, archery ultimately demands what the Zen tradition calls “beginner’s mind” and what we Christians might call the virtue of humility. Too much confidence ruins the shot, as does grasping the bow too tightly. As Herrigel learned, the master archer does not even claim to release a n arrow; it “releases itself” when the shot is ripe. I think we are finally beginning to see how the delusion that we are masters of our surroundings has not served the human race well. Archery might help teach some to hold their bows and their egos more loosely.
Sometimes our 5-year-old son will do target practice alongside me, shooting suction-cup arrows with his toy bow. I love watching his wiggly body go still with concentration, and I thrill with him at his occasional bullseyes. An important New Testament Greek word for sin, hamartia, is actually an archery term that means “to miss the mark.” So might trying to hit the mark represent an innate human longing for truth and virtue in a fallen and complex world—a world made even more confusing by marketing hype and expedient political spin?
I harbor no illusions that archery will save the world, or that any one thing will. But our future may depend less on grand purposes and plans than on people whose personal qualities are honed, by practice and grace, to kingdom caliber. Perhaps in archery a few may find a way to embrace their bodies, concentrate their minds, humble their hearts and nurture a deep desire for truth. The world would be better for it, and that would be the best bullseye shot of all.